Commemorating Unfreedom Day and the ongoing struggle for dignity in South Africa
Every year on 27 April, South Africa celebrates Freedom Day to commemorate the end of the apartheid regime. On that date in 1994, the country’s first non-racial national elections allowed for the participation of everyone over 18 years old, of any race.
On April 22, the social movement of residents of South Africa’s informal settlements, Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement, organized a rally which brought together more than 5,000 protesters. Termed “Unfreedom Day,” the demonstration called attention to the lack of freedom enjoyed by millions of impoverished and working-class people and the privileges that still exist for a small elite in the still highly unequal South Africa society. In a public statement, the movement rejected “any so-called ‘freedom’ without access to land; the right to the cities; basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity; decent housing; accessible quality education; safe and affordable public transport; proper health care; safety in the streets and in our homes; and the right to participate in all decision making that affects our lives and communities.” As long as the black majority in South Africa live in poverty, Abahlali argued, freedom is not a reality in South Africa.
The social movement’s membership has continued to grow in recent years, now surpassing 50,000 individuals. 60% of the movement’s membership are now women, who comprise an important contingent of their national and provincial leadership. “For as long as woman are not safe and respected, whether in the streets, at work or in their homes, we are not free. For as long as women are excluded from decision making we are not free. We are committed to building women’s power in struggle,” maintained Abahlali.
In December, the ruling party in South Africa (African National Congress) adopted a resolution to expropriate land without compensation, ostensibly to redistribute said lands to landless black South Africans in ways that do not thwart the country’s economic growth. In response, movement spokespeople announced on Unfreedom Day their collective position on land issues; decrying the expropriation plans which, they maintain, will privilege land-use for elites of all races, engaged in profit-generating activities such as mining, industrial expansion, mining and the development of shopping complexes. Abahlali maintains that land is a precious gift and must be shared equally; to be used by all to live, survive and thrive. The movement calls for land to be used to build houses for the homeless and the impoverished, and for an end to forced evictions and the violent repression of urban land occupations, which the movement contends “are a form of urban planning from below.” The social value of land, contends Abahlali baseMjondolo, must transcend its commercial value. “Land,” the movement argues in a recent communique, “must be collectively owned and democratically managed.”
Abahlali leaders expressed appreciation to the support they received from allied movements and organizations and reiterated their commitment to building unity and solidarity with other struggling communities and movements.
Dismissing freedom without dignity as meaningless, Abahlali baseMjondolo pledged to continue to organize to promote the rights of impoverished people, including shack dwellers, the unemployed, workers, farm dwellers and people living in rural areas. “We will continue to build the democratic power of the oppressed from below,” the movement proclaimed. “We will continue to build women’s power in the democratic movement from below. We will continue to make alliances with other popular organisations and struggles in South Africa and internationally to build a powerful and democratic movement from below for real freedom.”