There were no more than twenty of us outside South Africa House the other week. Londoners are used to small demonstrations outside foreign embassies, and passers-by didn’t pay much attention. We were there in support of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for ‘shackdwellers’) movement. AbM was founded in Durban in 2005, after land at Kennedy Road, which the municipality had long promised would be used for housing for the poor, was sold to a developer. Echoing the language of Lefebvre, AbM call for the poor’s ‘right to the city’.
The state’s response has been unyielding. In 2007 the Kwa-Zulu Natal provincial government passed the Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act, which provided for forced evictions without a court order. AbM went to the Constitutional Court to have the law overturned. They won the case, but on 26 September 2009, shortly before the judgment was passed down, an AbM meeting in Kennedy Road was attacked by an armed gang, which AbM leaders say was connected to local ANC figures. Two people were killed. Thirteen AbM supporters were arrested, and no attackers.
Three days before the demonstration at South Africa house, two AbM supporters were shot by police at a protest at a settlement in Cato Crest, Durban, known by residents as ‘Marikana’ after the site of the massacre of striking miners last year. Luleka Makhwenkwana was shot in the arm from behind, and taken to hospital but later discharged. Nqobile Nzuza, who was 17, was shot in the back and in the back of the head. She was the third person to be killed this year in Cato Crest.
The general secretary of AbM, Bandile Mdlalose, arriving at Cato Crest after the attack, was arrested for ‘public violence’, a vague offence frequently used by police against AbM supporters. Supporters demanding
her release say they were explicitly threatened with violence by police. She was eventually released on bail, but on fairly stringent terms: she has to pay R5000 (about £300), report to the police station twice a week, and stay out of the Cato area.
South Africa has its own particular history of evictions and permanently impermanent land tenure, but seen in the light of AbM, or Marikana, or the Western Cape farmworkers’ strike, the country looks a lot like many other polarised, developing states in the Global South. The government is corrupt and mainly serves big capital, the rich live under armed guard, the poorest live in fear of eviction and police violence. As one of the few South Africans at the protest outside the High Commission said, ‘the reaction to Abahlali baseMjondolo just shows how important their struggle is.’