Abahlali baseMjondolo – The South African Shack Dwellers Movement

— Suzy Subways

May/June 2008 • Issue 8

Abahlali organizers and sisters Nellie and Nosipho Mtshali amid the wreckage of a shack demolished by the city of Durban, South Africa, in the Arnett Drive settlement on January 17, 2008 (photo courtesy of Abahlali baseMjondolo).
Abahlali marches on Mayor Obed Mlaba, September 28, 2007, demanding an immediate moratorium on forced evictions, as well as land for more housing and basic city services (photo by Mnikelo and Richard, courtesy of Abahlali baseMjondolo).

South Africans living in the imijondolo – shack dwellers – have by far the highest HIV prevalence in the country. Sometimes called shantytowns or informal settlements, these communities of people, living in shacks made of materials like tin and paper, usually have no water, electricity, sanitation, healthcare or garbage removal. According to the 2005 South African National Household Survey on HIV Prevalence, Incidence, Behaviour and Communication, commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, HIV prevalence among 15- to 49-year-old shack dwellers is 25.8%. Nationwide, women ages 15 to 24 are up to four times more likely to be HIV positive than their male counterparts.

“Our women and children are vulnerable to HIV because they become homeless through eviction by the government from the shacks,” explains Zandile Nsibande, an AIDS activist and member of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement. “Others are unemployed and find it hard to rent an accommodation. They involve themselves in conditional love, because they need a place to sleep with their children, and they are voiceless when it comes to condom use,” she says. “That is how our women become vulnerable to rape and HIV infection.” Also, without access to toilets in the imijondolo, women are raped in the bushes.

Abahlali baseMjondolo began in the large port city of Durban in early 2005, with a road blockade organized by people living in the Kennedy Road settlement to protest the sale to a local industrialist of nearby land that had long been promised by a local government representative to the shack dwellers for housing. The movement grew quickly, and now includes tens of thousands of people from more than 30 settlements, according to a history of Abahlali written by the Abahlali baseMjondolo Book Collective in October 2006. The document reports, “Amongst other victories, the Abahlali have democratised the governance of many settlements, stopped evictions in a number of settlements, won access to schools, stopped the industrial development of the land promised to Kennedy Road, forced numerous government officials, offices and projects to ‘come down to the people,’ and mounted vigorous challenges to the uncritical assumption of a right to lead the local struggles of the poor in the name of a privileged access to the ‘global,’ i.e., Northern donors, academics and non-government organizations (NGOs), that remains typical of most of the NGO-based left.” The group’s peaceful demonstrations have frequently met with police beatings, rubber bullets (and sometimes live ammunition), and arrests.

In a 2006 report published by the Centre for Civil Society, “Informal Settlements as Spaces of Health Inequality: The Changing Economic and Spatial Roots of the AIDS Pandemic, from Apartheid to Neoliberalism,” Mark Hunter relates the HIV rate in the shacks to the unemployment crisis. Unemployment has worsened dramatically since the mid-1990s, as policies favorable to capitalist globalization have replaced early efforts to redistribute wealth and undo the socially crippling effects of apartheid. As more women leave their rural homes looking for work, there are fewer jobs for them, and women’s wages have plummeted. Now, many very poor women must rely on men, sometimes several of them, who provide financial support, food, or clothes in exchange for a sexual or romantic relationship. Women who live in the imijondolo often send money home to relatives in the countryside, frequently to support children they had to leave behind.

Nsibande hopes that Abahlali’s new income generation program, in which mutual financial support allows women to invest in making or growing products to sell, will help women in the shacks protect themselves from HIV. “Our income generation program can help our women to live financially independently without any sexual relationships,” she says.

The Abahlali T-shirts read, “2010: Free from Eviction, Free from Shackfire, Housing 4 All.” 2010 refers to the year many demolitions are expected in anticipation of the World Cup being held in Durban. Fires are a primary concern for the shack dwellers, without electricity, stoves, or running water in their homes (photo by Mnikelo and Richard, courtesy of Abahlali baseMjondolo).

South Africa is unique, in that its post-apartheid constitution guarantees the right to adequate housing. But in an October 30, 2007 interview with Worldpress.org, Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Housing, said about South Africa, “Legislators in South Africa have lost their way since 2000-2001… The promises of the early years are now in reversal… All the progressive judgments have not been implemented, nor has the constitutional regulation and the right to housing in policy been put into practice.”

But it’s not just South Africa. Kothari discusses forced evictions in a global context. “Today, more people are being displaced from large development projects because of the market, than in places of conflicts. There are shocking statistics; millions of people around the world are being displaced… What is a gross violation of human rights is that there is no compensation or consultation, so you see this legacy of greater homelessness, which is often permanent. There has been, of course, data generated on evictions that shows that it is disproportionately represented by minorities, aboriginal people and women… This reliance on market solutions to meet housing demands is increasingly not treating housing issues as a human right. This is not a commodity that you buy and sell.”

Sbusiso Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, agrees that the increasing dominance of free-market global capitalism, also called neoliberalism, is behind the forced evictions of shack dwellers around the world. “In the major cities of the world, in countries where the cities are progressing, poor people are being evicted from the shantytowns,” he says. “It’s about the neoliberal policies at very high levels, and it is about the growth of the gap between the haves and the do-not-haves. It is a strategy to make sure there is no space for poor people who can’t make profits.”

Abahlali is currently resisting a government bill that would include a five-year prison sentence for trying to stop an eviction. “Poor people are at the brink of catastrophe and declared as being criminal,” Zikode says. “The poor people of the world must defend very strongly against evictions and against this idea that we have no right to the city.”

For more photos, reporting and videos, visit http://abahlali.org/node/239 or watch Dear Mandela, a six-minute film about Abahlali baseMjondolo by Sleeping Giant Films from February 2008, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZWIZX_8ub8.

Donate to Abahlali baseMjondolo’s women’s support group

The women of Abahlali have started an income generation program for the survival and independence of women shack dwellers. The group hopes to purchase a sewing machine and other supplies. Visit Supporting Abahlali baseMjondolo to donate – specify that the money is for the women’s support group.

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Filed under Alternatives to 501c3, disaster capitalism, displacement and gentrification, economic justice, housing, imperialism/colonialism, police repression, revolutionary strategies, Solidarity Project, South Africa, women

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