Articles, Books, Documents, Periodicals, Audio-Visual
Search the Library
Search the Directory
Your support makes our work possible. Please Donate Today
Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is a shack-dwellers' movement in South Africa. The movement grew out of a road blockade organized from the Kennedy Road shack settlement in the city of Durban in early 2005 and now also operates in the cities of Pietermaritzburg and in Cape Town. It is the largest shack dweller's organization in South Africa and campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratize society from below. The movement refuses party politics and boycotts elections. The key strategy is to try "to recreate Commons" from below by trying to create a series of linked communes. According to The Times, the movement "has shaken the political landscape of South Africa." According to Professor Peter Vale, Abahlali baseMjondolo is "along with the Treatment Action Campaign the most effective grouping in South African civil society."
The words Abahlali baseMjondolo are isiZulu for 'Shack dwellers'.
In early 2008 the United Nations expressed serious concern about the treatment of shack dwellers in Durban. There has also been concern about evictions linked to the 2010 FIFA World Cup across South Africa and abroad.
The eThekwini Municipality, which governs Durban and Pinetown, has embarked on a slum clearance programme which means the steady demolition of shack settlements and a refusal to provide basic services (e.g. electricity, sanitation etc.) to existing settlements on the grounds that all shack settlements are now 'temporary'. In these demolitions some shack dwellers are simply left homeless and others are subject to unlawful forced evictions to the rural periphery of the city. Abahlali is primarily committed to opposing these demolitions and forced removals and to fighting for good land and quality housing in the cities. In most instances this takes the form of a demand for shack settlements to be upgraded where they are or for new houses to be built close to where the existing settlements are. However the movement has also argued that basic services such as water, electricity and toilets should be immediately provided to shack settlements while land and housing in the city are negotiated. The movement is engaged in the mass popular appropriation of access to water and electricity. It quickly had a considerable degree of success in stopping evictions and forced removals, winning the right for new shacks to be built as settlements expand and in winning access to basic services, but for three years was not able to win secure access to good urban land for quality housing. However in late 2008, AbM President S'bu Zikode announced a deal with the eThekwini Municipality which will see services being provided to 14 settlements and tenure security and formal housing to three.
The movement has been involved in considerable conflict with the eThekwini Municipality and has undertaken numerous protests and legal actions against the city authorities. Its members have been beaten and many of its leaders arrested by the South African Police Service in Sydenham, Durban.
In February 2009 the movement signed a deal with the eThekwini Municipality that would see the latter provide services to 14 settlements affiliated to the movement and a full upgrade, in situ, for 3 settlements.
Academic work on the movement stresses that it is non-professionalized (i.e. independent of NGO control), autonomous from political organisations and party politics and democratic. Sarah Cooper-Knock describes the movement as "neurotically democratic, impressively diverse and steadfastly self-critical".
The movement has, along with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign refused to work with the NGO-run 'Social Movements Indaba' (SMI), and some of the NGOs involved with the SMI. The movement has been particularly critical of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and refuses to work with the Centre.
Since 2005, the movement has carried out a series of large scale marches and created numerous dual power institutions. AbM has called for "a living communism", has often made anti-capitalist statements and has demanded the expropriation of private land for public housing.
Abahlali states that it refuses to participate in party politics or any NGO-style professionalization or individualization of struggle and instead seeks to build democratic people's power where people live and work.
The primary demand of the movement has been for decent, public housing and much of its work takes the form of opposing evictions. The movement has often used the phrase 'the right to the city' to insist that the location of housing is critically important and demands that shack settlements are upgraded where they are and that people are not relocated to out of town developments.
In South Africa there are an average of "ten shack fires a day with someone dying in a shack fire every other day". Abahlali has campaigned on this issue demanding, amongst other things, the electrification of shacks.. It has also connected thousands of people to electricity.
Since 2005 Abahlali baseMjondolo has refused to vote in all state elections. The movement states that it aims, instead, to use direct democracy to build a counter power to that of the state by creating a series of linked collectives and communes. This position is shared by all the organisations in the Poor People's Alliance.
Abahlali baseMjondolo took the Provincial Government of KwaZulu-Natal to court to have the Slums Act declared unconstitutional. but lost the case. On 14 May 2009 it took the case on appeal to the Constitutional Court. Judgment was handed down on 14 October 2009 and the movement won the case with costs.
