Bandile Mdlalose is the general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement, in South Africa. Politically active ‘since she was born’, Bandile, now 24, became involved in Abahlali in 2008 before becoming secretary in 2010. She describes the organisation’s role as ‘to fight, protect, promote and advance the dignity of the poor in South Africa’.
Abahlali is a grass-roots organisation, which protests about the lack of housing for poor people through a variety of means. These range from mobilising quickly to stop shack evictions to taking the government to court – and winning – on its plans to demolish shack settlements and push residents into ‘transit camps’, supposedly in aid of the UN’s millennium development goal of developing all informal settlements by 2014. Abahlali works with the Landless People’s Movement, the Rural Network and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in the Poor People’s Alliance, a network of radical poor people’s movements.
It started in 2005 in a settlement called Kennedy Road. The people in the Kennedy Road shack settlement have been promised things so many times – that they will build houses, service delivery for the community – and eventually they felt enough was enough. The community mobilised themselves and decided to protest. A number of people were arrested.
They were asked ‘What organisation are you from?’ The community decided to organise itself and create a name – Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is the Zulu word for ‘shack residents’. After that other shack dweller communities decided to join in. Now we have become very big.
We are used to it – but it’s never nice. We don’t have an alternative – we are forced to live in it. Sometimes when it rains the water flows inside. When it’s hot we are unable to breathe because of the small windows. We have no water or electricity, just an empty shelter. We light candles for light and to light the stoves but if there’s a lot of wind we always fear because it could burn down any time. A lot of people have died in shack fires but there’s nothing we can do, and the government always shifts the blame back to the people.
Our main goal is land and housing. We believe land is a gift from God, so it should be shared equally – it does not need to be privatised. Within that, there are little things we are achieving. We have managed to create our own space, having our own movement and speaking for ourselves, acting for ourselves, without someone speaking for us. We are managing to protest by trying to implement the constitution that the government has documented but not implemented.
Firstly, we are a membership-based organisation. It’s a different approach to other organisations. We believe that we must work with communities, we must educate them on their rights, we must let them do things for themselves, rather than having someone else doing things for them. We also work with young people.
We have a one-year calendar that keeps our organisation sustainable and active. On 27 April, South Africa has Freedom Day. We say ‘We are still not free, we still live in the slums’, so we always have ‘Unfreedom Day’. Even on Human Rights Day we always have a protest because we don’t have any human rights. Rather than celebrating human rights, we are questioning, or we are sending memorandums. We have meetings every month but we emphasise that communities should have their own meetings. The struggles are in the communities, not in our head office.
It’s nothing new, we’re just starting off where Steve Biko has left, where all those comrades have left: Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King. The apartheid system is still there. The only change is from a white government to a black government. The only thing I could say has changed is the constitution. If you say to people ‘Apartheid is still there’, they will say ‘You can organise for yourselves, you can speak for yourself, we can walk with a white person’, but is that enough? Is that really what other comrades died for? Is that what Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for?
Mandela once wrote that it’s a long way to freedom. I still hear that there is freedom but I’ve not seen the light of freedom. That’s why we always hold the government against their own constitution because, yes, it’s a beautiful constitution and it accommodates everyone, but the constitution can’t work for itself – it needs someone to make sure it works.