by S’bu Zikode
Twenty years of local democracy in South Africa has been very cruel for Abahlali baseMjondolo and for millions of other poor people. It has been 20 years of hell in shacks. It has been 20 years of living like pigs in the mud. It has been 20 years of living with rats, floods, fire and rotting rubbish.
It has also been 20 years of evictions and forced removals to transit camps and other human dumping grounds. For those of us who have stood up for our humanity, our reward has been lies, assault, torture, wrongful arrest, the destruction of our homes and even assassination.
Democracy is described in various positive ways by experts and politicians in South Africa. But to millions of shack dwellers, the homeless and the landless, those who were made poor by colonialism and apartheid and remain poor today, democracy is just another form of oppressing people. Democracy has come to mean 20 years of shack life. It has come to mean that the poor must be loyal to poverty and obey the rules of individual councilors and their political parties.
Democracy has meant that we should not question the authority of the councilors and their political parties. It has meant that we should not organize outside of state control. Democracy has come to mean that even if councilors are elected councilors and not imposed on people, they must be accountable to powerful individuals in the party and not to the people who have elected them.
To millions of shack dwellers, the homeless and the landless, those who were made poor by colonialism and apartheid and remain poor today, democracy is just another form of oppressing people. Democracy has come to mean 20 years of shack life.
Oh yes, democracy has come to mean we could be easily evicted anytime and anywhere without any court order. It means that we can just be beaten, arrested, tortured, even in police custody, and that we can be murdered in cold blood by the police or party thugs without anyone being brought to book.
Democracy has meant that councilors in places like in KwaNdengezi and Cato Crest in Durban are free to act like gangsters with guns and use intimidation rather than be the servants of the people who voted for them.
Democracy has been reduced to what Dr. Firoze Manji, who has just visited Abahlali (dwellers), calls “ballot box democracy.” Dr. Manji continued to remind us that in fact we are not the poor but we are people who have been impoverished. So we have been made poor by the very same system that pretends to want to improve our lives, while in reality it makes our lives worse so that the rich and the politicians can live far better at our expense.
Our voice has always been shut despite our insistence that shack dwellers can think the same way as other “ordinary” human beings and that therefore we have the right to determine our own future. For the past 20 years, we have been treated with disrespect and as the people who do not count. We have been treated as the people who are beneath the law.
The eThekwini municipality has excelled in reducing our humanity to objects. It has excelled at spitting on the Constitution of the Republic. Most NGOs have acted in the same way as the state by treating us like children. They enjoy talking so much about the poor without really wanting to speak directly with poor people in a way that respects us. They have concluded that it is their job to think for us, represent us and make decisions on our behalf – and lately to eat for us and on our behalf.
We have been made poor by the very same system that pretends to want to improve our lives, while in reality it makes our lives worse so that the rich and the politicians can live far better at our expense.
We should be grateful to all these protests that have emerged into powerful struggles giving a platform to the voice of the marginalized. Without these protests, South Africans will have nowhere to find answers to our failing local democracy. But we must not forget that many people have paid a high price for their participation in these protests. Many have been arrested, many have been beaten, and many have been killed.
In Durban local democracy has been replaced by the politics of blood, fear and hit men. In fact it is clear that while the impoverished are expected to vote in Durban, there is no democracy for the impoverished in Durban. The name for what we face, day after day and year after year, is oppression. Anyone who says that we live in a democracy is either ignorant of the realities of the lives of the impoverished or does not believe that impoverished people have the same rights as all other people.
We respect and acknowledge the gains brought about by those who came before us. We salute the sung and unsung heroes of this country who fought for equality and justice for all. We salute the sung and unsung heroes who fought colonialism and apartheid as well as those who fought the new forms of oppression that came after apartheid.
These unsung heroes include the late Andries Tatane of Ficksburg, the striking miners massacred at Marikana, Thembinkosi Qumbelo, Nkululeko Gwala and Nqobile Nzuza of Cato Crest, Thuli Ndlovu of KwaNdengezi and many others. They include as a living testimony Nkosinathi Mngomezulu, who was shot eight times with live ammunition by the eThekwini municipality’s Land Invasion Unit just for defending his house from being illegally demolished without a court order.
Instead of Mngomezulu’s perpetrator being arrested, Mngomezulu himself was arrested after spending months in the ICU. The ambulance that was supposed to rush him to the hospital was refused and a person who rushed him to the hospital in his own car was arrested for saving Mngomezulu’s life.
Anyone who says that we live in a democracy is either ignorant of the realities of the lives of the impoverished or does not believe that impoverished people have the same rights as all other people.
The only democracy that we have experienced in the last 20 years is the democracy that we have built for ourselves in our own communities and in our own struggle. This democracy is under attack. Everywhere it is being repressed by the state and co-opted by the ruling party, the state and the NGOs.
This democracy has been treated as criminal or as treason by the state. It has been treated as ignorance by most NGOs. Most NGOs only want to workshop us; they do not want to be in solidarity with us. They do not recognize us as people who can think just like all other people.