The movement took a strong stand against the xenophobic attacks that swept the country in May 2008 and there were no attacks in any Abahlali settlements. The movement was also able to stop an in-progress attack in the (non-Abahlali affiliated) Kenville settlement and to offer shelter to some people displaced in the attacks.
The movement has organized numerous actions against police racism and brutality.
The movement runs formal courses and issues certification for these. It also hosts regular seminars. The movement reports that topics covered have ranged from computer skills, to training in safely connecting shacks to water and electricity, to questions of law and policy, to political ideas like the right to the city, questions of political strategy and to the work of a philosopher like Jacques Ranciere.
The movement describes it self as "a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in" and stresses that it moves from the lived experience of the poor to create a politics that is both intellectual and actional.
Its philosophy has been sketched out in a number of articles and interviews. The key ideas are those of a politics of the poor, a living politics and a people's politics. A politics of the poor is understood to mean a politics that is conducted by the poor and for the poor in a manner that enables the poor to be active participants in the struggles conducted in their name. Practically, it means that such a politics must be conducted where poor people live or in places that they can easily access, at the times when they are free, in the languages that they speak. It does not mean that middle class people and organisations are excluded but that they are expected to come to these spaces and to undertake their politics there in a dialogical and democratic manner. There are two key aspects to the idea of a living politics. The first is that it is understood as a politics that begins not from external theory but from the experience of the people that shape it. It is argued that political education usually operates to create new elites who mediate relationships of patronage upwards and who impose ideas on others and to exclude ordinary people from thinking politically. This politics is not anti-theory - it just asserts the need to begin from lived experience and to move on from there rather than to begin from theory (usually imported from the Global North) and to impose theory on the lived experience of suffering and resistance in the shacks. The second key aspect, of a living politics, is that political thinking is always undertaken democratically and in common. People's politics is opposed to party politics or politicians' politics (as well as to top down undemocratic forms of NGO politics) and it is argued that the former is a popular democratic project undertaken without financial reward and with an explicit refusal of representative roles and personal power while the latter is a top down, professionalised representative project driven by personal power.
'Abahlalism' has often been described as anarchist or autonomist in practice. This is primarily because its praxis correlates closely with central tenets of anarchism, including decentralisation, opposition to imposed hierarchy, direct democracy and recognition of the connection between means and ends . However, as the above suggests, the movement has never described itself as either anarchist or autonomist.
The movement, together with similar grassroots movements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, takes a very critical stance towards state elections in South Africa. They have boycotted the local government elections in 2006 and the national government elections in 2009 under the banner of No Land! No House! No Vote!. The philosophy of Abahlali baseMjondolo with regards to elections can be summarised by the following statement from its elected presidents S'bu Zikode, "The government and academics speak about the poor all the time, but so few want to speak to the poor...It becomes clear that our job is just to vote and then watch the rich speak about us as we get poorer".
In the early days of the movement individuals in the ruling party often accused Abahlali of being criminals manipulated by a malevolent white man, a 'third force', or a foreign intelligence agency.
The movement, like others in South Africa, has suffered sustained illegal harassment from the state that has resulted in more than 200 arrests of Abahlali members over the last three years and repeated police brutality in people's homes, in the streets and in detention. On a number of occasions the police used live ammunition, armoured vehicles and helicopters in their attacks on unarmed shack dwellers. In 2006 the local city manager, Mike Sutcliffe, unlawfully implemented a complete ban on Abahlali's right to march which was eventually overturned in court. Abahlali have been violently prevented from accepting invitations to appear on television and radio debates by the local police. The Freedom of Expression Institute has issued a number of statements in strong support of Abahlali's right to speak out and to organise protests. The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions  and a group of prominent church leaders have also issued public statements against police violence, as has Bishop Rubin Philip in his individual capacity, and in support of the right of the movement to publicly express dissent.
In March 2008 the Mercury newspaper reported that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were investigating human rights abuses against shack dwellers by the city government.
In April 2010 IRIN, the newsletter of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that "The rise of an organized poor people's movement [Abahlali baseMjondolo] in South Africa's most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, is being met with increasing hostility by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government.
"The courage, dignity and gentle determination of Abahlali baseMjodolo has been a light that has shone ever more brightly over the last three years. You have faced fires, sickness, evictions, arrest, beatings, slander, and still you stand bravely for what is true. Your principle that everyone matters, that every life is precious, is very simple but it is also utterly profound. Many of us who hold dear the most noble traditions of our country take hope from your courage and your dignity."
