But it is a struggle against the ANC, and the movement is gaining popularity, says Richard Pithouse.
Durban, the city where Jacob Zuma has his firmest urban base, is a hard place to do politics. A good number of the people who have attained political power in this city after apartheid learnt their politics during the civil war in the 1980s.
Threats of violence are common from the top to the bottom of the ANC’s local hierarchy and violence, including murder, is often used as a mechanism of social control. David Bruce estimates that there have been about 450 political murders in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994.
In some parts of Durban it is common for local councillors to move around with men bristling with guns and menace.
There have been moments when key figures in local party structures, including the mayor, have presented their politics, and their conception of who has rights in this city, in ethnic terms. Mpondo people have been scapegoated for both popular dissent and the growing number of shacks in the city and have been told to “go back to Lusikisiki”.
In this city, the conflation of the ruling party with the state is also more advanced than in some other cities with the result that development is brazenly mediated through local party structures. It is not at all unusual for party membership to be a precondition of access to what goods and services the state does provide to the poor. One result of this is that corruption is not just a way to arrange personal accumulation via the state but is also a mode of social control. Corruption is not a dirty secret. On the contrary, it is celebrated as a route to a certain kind of personal success and power.
Around the country, municipalities tend to try to contain the urban poor, and, in particular, the popular appropriation of land and services, in ways that are unlawful and violent. But in some cities, the law is adhered to if a court demands this. In Durban, there has been a brazen disregard for court orders. And in this city, the brutality with which the local state uses violence as a routine tool of governance is often extraordinary. In October last year, nine people were shot, and two killed, in an operation to disconnect people from electricity in a shack settlement in Reservoir Hills.
Yet of all the cities in South Africa, it is in Durban that the largest, best organised and most sustained attempt to organise a popular constituency outside the ANC has been developed. For nine years, Abahlali baseMjondolo have organised independently of the ANC in Durban’s shanty towns. Now that Amcu has attained mass support, Numsa is breaking with the ANC and the EFF has broken with the ANC, popular organisation outside of the ruling party is becoming an ordinary fact of political life. But when Abahlali baseMjondolo first refused to vote for the ANC in 2006 or when they first marched on Zuma in 2010, their politics was understood as heretical.
From the beginning, the ANC approached the movement as if it was fundamentally illegitimate and over the last nine years has repeatedly stated it is a project of third force, an attempt by foreign powers to undermine the ANC. In a striking continuity with colonial practices, the political agency of the people that have built and sustained the movement has been denied and white agency has been imagined to be the hidden hand behind its growing power in the city. Perfectly legal modes of struggle have been banned, presented in criminal terms and, fairly frequently, met with state violence.
Factions of the middle-class left, suffering under the narcissistic and sometimes plainly raced delusion that when popular opposition to the ANC emerged, it would do so under their authority, and in accordance with their political desires, have sometimes responded to the movement’s independence with very similar tropes to those evoked by the ANC. In some cases, the left has understood the movement via a prior investment in the standard set of prejudices applied to the black poor in elite society. There has also been grotesque slander, dishonest and malicious, that has extended to propagandising in support of state repression.
Repression has ebbed and flowed. It has, above all else, been international solidarity, and access to the elite public sphere abroad, that has enabled the movement to, for three periods, shift its engagement with the state off the terrain of violence and intimidation and into negotiation. The first period of serious repression came to a head in 2009 when, over a period of months, leading members of the movement had their homes demolished by armed men identifying themselves in ethnic terms and as ANC members. These men acted with the sanction of the police and the ANC and this period of repression included open death threats, violence, torture and attempts to fabricate criminal charges against some of the movement’s members following which some people spent almost a year in prison. One of these men committed suicide after his release from prison.
The second period of serious repression came to a head last year and centred on the Marikana land occupation in a part of Cato Crest adjacent to a formerly white suburb. Two activists were assassinated and a number of others shot, arrested and beaten. The movement’s attempt to subordinate the state to the rule of law via the courts succeeded in principle with successful actions in court, but failed in practice as the municipality ignored the court. The movement’s attempt to use its large support across the city to exercise disruptive power by organising simultaneous rush-hour road blockades thrust it into the heart of the elite public sphere but was met with a ruthless response from the state. A 17-year-old girl was executed by the police with a shot to the back of the head. Death threats were openly made against a number of the best known figures in the movement including, in one case, live on radio. In this moment of heightened repression it was an article in The Guardian that finally shifted this conflict off the terrain of violence and into negotiation.
Over the last nine years, the movement has become effective at stopping evictions, and organising or supporting land occupations some of which have been undertaken away from the public glare and one of which has become a major point of public contention. This work has made it impossible for the ANC to carry out its programme of mass evictions and forced removals to the urban periphery and so the movement has been quite successful in opposing new forms of spatial segregation.
The movement has also forced through important changes in how the municipality relates to shack dwellers. As a result of struggle it is now, for instance, committed to providing electricity and ablution blocks to shack settlements. However, it has been extremely difficult to effectively challenge the way in which development is mediated through local party structures. Concessions won by the movement are often likely to be delivered by ANC councillors, through ANC structures to ANC members. The movement has also managed to effectively oppose xenophobia in the areas where it is strong and to sustain a non-ethnic politics in which young people, and in many cases young women, have played a central role.
People from across the world who have spent time with the movement have been deeply impressed with its deliberative and democratic practices. These are uniformly attested to by academics and others who have spent long periods of time with the movement.
However, the movement faces many challenges. There are more or less constant attempts by parties and NGOs to co-opt individuals, communities sometimes join the movement as a collective act bringing in their political assumptions and practices that do not always fit well with the movement’s politics. The degree of bureaucratisation that has been required to manage the movement’s growth has meant that some power has shifted to its office. As time goes on, some people have come under intense pressure from their families to translate their commitment, something that often carries real risks, into a livelihood. And repression has created all kinds of problems. Entirely legitimate concerns about security have sometimes crowded out other concerns, like ongoing processes of political education via collective discussion.
As security concerns escalate, older men, some who passed through the civil war in the 1980s, have become more prominent in the movement. And, as so often happens in popular struggles, when people are living under acute stress and resources to offer protection in terms of things like safe accommodation and transport are limited, this can manifest in internal tensions. Nonetheless, despite the strains and fractures resulting from recent repression, the movement’s leaders continue to be elected and important decisions to be produced out of democratic processes.
One of these processes, which even those deeply unhappy with the outcome agree was democratic, led the movement to offer a tactical vote for the DA in KwaZulu-Natal in the recent election.
The movement has made it clear that this does not mean that it embraces the DA’s policies and that it will not join the DA. Given that the DA runs an exclusionary urban regime in Cape Town that is often predicated on state violence and illegality, and that its policies are generally to the right of those of the ANC, it is unsurprising that this decision has shocked some people. But we should recall that one of the reasons other organisations on the left would never come to a decision like this is that they are often not democratic and, in most cases, do not have a large constituency organised via communities.
However, the manner in which this decision has been subject to all kinds of conspiracy theory, all of which are predicated on an inability to recognise the political agency of people who are poor and black, is troubling. And while anyone who has taken the time to understand how the decision was made, and its rationale, is perfectly within their rights to offer an opinion on its wisdom, it is also unfortunate that in some quarters it seems to be assumed that people who have to make their lives in shacks, in material conditions that are often life threatening, and who have to confront serious and possibly life-threatening repression, do not have the right to make their own decisions about how they should respond to their circumstances.
The decision to offer a tactical vote to the DA, overwhelmingly supported from below and in opposition to the leadership’s own thinking, is largely a reaction to repression. People had a sense that they simply couldn’t carry on with a situation in which they could be subject to violence, including murder, with impunity. It is a decision to oppose the ANC directly and to punish it for its repression by offering a tactical vote to its largest and most effective rival in the province. The members of the movement that voted for it to make a tactical vote for the DA did not identify with the DA’s policies but generally felt that the left alternatives had no real prospects of making any impact at the polls in KwaZulu-Natal.
This decision brings to an end a nine-year sequence of struggle that has been resolutely independent from party politics.
But it is too early to say what it will mean in the medium or long term. It could essentially leave things as they are, it could encourage the DA and other political parties to take the circumstances and struggles of the urban poor more seriously if they want to court this vote and it could result in some sort of enmeshment, organisationally and ideologically, between the DA and Abahlali baseMjondolo.
The last outcome would, of course, be a major setback for attempts to challenge the exclusionary and repressive urban order in our cities, as well as attempts to build popular democratic power outside of the ruling party that can be articulated to a broader project for progressive social change.