Citizen. Speak. Amplify.

On respecting the right to make bad decisions: a message to the South African “Left”

IMG_20130521_152720-cropLast week Abahlali baseMjondolo surprised many people when it announced that the shackdwellers’ movement would be endorsing the Democratic Alliance in the general election on 7 May. The movement has come in for vociferous criticism from South African Leftists, which, says JARED SACKS, is misplaced.

“The anger of the poor can go in many directions.” –S’bu Zikode, President of Abahlali baseMjondolo

Years ago I began to support a unique and influential social movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the South African Shackdwellers’ Movement. At the time, the movement had just refused to work with an influential Leftist NGO called the Centre for Civil Society (CSS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Supported by the militant Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), AbM had protested the takeover of the Social Movement Indaba by NGOs such as CCS. As grassroots activists, they understood that their voice was being managed and also often silenced by those on the Left coming from more privileged backgrounds, who sought to control the politics of the social movements.

AbM and AEC’s principled stance was brave. They lost massive support from Leftists who believed themselves to be the vanguard of working-class struggle and who thought the poor must be directed towards the ‘right politics’. Leaders were ridiculed, pseudo-academic pieces were written to undermine the movement, and friends of the movement received threats – some even lost their jobs. Many Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyists scoffed at their No Land! No House! No Vote! Campaign as being short-sighted and liberal. The only legitimate form of organising, they said, was around the eventual creation of a workers’ party.

Eventually, however, AbM was able to show that while they may be poor, they are not stupid, that they can still think for themselves. They charted their own direction as a movement demanding land, housing and dignity in a way they felt was most effective and most principled.

Abahlali has always been an autonomous movement despite the assertions of its detractors. While it has shared ideas and worked closely with other movements, including some non-authoritarian NGOs and a few supportive academics, decisions have always been taken by the movement without regard to outsiders’ wishes and/or agendas.

Despite working with AbM and playing a supportive role with the movement for more than seven years and attending countless meetings and rallies, I have never been part of the decision-making process of the movement. I was not and am not a shackdweller and nor am I a legitimate member of the organisation; thus, decisions were, rightly, always taken without me and or any other outside supporters.

Unlike most Leftist organisations and political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the movement has always been democratic – even while it is still, structurally, hierarchical. All major decisions are always taken back to communities and final resolutions are ultimately taken in general meetings based on the collective wishes of each branch.

This autonomous organising was truly Frantz Fanon’s work in practice. Abahlali has always been and still is a shackdwellers’ organisation, run not by privileged activists or academics but by shackdwellers themselves.

But the continued repression of the movement has taken a toll on its members. After the ANC attacks on Kennedy Road displaced hundreds of members in 2009, the movement was in disarray and took almost a year to regain its feet. The murders and intimidation around the Cato Crest struggle in 2013 was another turning point. Three Cato Crest activists were murdered, including a young woman who was shot in the back by the SAPS Station Commander. Renewed threats against Abahlali leadership put President S’bu Zikode and General Secretary Bandile Mdlalose back in safe houses and members began focusing on ANC repression, rather than the state, as the primary driver of this violence.

Over the course of the past year, a shift seems to have taken place in the rank and file of the movement in KwaZulu-Natal. Their original critique of the state has shifted to an overarching and focused critique of the ANC.

If the most pressing problem for AbM in KZN, according to its members, is no longer capitalism as a system and the state as the representative of the privileged, then finding an alternative to the ANC becomes key. The movement’s hatred for the ANC is unparalleled because the pain of its members at the hands of the ANC is so deep and pervasive.

Abahlali, therefore, decided on a practical and tactical vote against the ANC as a way to seek protection from the state’s oppressive apparatus. While most other opposition political parties effectively ignored the movement, the DA in KZN has been opportunistically and aggressively courting AbM for two years.

I say opportunistically because that is what it truly is. In Cape Town, the DA plays the same role as the ANC in oppressing social movements and poor communities. The party pioneered the use of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit in South Africa and is very happy to shoot protesting shackdwellers and build massive transit camps when it suits them. The City of Cape Town has been at the forefront of illegal evictions, such as that of the Marikana Land Occupation. The DA has also been secretly pushing to force the City’s homeless in work camps.

If we are to talk about Abahlali baseMjondolo’s core focus around land and housing, it would also be important to note that not only are there many more shacks per capita in Cape Town than in eThekwini, but Cape Town also remains by far the most segregated city in the country.

