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Poor people's movement draws government wrath

Two boys walk in the informal settlement of Brazzaville west of Pretoria.
(Laura Lopez Gonzalez/PlusNews)

The rise of an organized poor people's movement in South Africa's most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, is being met with increasing hostility by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, which claims to be the legitimate representative of the poorest of the poor.

South Africa has been rocked by increasingly frequent service delivery protests - a euphemism for communities taking to the streets to voice their frustration with the alleged slow pace of social service provision - but it is the formation of a militant non-aligned social movement, Abahlali Basemjondolo - shack-dwellers movement, in Zulu - that is causing greatest concern.

Municipal IQ, a research company that monitors South Africa's 283 municipalities, noted in a recent report that there were 54 such protests in the first quarter of 2010, compared with 105 protests in the whole of 2009.

"In fact, March's protests [about 25] equal last year's [2009] previously unprecedented July peak," Municipal IQ managing director Kevin Allan told the press.

Most service delivery protests are seen as spontaneous expressions of dissatisfaction, which sometimes degenerate into acts of arson and public violence, but Abahlali Basemjondolo has become organized and claims a membership of more than 20,000 people across 25 informal settlements in and around Durban, KwaZulu-Natal's largest city.

Abahlali Basemjondolo was started in February 2005, after a group of people from the local Kennedy Road informal settlement blockaded a road to protest the sale of land to a business, because a local municipal councillor had promised that houses for shack dwellers would be built on it.

The president of Abahlali Basemjondolo, Sbu Zikode, 37, who now lives in hiding with his family, told IRIN that the movement was formed for the purpose of working with the government and local authorities to improve the lives of shack-dwellers, but the response has been far from cordial.

"We have been called all sorts of names: Third Force, agent provocateurs and counter-revolutionaries," he said. In South Africa "Third Force" is a highly emotional term and refers to the apartheid government's sponsoring of covert operations designed to sow dissent and violence among the black population.

Suffering of the poor ignored

"Those in power are blind to our suffering because they don't understand what it is like to live in a shack. They must come with us while we look for work; they must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking over the candles," Zikode said.

''Those in power are blind to our suffering because they don't understand what it is like to live in a shack''

"They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap; they must be there when we bury our children who have died in shack fires, or from diarrhoea, or AIDS."

On 22 March 2010 Abahlali Basemjondolo organised a march through Durban, attended by thousands of people, to demand housing for the poor; it is promising similar action during the soccer World Cup finals, which will be played in South Africa in June this year. Although the march took place without incident, this has not always been the case.

The organization alleges that after receiving permission for a protest march in 2007, police charged and beat the marchers without provocation and arrested dozens.

Abahlali Basemjondolo also alleges that in September 2009 a group of ANC supporters torched and razed the Kennedy Road community hall, which was being used as an office, a crèche, and youth life skills training centre, as well as the shack of its president and others suspected of being members of the social movement.

During two days of violence, two of Abahlali Basemjondolo's members were killed, but none of the attackers has been arrested and no one has been charged with murder. In contrast, 13 members of Abahlali Basemjondolo were arrested on charges of public violence but only eight were granted bail. The 13 people are expected to appear in court again on 13 May.

'No house, no vote'

"We have applied for houses and have been on the waiting list for years. When new houses are built, people who are close to the councillors sell them. Without any money you can stay years on the housing waiting list," said Makhosi Mdlalose, a member of Abahlali Basemjondolo who lives with her two children in an informal settlement near Umlazi, south of Durban.

''When we march against these things the government sends the police to shoot at us and use their dogs. The same does not happen when trade unions aligned to the ANC marches''

"When we march against these things the government sends the police to shoot at us and use their dogs. The same does not happen when trade unions aligned to the ANC marches," she told IRIN.

"They [ANC-aligned unions] even trash the town and break windows of buildings, but they are left alone because they are close to the ruling party. When we conduct peaceful marches all hell breaks loose."

The next municipal elections are scheduled for 2011 - only one of the country's six major cities are not controlled by the ANC. Abahlali Basemjondolo has begun an election boycott campaign, with the slogan: "No Land, No House, No Vote".

"This is because any councillor from a political party forgets about our situation soon after the election. That is why we have decided to stand on our own and fight our own battles - we have been betrayed so many times before," Zikode said.

Richard Pitthouse, a political science lecturer at Rhodes University in Eastern Cape Province, told IRIN that the rapid growth of the independent grassroots organization has been met with hostility by the central government and Durban's ANC-controlled municipality.

"When they [Abahlali Basemjondolo] realized that there was going to be no cooperation between itself and the government they decided to air their grievances directly to the local leaders and embarrass them [the ANC] in public," Pitthouse said.

"That is why it has attracted the wrath of the police. This violence is worrying, because Abahlali have been successful in highlighting the plight of the poor."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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