Abahlali baseMjondolo Executive Committee Member: 'Talk to Us, Not about Us'

6 May 2014

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In mid-April, member of the executive committee of shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, Thembani Jerome Ngongoma, spoke at a SACSIS event about poor peoples’ struggles to access land for housing in urban South Africa. In recent days, Abahlali have controversially endorsed the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the 2014 General Election. Many individuals and organisations of the left are shocked and dismayed by the decision, as the DA is traditionally associated with maintaining the racial and economic hierarchy in South Africa via the policy positions that it takes. In the interests of contributing to the debate, we bring you this video of Ngongoma where he says that the struggles of the poor have been criminalised and that the middle class is out of touch with their hardships.

To watch the panel discussion, "South Africa's Apartheid Cities Endure Because There Is No Political Will to Change Them", which Ngongoma's input is excerpted from, please click here.


FAZILA FAROUK:  Thembani, if you can talk to us a little about your organisation and how you assist people to gain access to land.

Thembani Jerome Ngongoma is Deputy Chairperson at the Isiyanda local branch of the shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. He is also an executive member of the Abahlali Executive Committee, head of Internal Security and Chairperson of the Disciplinary Committee. Thembani is co-founder member of Vibe FM 94.7, a community radio station currently on air and growing from strength to strength.

THEMBANI JEROME NGONGOMA: Thank you. That is very true.

For me to get this opportunity to be in this discussion, I cannot find proper words to say thank you, because I think I’m here to help this discussion and its participants to see through an eye of an ordinary man in the street.

Our social movement was started in 2005 to address the issues of inequality and injustice in our country. In fact, we do a lot of advocacy in those issues. It is an undisputable fact that land is the very important commodity amongst many -- more especially to the citizens of a particular country. And, you will find that we have had so many encounters that are very much unpleasant as the citizens of South Africa. To such an extent that we even asked ourselves whether we do really belong to South Africa, as the poor majority, due to what is happening around us.

And you will find that we do not have enough support from the middle class because they don’t even know what is happening about the poor. The only thing they see is when they see the headlines on television and newspapers that the community from such and such informal settlement are toyi-toying. And they don’t even understand what is happening because we do not get such chances to explain our side as to really what is happening when it comes to the poor majority of South Africans.

Despite the fact that the poor majority of South Africans has organised themselves in the form of NGOs and social movements -- most of them having been members of certain political parties where they as members of such, then experienced betrayal and suppression. Therefore, if there was a political will to attend sincerely to matters affecting them directly by the government officials, that would be a correct path towards making democracy work for the poor in the urban or rural areas.

We have finally seen or rested our minds in saying with every problems that we have in South Africa with regards to land, there is no political will at all to address these issues, number one, which becomes very much problematic.

Furthermore, if there was anything that could…would be termed as democracy in South Africa, democracy will only work for the poor people if there is a stop in the criminalisation of their attempt in making their voice heard of which the mobilisation and organising is always dismissed as irrational, violent and politically insufficient because they don’t conform (to) the modes of politics which is only available to the elite. That also…if we seek to have a true democracy, this criminalisation of such attempts by the poor people from grassroots level, must be stopped.

We have always, as civil society, tried to make it known that if there is anyone interested in our matters, one must talk to us, not about us. It is happening mostly from government officials that whenever there is anything that has to do with the poor majority of the people, somebody will decide for them, talk on their behalf and think what’s best for us. And when it comes to well-located land, it has happened so many times in the city where I come from, Durban. You have just made an example of Cato Manor. We have protest marches now and again in that area which was known as Umkhumbane those days. And people were forcefully removed from there and they were the first to be located into KwaMashu Township.

And immediately after 1994, you will find that the government of the day officials are proudly saying that that piece of land does not belong to everybody, it belongs to some people who are well befriended with the political authorities. Now it becomes a big confusion to the people who had a perception that immediately after 1994 when we had our democracy in South Africa we will have land, we will have freedom, we will have whatever one can expect as a citizen of that particular country, if there is real democracy in it.

Furthermore, we have always tried to educate the authorities that there must be nothing for the people without them. That is very important, allowing people as citizens to take part in decision-making. Land redistribution won’t be a problem because if people are educated enough about the land acts, they would understand the reason why the process is so slow. They would understand if the process can be made to become faster than they expect if they are involved in every step that is taken by the government to address the issue of land.

Us as ordinary citizens, we don’t expect to be denied land or to be evicted from a piece of land that we have identified and occupied since the municipalities that deal directly with the people at grassroots level, they normally evict people on certain conditions. The other one being you cannot occupy this land because it is privately owned, you cannot occupy this land because it belongs to the municipality. And our understanding is that the municipality is our government. If the land belongs to the government it means it belongs to the people.

So why can’t the government do something because these people are the government at the end of the day. Why do people matter when it’s time to go to the polls and votes if in the long run during the five-year period they don’t count at all? And you will find that with the example that you’ve just…

FAZILA FAROUK: Two minutes left.


With the example that you’ve just made Cato Manor, it is true it was a repetition of what Helen Zille said in the Western Cape. People were told in the face that they should go back to the Eastern Cape. They don’t belong here. Most unfortunately we are sharing one colour, but I don’t want to go into that direction. Same colour, same language, but those people told people of their own that they should go back into the reserves. But I for one I come from the reserves because there’s no one in this country or elsewhere who does not want to see his or her life improving. And that is the only reason people migrate from the rural areas and come to contest a place in the city, which is highly contested at this stage.
Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: Thanks very much Thembani.

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