There is nothing about DA policy that is either progressive economically or supportive of the rights and needs of shackdwellers.

However, the DA leadership in KZN did listen to one Abahlali demand (which the ANC failed to do): talk to us, not about us. Its opportunistic support for AbM won over enough members who saw the largest opposition party as a way out of the continued attacks on the movement. When Abahlali decided to move away from its electoral boycott and towards a strategic vote against its perceived main enemy in ANC, the only political party with a relationship with the movement was the DA.

Abahlali-KZN’s endorsement of the DA must be seen in this light because it is pretty obvious – even to members of the movement – that DA policy does not represent the interested of shackdwellers as a whole.

I was shocked and horrified to hear of AbM-KZN’s decision to vote as a block for the DA. (Note: Abahlali baseMjondolo in the Western Cape has not endorsed the DA despite media reports to the contrary).I believe that this is a hugely mistaken move for the most important post-1994 social movement – both from an acknowledgement that the DA is a right-wing, white supremacist political party, and also from an understanding that electoral politics undermines, destroys, and co-opts rather than helps social movements. Despite my love for Abahlali as a movement and what it represents, it is very difficult for me to continue to support an organisation that votes for the DA – a party founded on white supremacy.

This is not to say, however, that I don’t respect the movement’s decision which, while I strongly disagree with it, is their decision and theirs alone to make.

For Abahlali in Durban, the process of endorsing a political party was slow and deliberate, because of their commitment to bottom-up decision-making. Its branches had to collectively discuss the process and weigh in. When the vote was finally taken at a general meeting of the movement, 190 delegates from their branches made their communities’s voices heard. Two members abstained, two endorsed the Workers and Socialist Party, 26 endorsed the National Freedom Party, 16 endorsed the EFF and 146 members endorsed the DA. Abahlali’s top leadership sat out of the voting process completely to ensure that the decision was really owned by its members.True to the movement’s principles, the process was meticulously democratic and rank-and-file members overwhelmingly voted to back the DA despite the preferences of many of AbM’s core leadership.

Some Leftists have cried foul claiming that the process could not possibly have been democratic or that white supporters of the movement, such as myself, were involved in manipulating Abahlali to support the DA. To other Leftists, the fact that AbM went through a rigorously democratic process and yet ended up voting for their oppressor, proves once and for all that shackdwellers cannot be trusted with a vanguardist political project.

Both arguments have racist and classist undertones and are part of a long campaign to delegitimise independent social movements. The said assumption of such critiques is that poor black shackdwellers either cannot or should not think for themselves and need to be directed by self-proclaimed “educated” and “conscious” leadership.

As a whole, the South African Left has taken to social media to attack and vilify Abahlali baseMjondolo, condemning them, spreading rumours, and calling the leadership sellouts. Few have attempted to see things from the perspective of its members. Most of the people attacking the movement have never lived a day of their life in a shack settlement – yet their self-righteousness is palpable. They’ve refused to comprehend the way repression makes backing the DA seem like a very practical decision – one not about principles or the extent of AbM’s radicalism, but about tactically defending one’s own life. Under constant threat of death, what would you do? Do any of us really understand how much pain they have endured?

The choice to vote DA also, however, points to the complete failure of the South African Left in supporting AbM throughout years of violent repression. When shit hit the fan and members were being violently evicted, shot at and targeted for assassination, the question is: where have we been? Did we go to Cato Crest and join Abahlali as they marched on the SAPS when Nqobile Nzuza was murdered in cold blood by the station commander? How many of us can truly say we were in living solidarity with the movement? (Note: I’m not talking about how many times you’ve liked their press statements on Facebook). If anything, Abahlali’s choice to tactically vote DA in this election is an indictment of the selfish, sectarian and manipulative nature of the South African Left.

I strongly believe that if we can’t, as a matter of principle, commit to the absolute right and ability of all oppressed peoples to take decisions of their own accord, then there is no legitimate communist future worth fighting for. In South Africa, it is the rank-and-file poor black working and unemployed classes who have the ability to recreate this society anew.

And thus, while this affects my involvement in a movement that I’ve loved and believe in, I still stand in defence of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s right to make bad decisions and I will always continue to support them in times of repression.

I hope that either I am the one that turns out to be wrong and their tactical choice actually does work or, conversely, that Abahlali in the future reconsider their entrance into electoral politics.

We as so-called Leftists should, likewise, reconsider our own praxis that continues to undermine and drive away social movements.


Jared Sacks is a founder of a children’s NGO. Since 2007, he has been living in Cape Town working directly with communities supporting their efforts to build authentic grassroots social change. He has worked closely with a range of poor people’s social movements. He is also the compiler of the anthology No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way.

  1. FromBelow says

    The ANC Must be removed from Office
    06 May 2014 – Abahlali baseMjondolo Press Statement

    For nine years our movement has boycotted elections. We have been clear that
    no political party represents the interests of the poor and that it was
    necessary for us to build our own power in order to present our own needs and
    demands to society. In these nine years we have won many victories but most of
    us remain in shacks. Twenty years of shack life is a disgrace in a democracy.

    Corruption is also a disgrace. In Durban you get nothing without a membership
    card for the ANC. All development goes through the councillors and their ward
    committees and ANC branch executive committees. Development is there to make
    ANC leaders rich and to control the rest of us by only making it available to
    ANC members. Development is not for the people. This kind of corruption is a
    disgrace in a democracy.

    But an even bigger disgrace is the repression that we have faced from the ANC,
    its members, its leaders and its assassins. They have banned our marches;
    attacked our marches; arrested us on trumped up charges; assaulted us in
    detention; used armed men to drive us from our homes with police support; used
    death threats, attacks in our homes and torture in police stations to
    intimidate people to manufacture evidence against us; detained us for months
    and months while we wait for a trial that gets thrown out of court because
    there is no evidence against us; used their anti-land invasion unit to evict
    us for political reasons and beaten and shot us in our communities. Senior
    members of the ANC and the Municipality have made public death threats against
    us. Two activists were assassinated in Cato Crest last year and another, an
    unarmed teenage girl, was executed by the police.

    We cannot go on with this level of repression. As everyone knows we are not
    the only people who face this kind of repression. We all know about Andries
    Tatane and all the others murdered by the police on protests. We all know
    about the Marikana Massacre.

    In Durban court orders are just ignored by the Municipality and so the courts
    cannot protect us. Mostly the media and civil society tend to agree that
    because we are poor and black we are automatically violent and criminal and
    too stupid to think our own politics and so we do not get that much protection
    from the media and civil society either. We have some valued comrades on the
    left among the middle classes but mostly this left just wants to bus us into
    its meetings so that it can look credible without having any interest at all
    in our struggles, our ideas or our safety. NUMSA asked us to support their
    march in Durban but they have not shown any concern to support us when we face
    repression. The EFF also asked us to support their march in Durban but, like
    NUMSA, they have not supported us when we face repression. So far our
    experience of both these organisations is that they are operating like the
    left NGOs – we are treated as if our only role is to provide the large numbers
    of people that they need to be bussed in to justify their politics.

    Because we cannot carry on like this we took a decision to vote against the
    ANC. We did not want to split our vote. We decided to collectivise our vote
    in order to make it stronger. Our main priority was that the ANC must be
    removed from office. We knew that this will not happen in this election but we
    were still clear that if we can weaken the ANC then we must do that. Also we
    knew that if we collectivise our vote all the political parties will know that
    there is a large bloc of votes that will be available at the next election for
    the party that does the best job in opposing repression and takes the best
    position on shack settlements.

    We decided that all political parties except the ANC would be invited to make
    a presentation to the movement. Some of our members did not want to invite
    the DA to make a presentation as they are known to represent the rich and, in
    Cape Town, they are no different to the ANC when it comes to illegal and
    violent evictions. However we debated this at length and decided to invite
    them to make a presentation on the grounds that the removal of the ANC was our
    first priority and the weakening of the ANC was our second priority.

    The DA, EFF, NFP and WASP all accepted the invitation to make a presentation
    to our members at the Diakonia Centre on 25 April and they all came and made
    their presentations.

    The delegates to that meeting then returned to their branches to discuss the
    presentations there. We met again on 2 May and held a general meeting. At
    this meeting the general leadership did not vote as their role was to
    facilitate the meeting. The rest of the delegates voted and the results were
    as follows:

    2 – undecided
    2 – WASP
    16 – EFF
    26 – NFP
    146 – DA

    The DA and the EFF returned to witness the voting. WASP did not return. The
    NFP arrived three hours late with lots of car, bodyguards and their senior
    people. But by that time we were already dispersing.