In September 2008 the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, together with Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Landless People's Movement and the Rural Network (Abahlali baseplasini) formed The Poor People's Alliance. The poor people's alliance refuses electoral politics under the banner 'No Land! No House! No Vote!'.
There is an AbM Solidarity Group in England and the movement has links with the following organisations:
According to eThekwini City Manager Dr. Michael Sutcliffe the essence of the tensions between Abahlali baseMjondolo and the City lie in the fact that the movement "rejects the authority of the city." When the Durban High Court ruled that his attempts to ban marches by Abahlali baseMjondolo were unlawful he stated that: "We will be asking serious questions of the court because we cannot allow anarchy having anyone marching at any time and any place."
According to Lennox Mabaso, spokesperson for the Provincial Department of Housing, the movement is "under the sway of an agent provocateur" who is "engaged in clandestine operations" and who has been "assigned to provoke unrest".
In December 2006, Abahlali members, together with members of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, disrupted a meeting of the Social Movements Indaba at the University of KwaZulu Natal and staged a protest. Some academics and activists, all of whom have clear links to the Centre for Civil Society, claimed that this was an aggressive disruption and a 'flaunting of power by ABM'. It was also claimed that the protest was somehow illegitimate in that it was in response to the dismissal of four academics from the Centre. However the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign issued a statement vigorously rejecting these claims and, in a report by the Mail and Guardian newspaper Abahlali also gave a very different account of their reasons for their protest. A masters thesis by Matt Birkinshaw explained that the protest happened because "Abahlali felt that there was a lack of genuine democracy and participation due to NGO co-optation" in the SMI. Online video footage of the protest shot by Antonios Vradis shows no evidence that the characterisation of the protest by the academics and NGO professionals linked to the Centre is accurate and, instead, indicates that the movements had a clear critique of the NGO co-option of the SMI.
On 26 September 2009, it was reported that a group of about 40 people entered the Kennedy Road settlement wielding guns and knives and attacked an Abahlali baseMjondolo youth meeting. The attackers allegedly chanted ethnic and ANC slogans, demolished residents' homes and threatened to kill named individuals. Two people were killed in the resulting conflict. It was reported by members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement that the attackers were affiliated with the local branch of the African National Congress and that the attack was carefully planned and sanctioned by the local police. However this has been denied by the ANC and the police who blame a 'forum' associated with Abahlali baseMjondolo for the violence.
Shortly after the attacks the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that âTwo weeks earlier, eThekwini regional chairperson John Mchunu, addressing the ANC's regional general council, had specifically condemned the ABM for trying to divide the tripartite allianceâ and that an ANC source confirmed there "was a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Kennedy Road ... There is a political twist to this thing."
The attacks have garnered national and international condemnation with some people labelling the events a 'coup'.  Churches have also issued statements of condemnation. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Safety and Security held meetings for stakeholders however these were condemned as unrepresentative by church leaders, AbM representatives and a survey by the Mail and Guardian Newspaper. AbM said that they are victims of a 'purge' and that they refused to sit side by side with attackers and have called for an independent investigation into the attacks that should "in the interests of justice and truth, carefully and fairly investigate the actions of everyone, including the local and provincial ANC, the police, the intelligence services, the prosecutors, the courts and our movement, its various sub-committees and our supporters." A number of well known intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, have expressed concern about the attacks and Human Rights Watch, the Centre for the Study of Democracy, The Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and Amnesty International have supported the call for an independent commission of inquiry into the attacks. The government has, thus far, ignored this call.
The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva has issued a statement that expressed "grave concern about reports of organized intimidation and threats to members of advocacy group, Abahlali baseMjondolo."
Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
Municipal Affairs –
Organizations & Movements formed 2000 to present –
Organizations & Movements Listed in Connexipedia –
Poor, The –
South Africa –
Urban Affairs –
Activism/Radicalism – Municipal Affairs – Organizations & Movements formed 2000 to present – Organizations & Movements Listed in Connexipedia – Poor, The – Poverty – Slums – South Africa – Urban Affairs –
This article is based on one or more articles in Wikipedia, with modifications and additional content contributed by
Connexions editors. This article, and any information from Wikipedia, is covered by a
Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA) and the
GNU Free Documentation
We welcome your help in improving and expanding the content of Connexipedia articles, and in correcting errors. Connexipedia is not a wiki: please contact Connexions by email if you wish to contribute. We are also looking for contributors interested in writing articles on topics, persons, events and organizations related to social justice and the history of social change movements.
For more information contact Connexions