Sâ€™BU ZIKODEÂ ofÂ the South African Shack Dwellers’ Movement,Â Abahlali baseMjondolo, spoke on landlessness and the law at the 10th biennial consultation on urban ministry in Pretoria this week. [Full text]Â
I am honoured and humbled to be invited to be here, and to speak at thisÂ church. On behalf of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement SA, the movement that hasÂ entrusted me with this responsibility to participate in your meeting, I wishÂ to express our gratitude for this invitation.
The churches have rallied to our struggle in difficult times – after shackÂ fires, after arrests, after beatings, after evictions and after shootings. WeÂ know about the role that churches have played in Brazil and in Haiti. WeÂ believe that the churches can play the same role here in South Africa if theyÂ take a clear decision, as some church leaders bravely have already, to be withÂ the people, to clearly take the side of the people, instead of being anotherÂ stakeholder in another government or civil society meeting. Bishop RubinÂ Philip has stood strong in the politic of the poor.
I have been asked to speak on the question of freedom without land. It isÂ often thought that the land question is a rural question and that the mainÂ question in the cities is the housing question. Of course housing is veryÂ important. The statistics tell us that there is a housing backlog of aroundÂ 2.1 million in South Africa and that this backlog is getting worse and notÂ better. Everyone deserves to live in decent accommodation. Children should notÂ be forced to live with their parents when they become adults and begin theirÂ own families. Women should not be forced to live with men that abuse themÂ 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 beÂ on land. Land also comes before housing because the housing question is aboutÂ the right to the city as well as the quality of buildings. Houses that are farÂ outside the cities exclude people from opportunities for livelihoods,Â education and the other benefits of life in a city like health care, sportsÂ facilities, libraries, entertainment for young people and cultural life. Also,Â 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 housingÂ struggle. Our belief is that land is a precious gift from God. So, land is toÂ be shared equally amongst all creatures including human beings. Â Land shouldÂ be used to produce food, we should live on it in peace and in harmony and weÂ should be able to build houses. It is to be loved and taken care of. ThereÂ should be no institution or individual that can claim super power over land.Â Land should not be bought and sold.
The legal system that turned land into aÂ commodity came with colonialism. We are twenty years after apartheid but thisÂ legal system remains. It continues to make the rich richer and the poorÂ poorer. It continues to exclude the majority of the people from the cities.Â Only the people, organised from below and democratically, have the right toÂ decide on the future of land use. Abahlali have always warned that the socialÂ value of land must come before its commercial value. We also have to add thatÂ 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 aboutÂ freedom and at some times bussed into stadiums to listen to a few politicians,Â business men and other rich people tell us that we are free. It has beenÂ difficult to think about the relationship between land and freedom and to talkÂ about â€œno freedom without landâ€ without building a powerful voice from below.Â It will continue to be a difficult subject for as long as we continue toÂ pretend as if the question land is not a political issue.
We know that thisÂ problem will not be solved by consultantâ€™s reports, academicâ€™s conferences orÂ prayers without action. MEC meetings at the ICC or Sun Coast Hotel will notÂ solve this problem. This problem can only be solved when the poor, who do notÂ count in our society, organise ourselves to insist that we count the same asÂ all other people. Those of us who have no land must occupy unused land. ThoseÂ 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 yearsÂ after apartheid the cities are still unfair, unwelcoming and divided. SinceÂ 2005 we have made constant efforts to build a movement that is committed toÂ fighting landlessness and homelessness. We have organised the shack dwellersÂ and this has been criminalised. We have occupied unused land and got arrested,Â shot at and even killed. This has been called invasion, while we call it theÂ democratisation of urban planning. We have connected services that have beenÂ refused to us such as water and electricity and got arrested, beaten and evenÂ killed. This has been called “izinyokaâ€™â€™ and we have called this peopleâ€™sÂ connection.
Government is not on our side
It is clear that the government is not on the side of the poor. We have noÂ choice but to take action for ourselves and our families. To those who condemnÂ us for occupying unused land, building houses, community halls and crÃ¨ches forÂ ourselves and connecting ourselves to water and electricity we ask what choiceÂ 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 theirÂ friends and families come before the people? What choice do we have while theÂ government demolishes shacks and traditional houses leaving people homeless?Â 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 areÂ returned to the National Treasury unspent? What choice do we have when we areÂ murdered with impunity by the izinkabi and the police when we stand up forÂ ourselves? What choice do we have when local councillors are leaders duringÂ the day and become hit men at night? What choice do we have when theÂ municipalities ignore the law? What choice do we have when the eThekwiniÂ Municipality tears down our homes in breach of court orders?
Those who say that land occupations and self-organised connections to waterÂ and electricity are against the law ignore the fact that the law excludes usÂ from land and that everywhere in South Africa the municipalities treat theÂ poor as if we are beneath the law. Illegal evictions are the order of the dayÂ everywhere. In Durban even court orders against evictions are ignored.
We take our place in our cities with great humbleness because we know that weÂ do not have all the answers. We know that no one has all the answers. OurÂ politic is about carefully working things out together, moving forwardÂ together. We do not allow the state to keep us quite in the name of aÂ revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quite inÂ the name of future socialism that they have no power to build.
Taking our place
Sometimes weÂ take our place in streets with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.Â Sometimes we take that places in the courts and win victories that areÂ ignored. Sometimes we take that place in the media, in church meetings likeÂ this one, or in universities. Sometimes we take it by occupying a piece ofÂ land and rebuilding our shacks again and again after every eviction, everyÂ beating, every arrest, every shooting and every murder.
Taking our place in the cities, and in the debates, has come with a heavyÂ price for some of us. Some of us have been tortured, some of us have had ourÂ homes burnt down and some of us have been murdered. There is also characterÂ assassination, defamation and slander. But despite all of this we continue toÂ organise and we continue to occupy land. It requires a principled and braveÂ movement to build justice from below in a country that is so unjust. We allÂ know that more of us will be killed. We all know that while lawyers can doÂ very important work for our struggle, and that while tactical voting might beÂ a useful way to limit repression, that neither the law nor voting will bringÂ justice. It is the courage and persistence of the oppressed, our inkani, thatÂ will take us forward.
Today we invite the church to walk this journey with us. We invite yourÂ presence when we face the Red Ants and the Blue Ants tearing our homes withoutÂ court orders. We invite your presence when we are in the holding cells. WeÂ invite your presence when local party structures try to prevent us fromÂ holding meetings and organising. We invite your presence when we must buryÂ those who have been murdered. We invite your presence when we occupy land. WeÂ invite your presence when lies beat down on us because we have stood up forÂ ourselves instead of allowing the politicians and civil society to representÂ us. We invite your presence when we discuss the real meaning of freedom.