    The whole meeting was recorded on video and this video can be made available.
    Even those who were very disappointed with the results agree that it was a
    highly democratic process. The collective discipline of a democratic
    organisation requires that we all accept this outcome. Of course this decision
    is only for this election and it does not bind our members in Cape Town. When
    the next election comes we will again decide whether or not to vote and, if
    so, which party to vote for.

    The main reason why the majority of the delegates supported the DA was because
    they wanted to have the strongest possible opposition to the ANC to put the
    maximum pressure on the ANC and to prevent it from doing what it pleases –
    which includes murdering us. We negotiated a legal agreement with DA which
    commits them to support some of our more basic demands. We hope that they will
    stand up for these issues and that they, and all other parties, will realise
    that if they want the support of the shack dwellers they will have to support
    us rather than see us as a problem to be eradicated or forcibly removed from
    the cities and taken to the human dumping grounds.

    We will vote, as one bloc, for the DA tomorrow. We will not take membership of
    the party, we do not endorse its policies and we will continue to insist that
    no one can hold a position as an elected leader in our movement if they join a
    political party. We do not love or trust the DA. Already they are telling lies
    about our choice and we are not surprised. We have made a purely tactical
    choice. We will certainly continue to organise against all and any attacks on
    the poor in Cape Town by the DA government there.

    One of the lies that is being told is that the DA are saying that we have
    endorsed them for this election in the Western Cape. This is not true. Our
    Western Cape branch has endorsed our decision to make a tactical vote for the
    DA in KwaZulu-Natal. Our Western Cape branch has not decided to make any
    collective vote for any party in this election.

    Over the last nine years we have protected our autonomy from NGOs very
    carefully even though we do work with some NGOs. Now that we feel that it is
    necessary for our safety and our ability to continue to organise to use our
    numbers to make deals with political parties we will protect our autonomy from
    political parties in the same way.

    Our politics puts people first. We cannot do nothing but wait for socialism to
    come one day in the far distant future. Our children are dying from diarrhoea
    right now, our old people and disabled people are dying in shack fires right
    now, we are being evicted and disconnected right now and we are being beaten
    and shot during evictions and disconnections right now. We been repressed, and
    even murdered, right now. We have to act to do what we can to make our
    members’ lives better right now. We have to act to protect our ability to
    organise and to sustain our living politics right now. This does not mean
    that we have given up on our vision of a world where land, cities, wealth and
    power are shared fairly. We call this a living communism and we remain
    committed to it. But we also remain committed to the human beings that we are
    now and to our families, neighbours and comrades. We will make what deals we
    have to make to protect our politics and improve our members’ lives right now
    but we will not give up on our political vision. We represent thousands of
    people who live in shack settlements. Those people who sit in university
    offices and NGO offices only represent themselves. Their children are safe.
    Their lives are not at risk. They are free to put ideology before people
    because they are not accountable to oppressed people and because they are not
    themselves oppressed people. But the fact that we do not enjoy that freedom
    does not mean that we have given up our politics. It means that we are
    searching for a practical way forward in a difficult and dangerous struggle.

    The new Abahlali electoral position has offered us a lot to learn about. There
    is a lot to learn about party politics and its dirty campaigning tactics.
    There is a lot to learn about the deeper politics of our time. And, yes, there
    is a lot to learn about who cares and doesn’t care about the struggles of the
    poor and the working class.

    Ideology and principle are vital but if they both fail to house the homeless
    and rescue the repressed and recognise the humanity of the inhumanized then
    the oppressed are not doing any harm to anyone in trying to emancipate
    ourselves by taking practical action now to keep people safe and to make their
    lives better while always keeping a bigger vision of freedom and justice in

    We share a sadness that we have had to make this decision. Very few people
    outside the movement have been witness to what we’ve been going through in the
    hands of the ANC. We do not have words to explain the pain many of us have
    gone through. We do not have words to explain our pain of twenty years of
    shack life and all the state repression that has come to us when we stood up
    for our humanity. Last year we came to the ceiling of hopelessness. It was
    clear that we are people that can be freely killed. The stress that this
    created led to some intense internal conflicts. We knew that we could not
    carry on with our old politics. Our new position has enabled us to rethink our
    struggle. It may not be the perfect way but it brought a robust discussion
    about us that was seriously trying to find ways of creating a new hope from no

