Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu pronunciation: [aɓaˈɬali ɓasɛm̩dʒɔˈndɔːlo], Shack Dwellers), also known as AbM, is a shack-dwellers' movement in South Africa well known for its campaigning against evictions and for public housing. The movement grew out of a road blockade organised 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 organisation in South Africa and campaigns to improve the living conditions of poor people and to democratise society from below.
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." Khadija Patel has written that the movement "is at the forefront of a new wave of mass political mobilisation". However the movement has faced sustained, and at times violent, repression.
Abahlali baseMjondolo logo
Abahlali Assembly, Foreman Road Settlement
In 2001, the eThekwini Municipality, which governs Durban and Pinetown, embarked on a 'slum clearance programme' that meant 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 were now 'temporary'. In these demolitions some shack dwellers were simply being left homeless and others subjected to unlawful forced evictions to the rural periphery of the city. In early 2008, the United Nations expressed serious concern about the treatment of shack dwellers in Durban. In the run up to 2010 there was also concern about the possibility of evictions linked to the 2010 FIFA World Cup across South Africa and abroad.
Abahlali's original work was primarily committed to opposing demolitions and forced removals and to struggling 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 with formal housing and services 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 has also engaged in the mass popular appropriation of access to water and electricity.
The movement 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. In late 2008 the then AbM President S'bu Zikode announced a deal with the eThekwini Municipality which would see services being provided to 14 settlements and tenure security and formal housing to three. The municipality confirmed this deal in February 2009.
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.
Abahlali has often made claims of severe police harassment, including torture. On a number of occasions, these claims have been supported by church leaders and human rights organisations. The movement has successfully sued the police for unlawful assaults on its members.
Academic work on the movement stresses that it is non-professionalised (i.e. its leaders are nonsalaried), 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". Ercument Celik writes that "I experienced how democratically the movement ran its meetings."
In 2010 the movement claimed to have around 25,000 active supporters in 64 different shack settlements of which just over 10 000 were paid up card carrying members. The movement has affiliated settlements and branches in non-affiliated settlements and also a has a youth league and a women's league.
Since 2005, the movement has carried out a series of large scale marches, created numerous dual power institutions and engaged in direct action such as land occupations and self organised water and electricity connections and made tactical use of the courts. The movement has often made anti-capitalist statements, has called for "a living communism", and has demanded the expropriation of private land for public housing.
Abahlali historically refused to participate in party politics or any NGO-style professionalisation or individualisation of struggle and instead sought to build democratic people's power where people lived and worked. Academic work claims that the movement has protected its autonomy from political parties and NGOs. However, in 2014, Abahlali was critiqued for endorsing the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 national elections. Nonetheless Abahlali announced it endorsed the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 national election solely as part of a strategy to vote out any standing party that fails to deliver on its political promises 
Land and housing
The movement campaigns for well located urban land for public housing and has occupied unused government land.
A 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. The movement rejects technocratic approaches to the housing crisis and stresses the need for dignity to be central to the resolution of the housing crisis. It is opposed to shack dwellers being moved into 'transit camps'.
The movement opposes all evictions and forced removals and has campaigned vigorously on this score via public protest and, also, legal action.
The movement has also campaigned for the provision of basic services to shack settlements.
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.
The movement campaigns for equal access to school education for poor children.
Dual power and the refusal of electoral politics
Since 2005, Abahlali baseMjondolo refused to vote in all state elections. The movement stated that it aimed, 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. However, in 2014 it abandoned this position and urged its members to vote for the Democratic Alliance.
The movement has organised a number of mutual aid projects: crèches, kitchens and vegetable gardens.
The KZN Slums Act
Abahlali baseMjondolo took the Provincial Government of KwaZulu-Natal to court to have the controversial 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.
Xenophobia and police brutality
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 organised numerous actions against police racism and brutality and has often demanded fair access to policing services for shack dwellers.
The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo
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.
2010 FIFA World Cup
Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape threatened to build shacks outside of the Cape Town stadium to draw attention to their situation but were not able to make good on this threat.
The movement describes itself 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.
While the movement is clear that its key immediate goals are 'land and housing' it is equally clear that it sees its politics as going beyond this. S'bu Zikode has commented that: "We have seen in certain cases in South Africa where governments have handed out houses simply to silence the poor. This is not acceptable to us. Abahalali’s struggle is beyond housing. We fight for respect and dignity. If houses are given to silence the poor then those houses are not acceptable to us."
'Abahlalism' has on occasion 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, the movement has never described itself as either anarchist or autonomist. Zikode has said that the movement aspires to 'a living communism'.
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, the national government elections in 2009 and the 2011 local government elections under the banner of No Land! No House! No Vote!. It has been reported that "Nearly 75% of South Africans aged 20-29 did not vote in the 2011 [local government] elections" and that "South Africans in that age group were more likely to have taken part in violent street protests against the local ANC than to have voted for the ruling party".
The philosophy of Abahlali baseMjondolo with regards to elections can be summarised by the following statement from its elected president 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".
The movement's Deputy President, Lindela Figlan has argued that “Voting someone into government just gives them power to oppress and exploit us.”
Despite this sentiment, at the Abahlali baseMjondolo "Unfreedom Day" rally held in Kwa-Mashu on 27 April 2014, the movement's President Sbu Zikode announced that they "would abandon their No Land, No House, No Vote campaign and cast a “strategic vote” in the May 7 elections". A few days later Zikode signed a pact with the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), stating that "We encourage our comrades and our membership to vote for the Democratic Alliance so that we can get rid of corruption". Zikode clarified that "Abahlali are not joining DA or any political party. We will remain independent from all kinds of mainstream political parties. But this time around it's a tactical partnership where the aim is to really get rid of the party that has become a threat to the society". The DA welcomed Abahali's endorsement, stating that this had come after two years of engagement.
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 in the first last three years of its existence 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 2009 the movement was attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement - see below.
In April 2010, IRIN, the newsletter of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that "The rise of an organised 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.
In April 2013 the movement successfully sued the Minister of Police for violence against three of its members.
On the 26th of June a local AbM leader, Nkululeko Gwala, was assassinated in the Cato Crest shack settlement in Durban.
On 29 September 2014, another Abahlali baseMjondolo member was killed. Thuli Ndlovu, the movement chairperson for KwaNdengezi was assassinated in her home after disputes with a local councillor over housing allocation. Abahlali baseMjondolo accused the councillor of having a hand in the assassination. On 27 February 2015, the local councillor, Mduduzi Ngcobo, was arrested on suspicion of being behind the murder.
"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."
The Italian theologian Brother Filippo Mondini has attempted to develop a theology based on the political thought and practices developed in Abahlali baseMjondolo.
The movement makes considerable use of cellphones to organise, generates its own media where possible and has made use of films too. The award-winning documentary feature film Dear Mandela tells the story of three young activists in Abahlali baseMjondolo.
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". City Officials continue to argue that the movement is a Third Force seeking to undermine the ruling African National Congress for nefarious purposes.
In December 2006, Abahlali members and 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 NGO activists, all of whom have clear links to a local NGO, the Centre for Civil Society, claimed that this was criminal behaviour and somehow illegitimate in that, according to these people, it was in response to the dismissal of four Abahlali linked academics from the Centre. However the WC-AEC issued a statement vigorously rejecting these claims while the Mail and Guardian newspaper reported a very different account of why Abahlali protested the meeting. 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 indicates that the demonstration was peaceful and rational and that the movements had a clear critique of the NGO co-option of the SMI.
In October 2010, Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape called for a month of direct action.Mzonke Poni, the chairperson of the Cape Town structure at the time, publicly endorsed road blockades as a legitimate tactic during this strike. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the South African Communist Party, the latter a major ally of the ruling ANC, issued strong statements condemning the campaign and labelling it 'violent' and, 'anarchist' and reactionary'. AbM responded by saying that their support for road blockades was not violent and that "We have never called for violence. Violence is harm to human beings. Blockading a road is not violence." They also said that the SACP's attack was really due to the movement's insistence on organising autonomously from the African National Congress. After the strike by AbM Western Cape, there were some protests in TR section of Khayelitsha in which vehicles were damaged. AbM WC ascribed these protests to the ANC Youth League as did Helen Zille and the Youth League itself. According to Leadership Magazine "The ANC Youth League in the province has hijacked the peaceful service-delivery protests organised by the social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in Khayelitsha in a violent, destructive and desperate attempt to mobilise support for the ANC against the province's Democratic Alliance provincial and municipal governments."
Violence at the Kennedy Road settlement
On 26 September 2009, it was reported that at about 11 pm that evening a group of about 40 people entered the Kennedy Road settlement wielding guns and knives and attacked an Abahlali baseMjondolo youth meeting. The attackers chanted ethnic and ANC slogans, demolished residents' homes and threatened to kill named individuals. At about 5 am the next morning two people were killed in the resulting conflict. According to an Abahlali baseMjondolo press statement issued on 27 September 2009 "As far as we know two of the attackers were killed when people managed to take their bush knives off them. This was self defence.
