Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Bandile Mdlalose. Photo: World Development Movement
Bandile Mdlalose is the general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement, in South Africa. Politically active ‘since she was born’, Bandile, now 24, became involved in Abahlali in 2008 before becoming secretary in 2010. She describes the organisation’s role as ‘to fight, protect, promote and advance the dignity of the poor in South Africa’.
Abahlali is a grass-roots organisation, which protests about the lack of housing for poor people through a variety of means. These range from mobilising quickly to stop shack evictions to taking the government to court – and winning – on its plans to demolish shack settlements and push residents into ‘transit camps’, supposedly in aid of the UN’s millennium development goal of developing all informal settlements by 2014. Abahlali works with the Landless People’s Movement, the Rural Network and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in the Poor People’s Alliance, a network of radical poor people’s movements.
When did Abahlali baseMjondolo start and what prompted it?
It started in 2005 in a settlement called Kennedy Road. The people in the Kennedy Road shack settlement have been promised things so many times – that they will build houses, service delivery for the community – and eventually they felt enough was enough. The community mobilised themselves and decided to protest. A number of people were arrested.
They were asked ‘What organisation are you from?’ The community decided to organise itself and create a name – Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is the Zulu word for ‘shack residents’. After that other shack dweller communities decided to join in. Now we have become very big.
What is it like to live in one of the shack settlements?
We are used to it – but it’s never nice. We don’t have an alternative – we are forced to live in it. Sometimes when it rains the water flows inside. When it’s hot we are unable to breathe because of the small windows. We have no water or electricity, just an empty shelter. We light candles for light and to light the stoves but if there’s a lot of wind we always fear because it could burn down any time. A lot of people have died in shack fires but there’s nothing we can do, and the government always shifts the blame back to the people.
What are the main goals of the movement?
Our main goal is land and housing. We believe land is a gift from God, so it should be shared equally – it does not need to be privatised. Within that, there are little things we are achieving. We have managed to create our own space, having our own movement and speaking for ourselves, acting for ourselves, without someone speaking for us. We are managing to protest by trying to implement the constitution that the government has documented but not implemented.
How do you organise?
Firstly, we are a membership-based organisation. It’s a different approach to other organisations. We believe that we must work with communities, we must educate them on their rights, we must let them do things for themselves, rather than having someone else doing things for them. We also work with young people.
We have a one-year calendar that keeps our organisation sustainable and active. On 27 April, South Africa has Freedom Day. We say ‘We are still not free, we still live in the slums’, so we always have ‘Unfreedom Day’. Even on Human Rights Day we always have a protest because we don’t have any human rights. Rather than celebrating human rights, we are questioning, or we are sending memorandums. We have meetings every month but we emphasise that communities should have their own meetings. The struggles are in the communities, not in our head office.
Do you see Abahlali as continuing in the tradition of the anti-apartheid struggle?
It’s nothing new, we’re just starting off where Steve Biko has left, where all those comrades have left: Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King. The apartheid system is still there. The only change is from a white government to a black government. The only thing I could say has changed is the constitution. If you say to people ‘Apartheid is still there’, they will say ‘You can organise for yourselves, you can speak for yourself, we can walk with a white person’, but is that enough? Is that really what other comrades died for? Is that what Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for?
Mandela once wrote that it’s a long way to freedom. I still hear that there is freedom but I’ve not seen the light of freedom. That’s why we always hold the government against their own constitution because, yes, it’s a beautiful constitution and it accommodates everyone, but the constitution can’t work for itself – it needs someone to make sure it works.
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia recounts the wholesale government assault on civil freedoms in Catalonia, sparked by the independence campaign.
We've known about the devastating implications of climate change for decades now. Louis Mendee investigates the history of corporations in denying these urgent political realities.
Corbyn just won a prize for peace activism - so why is the Labour Party still committed to renewing trident? Lily Sheehan investigates.
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition