27 April is fake freedom day - Sbu Zikode

By Rudolph Nkgadima Time of article published Apr 27, 2021

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Cape Town - S'bu Zikode is widely respected for his work on behalf of the poorest and most marginalised people, the shack dwellers of South Africa.

As president of the largest civil society organisation to have emerged in South Africa since the 1980s, Abahlali base Mjondolo with about 82 000 members, Zikode has faced death threats, arrests, torture and often has to operate from hiding.

Because of his work, which centres on the right to proper housing and access to land, he was awarded the 2021 Per Anger Prize, the Swedish Government’s international prize for human rights and democracy.

As South Africans celebrate Freedom Day on 27 April, a day which pays homage to the country’s first democratic elections and our liberation from apartheid rule, Zikode says for him the day means that all the gains, aspirations and the hopes that were promised as the country transformed to a democratic and free society have been lost.

“Freedom Day means the loss of real freedom. It means that our hope for a better South Africa is turning into some sense of hopelessness. For too long I have been living not only in abject poverty but I have lived my life under constant threat.

“I have received death threats for the work that I do. I have had to leave the country, my home was destroyed and burned down in broad daylight. How can we celebrate freedom, when the majority of people in the country, mainly black, are still poor and landless,” said Zikode.

The Department of Human Settlements reports that the government has built some 2.7 million low-cost houses over the past 15 years, there is still an estimated backlog of 2 million more. At an average of six people per family, that leaves some 12 million people in dire need of houses. It is estimated that there are currently 2 700 informal settlements across the country.

“A shack without water, electricity, and sanitation is not worth calling a home. On the contrary, it means life-threatening circumstances that are particularly harsh towards women, children, and minority groups,” he said.

Despite all the threats and attempts on his life, Zikode says the love that he has for his country, the world and humanity, is what keeps him going.

“I have taken an oath,” he says. “It is my duty to God, duty to my country, duty to the world. I have made that commitment and that keeps me going.

“We have lost 18 activists as Abahlali trying to organise freely. We have paid a high price,” he adds.

Founded 15 years ago by Zikode and other shack dwellers in Durban, the organisation also runs crèches, small urban farms and even a political school.The group's original work from 2005 onwards was primarily committed to opposing demolitions and forced removals and to struggling for good land and quality housing in the cities.

Every year on the 27 of April, Abahlali base Mjondolo hosts UnFreedom Day, a day which demonstrates that the poor are still not free in South Africa. The organisation says they use the day to mourn what was to be “real” freedom.

Zikode says the idea that land should be turned into a commodity; something to be bought and sold, should be rejected and insists that land should be distributed on the basis of human needs.

“We need to speed up land reforms in South Africa. Land that was stolen from the African black people needs to be urgently restored back to the people who continue to live landless and homeless in their country of birth,” he said.

Regarding the Per Anger Prize, Zikode said this means that our struggle for land, decent housing and dignity has been recognised as just and legitimate in Sweden. It is an acknowledgement that the poor have experiences and ideas from which others can learn.

“I am honoured that there are people that value my work and the work of Abahlali. Unfortunately our own government is not recognising and valuing and seeing the work we do. We salute the international community for the recognition,” he said.

“Per Anger was a brave man. Our comrades who have lost their lives – people like Thuli Ndlovu, Nkululeko Gwala and others – were brave people. Today courage meets courage. Principle meets principle,” said Zikode.

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* Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #UnmuteFreedom and read more on our Freedom Day campaign here.

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