Democracy from below assists the whole society in acknowledging the thinking and the practices that take place in the dark confined corners of our society.
These corners are shack settlements, flats, hostels, rural communities and farm communities. Democracy from below builds the power of the oppressed. It gives us a platform to take our place in the debates and the strength to take our place in the cities.
The only democracy that we have experienced in the last 20 years is the democracy that we have built for ourselves in our own communities and in our own struggle. This democracy is under attack.
The local democracy managed by the state can only work when the impoverished and all those who do not count in our society count the same as all other people. It can only work when informality as a nature of our society is supported and not policed, bulldozed or confiscated.
It can only work when all of us are equal in the eyes of the law and when the state and their NGOs also respect the law. It can only work when the social value of land comes before its commercial value. It can only work when land and housing are not allocated to the members of the ruling party and the ruling elites at the expense of the impoverished.
It can only work when citizens have power over the individuals that they vote into power. And yes, it can only work when external forces that set and impose their agenda over the majority are exposed and dealt with decisively.
We do not believe that there can be a capitalist democracy. But irrespective of the economic system, if politicians become referees and players at the same time, as it happens now, corruption will continue to be the order of the day.
If we are seriously wanting to address the challenges of the past we should start investing in communities where there is no water and sanitation, where there is no electricity, where there is no road access and refuse collection and where people do not have tenure to the land they have occupied. All of this should be done in a participatory way that respects communities.
We should start investing in the parts of our cities where there are no schools or infrastructure, where there are no community halls. We should start asking questions as to why Councilor Ngcobo in KwaNdengezi locks the community hall for himself. We should ask why houses are sold in broad daylight in Mayville and other places and no one gets arrested – but instead whistleblowers are killed.
We should ask why the top politicians in our province are evicting people and struggling to get onto tender awarding committees which give millions of Rands (South African currency) to the same faces all the time. We should stop pretending as if we do not know what to do because of fearing to speak the truth to our new oppressors.
Frantz Fanon once warned how the oppressed could easily become new oppressors. This is what we see in the new South Africa. The task of our generation is to do to these new oppressors what our parents and grandparents did to the old oppressors.
Protests are not just as a result of service delivery failures. They are a response to the undermining of the very humanity that makes our society. Protests come as a result of disrespecting, lying, excluding communities and treating communities with indignity. For too long we have allowed a politics of lies to dominate our society, which reduces our politics to nothing other than criminality.
It is making us into a nation of dishonesty. The public should reject a politics of lies even if it campaigns for election in the name of the people and their struggles. Lies and dishonesty should be criminalized by law so that irresponsible politicians are held accountable.
The task of our generation is to do to these new oppressors what our parents and grandparents did to the old oppressors.
To make our local government work, our experts and responsible politicians, officials, NGOs, churches, and responsible businessmen and women should be judged by how much time they spend thinking and working with communities in order to understand local dynamics rather than just assuming that they know what each community needs.
This meaningful engagement will make them better experts and better politicians. But as long as we do not face the reality that some of the people who run our cities are warlords and gangsters that are often even feared by their own comrades, we will continue to pretend as if we do not know what went wrong with our local democracy and society as a whole.
We have to tell the truth. The truth is that in Durban some of our rulers are gangsters who say that they are politicians. John Mchunu was not the only one.
The truth is that in Durban you can be freely beaten, tortured, arrested and murdered for standing up to these gangsters. The truth is that the state does not provide local democracy in Durban. The truth is that the only local democracy that exists in Durban is built from below.
The truth is that in Durban you can be freely beaten, tortured, arrested and murdered for standing up to these gangsters. The truth is that the state does not provide local democracy in Durban.
I therefore suggest that local government should also work with democratic community organizations. They must be held accountable from below and not above to individual bosses as it is the case now. Ward Committees need to be democratized and trained on community developments. Allocation of services such as housing should not be politicized or allocated by ward councilors and their party committees. It must be transparent and democratic.
The Integrated Development Plan must be developed with community structures and organizations and not by ward councilors and consultants who often do cut and paste. The social value of land must come before its commercial value. The upgrading of informal settlements must be the priority and relocation must be the last resort. Transit camps must come to an end; they are a disgrace to our society.
Interim services such as water and sanitation, electricity, road access and refuse collection must be provided while communities wait for permanent infrastructural development and housing. Local government must support and invest in public participation.
The social value of land must come before its commercial value. The upgrading of informal settlements must be the priority and relocation must be the last resort.
Local economy and skills development must be supported. There must be a clear, transparent and inclusive provincial and citywide housing list. There must be a clear housing allocation policy and democratic housing allocation committees. But more than anything else, the lying needs to stop.
Umhlaba neSithunzi! Land and dignity!
S’bu Zikode is the founding president of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers Movement), the largest social movement of the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. To learn more, visit http://www.abahlali.org.