Abahlali baseMjondolo is the shack dwellers movement of South Africa whose members are directly affected by the deep inequalities that exist in our society. It is a movement struggling for better living conditions in informal settlements across the country, working for access to basic infrastructure that is necessary for people to live dignified lives. Grassroots movements like AbM and Civil Society Organisations play an important role in our democracy by providing a platform for landless and margnialised people, who are socially and economically vulnerable and whose voices and stories are often not heard simply by virtue of their position within society. Our Constitution envisages South Africa as a democratic state founded on values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. However, under the current economic and social conditions, the opportunities for the poor to be able to meaningfully participate in decisions which directly affect their lives are often limited. This in turn undermines the vision of the Constitution. Through the work of AbM, this vision and the values of an open and democratic society are prevented from becoming empty rhetoric.
Abahlali baseMjondolo has been successful in campaigning for better access to water points, sanitation, access to schools for children living in informal settlements, developing vegetable gardens and building a library for its members. The movement rejects housing programmes that seek to forcibly and arbitrarily remove the poor from urban areas to the outskirts of society, aiming instead to improve the conditions within existing informal settlements. For them the starting point in the struggle for equality is our human dignity and not purely economic gain. The successes of AbM have been partly as a result of the movement’s ability to unite and empower people around their common material conditions of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and not on any sectarian basis. This is also a reason why the movement has gained such momentum and support and is now grounded in over 50 informal settlements across the country. The gains of AbM have had a tangible impact on the lives of many people and communities living in informal settlements and yet AbM has, at times, been met with hostility and intimidation from local political structures, most recently to the extent that members have become political exiles from their own communities.
Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ) had the privilege of hosting members from Abahlali baseMjondolo at its Annual Seminar in September 2009 to discuss methods of organising around issues of inequality for social movements in South Africa. As a law student’s organisation aimed at promoting the Constitution and the rule of the law as tools of social transformation, we recognise and support Abahlali baseMjondolo as a democratically constituted and representative organisation that uses these tools, to conduct legitimate struggles through legitimate means.
This, amongst other things, is what makes the recent attacks against AbM and the KDRC by armed groups identifying themselves as local ANC members, most disturbing. In light of what AbM represents and the crucial role that it (and other movements like it) play in our constitutional democracy the threats that have been posed against the movement are of serious concern. The violent and unlawful methods that have been employed in an attempt to undermine and abolish this grassroots organisation is not only a threat to AbM and its members, but constitutes a threat to the very foundations of our democracy as a whole.
The SLSJ condemns attempts to silence this movement, particularly as they appear to be in reaction to the support that AbM has secured in the informal settlements and the fact that it refuses to be politically aligned. The harassment, vandalism, intimidation and violence aimed at members of Abahlali baseMjondolo has resulted in displacement, damage to property, imprisonment and the deaths of members of the movement.
These incidents have not been properly investigated by the police and in certain circumstances the crimes against AbM members were conducted with the knowledge and tacit consent of the police. The Government and the ANC have not done enough to ensure the safety and security for the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo. They have become complicit in the closing of important political spaces and have, by implication, condoned these acts of violence and the serious threats that this poses to the legitimacy of our democracy.
This kind of conduct – that seeks to undermine the legitimate struggle of people to rise above their conditions, stifles an important part of our country’s culture of struggle for human rights and our commitment to address the injustices of the past that continue to plague society today. It also threatens development and the attainment of equality which should be a struggle for us all.
The Students for Law and Social Justice calls on the ANC and Government to condemn these attacks and so to act with accountability, respect and integrity for the struggle of the poor in our country.
Students for Law and Social Justice
For more information see www.abahlali.org