Urban Shack Settlements as a Site of Struggle

Publish Date: 
Monday, September 30, 2019

On 13 September 2019, S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo and member of ESCR-Net’s Board, was invited to speak at Harvard University on the topic of urban activism.

Grounded in the experience of the social movement of shack-dwellers in South Africa, Mr. Zikode spoke of the importance of impoverished people claiming their space and dignity in the face of oppression: “We take our place here because we matter. We take our place here because we are ordinary people. We take it here because now, after years of organisation and struggle, we count because of the strength that we have built from below, and our voice is now counting.

“Our cities are built and shaped by impoverished people and the working class. We are the majority in the cities. But many of the elites, in government, business and civil society, want us to remain in silence, in dark corners, while they talk for us and decide for us. When we insist on our dignity as human beings, on our equal capacity to think, and our equal right to participate in decisions that affect us, this insistence is often treated as a form of dangerous criminality or conspiracy.”

In South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, impoverished people move from rural to urban areas in the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families. Many times, they confront marginalization and repression for trying to carve out a space for themselves. “Cities are becoming more exclusionary places rather than more democratic and inclusionary places. It is very important to repeat and to stress that attempts by people who are impoverished and mostly black to be included in decision-making have been seen as a conspiracy and met with hostility, including slander and violence. Surveillance, intimidation, assassination and torture are being used to control impoverished people.”

Noting that “many of us have terrible scars for insisting that impoverished people can think too,” Zikode made reference to the many community leaders from within his movement who have suffered brutal attacks as a result of their work to defend and promote human rights in South Africa’s informal settlements. To underscore the repression that his movement has faced, Abahlali baseMjondolo is now preparing for an annual memorial lecture named for Thuli Ndlovu, their chairperson in KwaNdengezi branch who was shot dead in September 2014 in connection with her leadership in the struggle for housing and dignity in her community.

Despite oppression and violence, Abahlali has “fought many battles and won many victories in the courts, in the streets, in the land occupations and in the battle of ideas. [...] Our hope for the future lies with the democratic self-organisation of the very people who are disrespected and treated with indignity.”

Inspired by the commitment of Abahlali baseMjondolo to foster the leadership of people facing impoverishment and dispossession in the struggles for justice, ESCR-Net held a network-wide meeting in Durban, South Africa, in July 2018 to explore models for advancing collective action and campaigning.

“We don’t know what the future holds. But we do know that for our children we have no choice but to remain committed to the struggle for a world in which land, wealth and power are fairly shared, a world in which the dignity of every person is respected.”

To read the full talk (in English only), visit Abahlali baseMjondolo’s Facebook page.

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