    We are not surprised at the way some people on the so called left have reacted
    on our position. We are not surprised at the usual lies from the usual people
    on the internet. Many people and organisations on the left do not accept that
    we have the right to think our own struggle and to make our own decisions.
    They think that because they are on the left they have the right to tell us
    what to do. We do not accept this. These people see our decision as stupid and
    as a sell-out while they are nowhere to be seen in our times of great
    difficulty. It makes us to think that such people enjoy our suffering or even
    benefit from it. Why will people who claim to be in our support judge us
    instead of contacting us to first understand our decision? It may be a wrong
    decision but the reality is that we cannot deceive ourselves purposefully on
    our pain. Why should we be made to struggle in a way that is only designed to
    try and impress other people simple because they say that they are on the
    left? We will never do this. Our members must live in shacks and they must try
    and survive repression. Their organisation is theirs and it will be directed
    by their decisions. We have never compromised on this and for this we have
    always been attacked by the regressive left that only want us to take their
    money so that in exchange we can arrange for people to be bussed into their
    meetings. This is not emancipation. It is another kind of oppression.

    Is the left doing enough to care about our struggle? Or do they see our
    struggles as projects from which they can prove and debate their findings and
    analysis rather than as a struggle to genuinely confront the forces of
    darkness? Our decision aims at trying to keep the space open for us to
    liberate ourselves by making a tactical move. We do not love the DA or agree
    with its policies. Why do people who failed to condemn the ANC attacks on us
    get so angry with us when we try to punish the ANC by making a tactical vote
    for its enemy? Maybe for these people it is better for us to be oppressed by
    the ANC than the DA. For us it is better not to be oppressed. Some of the left
    is just like some of the development NGOs and some of the state. They want to
    experiment on us, to use us for their own projects. We say no. On this there
    is no compromise. We continue to say ‘talk to us, not for us’ and ‘think with
    us not for us’.

    Our position remains honouring those who have supported and who continue to
    support us. Since we all don’t know the answers in this struggle to humanise
    the world we will keep hunting and trying. Sometimes we will make wrong
    decisions but at least we offer debate and learning for ourselves and all our
    friends and comrades.

    The ANC are a serious threat to society and to right of the poor to organise
    freely in this society. They must be removed from office and until we can
    remove them we must do all that we can to weaken them.

    For further information and comment please contact:

    Mnikelo Ndabankulu on 081 263 3462
    Zodwa Nsibande on 082 902 2960
    Thembani Ngongoma on 084 613 9772
    Nono Majola on 074 803 1986

  2. Karima says

    There is no excuse for voting for a white supremacist movement like the DA! Period. Whether it comes from Abahlali or whomever, make a protest vote – if voting is your means of protest. A better world is possible – why have we forgotten – why have you?
    Aluta Continua – the spirit of Eduardo Montlane and Samora Machel and comrades all – lives. Stop the forgetting! Remember who we are.
    What else can be said.

  3. Muganga wa Afrika says

    My people perish for the lack of knowledge. I am a Pan Afrikanist from Uganda. Abahlali , did u take in to consideration the resource constraints of the EFF b4 u judged them about not being their for you? Did you reach out to the Pan African National Congress of Azania?
    Your decision is equivalent to an angry wife who goes on to sleep with HIV+ men bcoz she is protesting against a husband who if financially poor to provide her material needs.

  4. Tensai says

    No excuse?

    You must feel people have no agency. You must take it for granted how difficult this decision is.

  5. Nkululeko says

    I salute Abahlali for a brave and intelligent descision. I don’t support the DA, or the ANC or any of the parties on the ballot but from a tactical point of view voting DA is the most useful way to use your vote.
    Who is your biggest enemy? The ANC.
    Who would the ANC least like to see gaining power? Clearly the DA.
    This is not a vote to reward the DA, its a vote to punish the ANC.
    Let the utopian so-called “leftists” blather on from the comfort of their sofa’s, they have the luxury of pretending to be radical with their ‘no-vote’ campaign etc.
    For the time being, while no party of the workers and the poor exists, voting is not about being represented. There is no naiive expectation that the DA are friends, but there is the certain knowledge that the snakes in the DA have a shared interest in killing the rats in the ANC.
    Criticism dealing with this content is criticism in a hand-to-hand fight, and in such a fight the point is not whether the opponent is a noble, equal, interesting opponent, the point is to strike him.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.