Abahlali baseMjondolo: No freedom without land

S’BU ZIKODE of the South African Shack Dwellers’ Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, spoke on landlessness and the law at the 10th biennial consultation on urban ministry in Pretoria this week. [Full text] 

I am honoured and humbled to be invited to be here, and to speak at this church. On behalf of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA, the movement that has entrusted me with this responsibility to participate in your meeting, I wish to express our gratitude for this invitation.

The churches have rallied to our struggle in difficult times – after shack fires, after arrests, after beatings, after evictions and after shootings. We know about the role that churches have played in Brazil and in Haiti. We believe that the churches can play the same role here in South Africa if they take a clear decision, as some church leaders bravely have already, to be with the people, to clearly take the side of the people, instead of being another stakeholder in another government or civil society meeting. Bishop Rubin Philip has stood strong in the politic of the poor.

I have been asked to speak on the question of freedom without land. It is often thought that the land question is a rural question and that the main question in the cities is the housing question. Of course housing is very important. The statistics tell us that there is a housing backlog of around 2.1 million in South Africa and that this backlog is getting worse and not better. Everyone deserves to live in decent accommodation. Children should not be forced to live with their parents when they become adults and begin their own families. Women should not be forced to live with men that abuse them because they have nowhere else to go. No one should have to live in a shack.

But land comes before housing because every house, or block of flats, must be on land. Land also comes before housing because the housing question is about the right to the city as well as the quality of buildings. Houses that are far outside the cities exclude people from opportunities for livelihoods, education and the other benefits of life in a city like health care, sports facilities, libraries, entertainment for young people and cultural life. Also, when people have land they can build and improve their own houses over time.

Land is to be shared equally
For all these reasons our struggle is a land struggle before it is a housing struggle. Our belief is that land is a precious gift from God. So, land is to be shared equally amongst all creatures including human beings.  Land should be used to produce food, we should live on it in peace and in harmony and we should be able to build houses. It is to be loved and taken care of. There should be no institution or individual that can claim super power over land. Land should not be bought and sold.

The legal system that turned land into a commodity came with colonialism. We are twenty years after apartheid but this legal system remains. It continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It continues to exclude the majority of the people from the cities. Only the people, organised from below and democratically, have the right to decide on the future of land use. Abahlali have always warned that the social value of land must come before its commercial value. We also have to add that the interests of the people must come before the interests of the politicians.

Clearly freedom without land is a fake freedom. We are often lectured about freedom and at some times bussed into stadiums to listen to a few politicians, business men and other rich people tell us that we are free. It has been difficult to think about the relationship between land and freedom and to talk about “no freedom without land” without building a powerful voice from below. It will continue to be a difficult subject for as long as we continue to pretend as if the question land is not a political issue.

We know that this problem will not be solved by consultant’s reports, academic’s conferences or prayers without action. MEC meetings at the ICC or Sun Coast Hotel will not solve this problem. This problem can only be solved when the poor, who do not count in our society, organise ourselves to insist that we count the same as all other people. Those of us who have no land must occupy unused land. Those of us that have no homes must occupy unused flats and houses.

Twenty years of shack life has been uneasy and unfair for us. Twenty years after apartheid the cities are still unfair, unwelcoming and divided. Since 2005 we have made constant efforts to build a movement that is committed to fighting landlessness and homelessness. We have organised the shack dwellers and this has been criminalised. We have occupied unused land and got arrested, shot at and even killed. This has been called invasion, while we call it the democratisation of urban planning. We have connected services that have been refused to us such as water and electricity and got arrested, beaten and even killed. This has been called “izinyoka’’ and we have called this people’s connection.

Government is not on our side
It is clear that the government is not on the side of the poor. We have no choice but to take action for ourselves and our families. To those who condemn us for occupying unused land, building houses, community halls and crèches for ourselves and connecting ourselves to water and electricity we ask what choice do we have when the commercial value of land comes before its social value?

What choice do we have when the personal interests of politicians and their friends and families come before the people? What choice do we have while the government demolishes shacks and traditional houses leaving people homeless? What choice do we have when millions of us remain in shacks and transit camps?

What choice do we have when millions of Rand set aside for housing are returned to the National Treasury unspent? What choice do we have when we are murdered with impunity by the izinkabi and the police when we stand up for ourselves? What choice do we have when local councillors are leaders during the day and become hit men at night? What choice do we have when the municipalities ignore the law? What choice do we have when the eThekwini Municipality tears down our homes in breach of court orders?

Those who say that land occupations and self-organised connections to water and electricity are against the law ignore the fact that the law excludes us from land and that everywhere in South Africa the municipalities treat the poor as if we are beneath the law. Illegal evictions are the order of the day everywhere. In Durban even court orders against evictions are ignored.

We take our place in our cities with great humbleness because we know that we do not have all the answers. We know that no one has all the answers. Our politic is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. We do not allow the state to keep us quite in the name of a revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quite in the name of future socialism that they have no power to build.

Taking our place
Sometimes we take our place in streets with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Sometimes we take that places in the courts and win victories that are ignored. Sometimes we take that place in the media, in church meetings like this one, or in universities. Sometimes we take it by occupying a piece of land and rebuilding our shacks again and again after every eviction, every beating, every arrest, every shooting and every murder.

Taking our place in the cities, and in the debates, has come with a heavy price for some of us. Some of us have been tortured, some of us have had our homes burnt down and some of us have been murdered. There is also character assassination, defamation and slander. But despite all of this we continue to organise and we continue to occupy land. It requires a principled and brave movement to build justice from below in a country that is so unjust. We all know that more of us will be killed. We all know that while lawyers can do very important work for our struggle, and that while tactical voting might be a useful way to limit repression, that neither the law nor voting will bring justice. It is the courage and persistence of the oppressed, our inkani, that will take us forward.

Today we invite the church to walk this journey with us. We invite your presence when we face the Red Ants and the Blue Ants tearing our homes without court orders. We invite your presence when we are in the holding cells. We invite your presence when local party structures try to prevent us from holding meetings and organising. We invite your presence when we must bury those who have been murdered. We invite your presence when we occupy land. We invite your presence when lies beat down on us because we have stood up for ourselves instead of allowing the politicians and civil society to represent us. We invite your presence when we discuss the real meaning of freedom.

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