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 it was claimed that the attack was carefully planned and sanctioned by the local police. However this was denied by the ANC and the police who blamed a 'forum' associated with Abahlali baseMjondolo for the violence. However academic research confirmed that the attackers did self identify as ANC members and that ANC leaders at Municipal and Provincial level later provided public sanction for the attack.
The Mail & Guardian newspaper described the attack on Kennedy Road as a "hatchet job" and reported that "Two 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 alliance" and that an ANC source had 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 Mercury newspaper later reported that "The chairperson of the ANC's biggest and most influential region in KwaZulu-Natal, John Mchunu, has been awarded tenders [in housing construction] worth at least R40-million by the eThekwini municipality. Abahlali baseMjondolo claims to have been at the "forefront of exposing local government corruption, especially in the allocation of housing."
The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Safety and Security held meetings for stakeholders after the attack however these were condemned as unrepresentative by church leaders, AbM representatives and a survey by the Mail and Guardian Newspaper which described them as "a sham". AbM said that they were victims of a 'purge' and that they refused to sit side by side with their attackers and 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."
Following the attack AbM and the KRDC, democratically elected structures, were removed from the settlement and the provincial government replaced these structures with an unelected ANC affiliated Community Policing Forum.
The attacks garnered national and international condemnation with some people labelling the events a 'coup'. Churches also issued statements of condemnation.
The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva issued a statement that expressed "grave concern about reports of organised intimidation and threats to members of advocacy group, Abahlali baseMjondolo."
Considerable concern was expressed about the legal process following the arrests of twelve people after the attacks.Amnesty International has expressed concern and the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights sent an urgent appeal to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders to ask her to investigate the case of the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo and subsequent judicial process.
On 18 July 2011, the case against the 12 accused members of Abahlali baseMjondolo collapsed. The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa issued a statement saying that the "charges were based on evidence which now appears almost certainly to have been manufactured" and that the Magistrate had described the state witnesses as "“belligerent”, “unreliable” and “dishonest”. Amnesty International noted that the court had found that "police had directed some witnesses to point out members of Abahlali-linked organisations at the identification parade".
^These are detailed in some of the academic work and there is reference to some of the legal actions in the report on Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions (Geneva) which is online at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link). The papers from many of the court actions are also archived on the Abahlali site
^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 November 2010. Retrieved 2009-07-01.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) 'Zabalaza, Unfinished Struggles against Apartheid: The Shackdwellers’ Movement in Durban', Nigel Gibson, Socialism & Democracy
^ This emerges clearly in the archive of the movement's memoranda and press statements
^There is reference to some of the legal actions against evictions in the 2008 report on housing rights in Durban Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions (Geneva) which is online at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link). The papers from many of the court actions are also archived on the Abahlali site
^Love in the Time of AIDS, Mark Hunter, UKZN Press, 2010, p.224
^ ab This also emerges very clearly in the archive of the movement's memoranda and press statements
^ For a discussion of a key court victory against evictions see the article 'Chetty Champions the Poor' in 'South African Legal Brief', 24 September 2008
^ Capitalism the 'real culprit behind climate change' by Faranaaz Parker, Mail & Guardian, 18 December 2009
^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)'The Africa that Pushes Back' by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Foreign Policy in Focus, 24 December 2008
^See 'The Politics of Fear and the Fear of Politics: Reflections on Xenophobic Violence in South Africa', an article by Professor Michael Neocosmos from Monash University in Australia in the Journal of Asian & African Studies Vol. 43, No. 6, 586–594 (2008)
^The movement's philosophy is clearly articulated in a number of statements on its website – see, especially, the statements at http://abahlali.org/node/3208 It is also usefully summarised in the academic work by Nigel Gibson
^Archived 28 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine Also see 'Taking poverty seriously: What the poor are saying and why it matters' by Xin Wei Ngiam in Critical Dialogue, Vol.2, No.1, 2006
^ Educating resistance by Anna Anna Selmeczi in Debating David Harvey in Interface Journal (pp. 309 – 314), Volume 2 issue 1 (May 2010)
^ We are being left to burn because we do not count: Biopolitics, Abandonment, and Resistance by Anna Selmeczi in Global Society, Volume 23, Issue 4 October 2009 , pages 519 – 538
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