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Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Popular Struggle for the Right to the City in Durban, South Africa

Richard Pithouse


[I]f their cause be so good, why will they not suffer us to speak and let reason and equity, the foundation of righteous laws, judge them and us?

Gerrard Winstanley (1)

Apartheid conflated modernity with a specifically white urbanism. This racial paranoia produced a tremendous white hostility to the black presence in the cities. Unsurprisingly both the elite and popular strands in the struggles against apartheid often put the demand for an equal right to an urban life at the centre of their politics (2). In parts of some cities, and especially in Durban, land occupations, particularly during the late 1970s and the 1980s, achieved a decisive break with the racialisation of space (3). In its latter years, the apartheid state made various concessions in response to popular agitation for the right to the city. These ranged from legal reforms, to trade offs in which an autonomous but precarious presence in the cities was exchanged for a subordinate but formal place in the cities, and some degree of state recognition for urban land occupations (4).

After apartheid, the right to housing was guaranteed in the Constitution and laws were passed to protect squatters from arbitrary eviction and to prevent anyeviction that would leave people homeless (5). Housing policy was developed from engagement with World Bank models and was based on the allocation of a fixed government housing subsidy per household to be awarded to private contractors who must take their profit from building within the subsidy limit (6).

Although it had not been long since the mass mobilization against apartheid in the 1980s — a mobilization that was often driven by popular organisations acting with a considerable degree of autonomy from centralised party control (7), and which often confronted the urban question directly  (8) — the state and its allied NGOs were able to move very quickly to reduce the political question of the right to the city to a technical question of building houses. The reduction of a deeply political set of questions to the technocratic language that reserved urban planning as a state and NGO function and measured success in terms of “units delivered” became largely dominant in civil society. Houses were built in impressive numbers but they were often very small, of extremely poor quality and located in peripheral ghettos (9). Moreover, housing projects were routinely captured by local political elites and, at every level from the awarding of construction contracts to the allocation of individual houses, were used to support the personal and political interests of those local elites. This was often undertaken ruthlessly, and on occasion violently, by local party structures (10).

A decade after apartheid, progressive planners in and allied to the democratic state recognised the failings of the subsidy system and in 2004 a new policy, Breaking New Ground, was adopted. It declared a shift from “conflict and neglect” to the integration of settlements “into the broader urban fabric to overcome spatial, social and economic exclusion” via “a phased in-situ upgrading approach.” (11) However the policy had no real political support and has not been implemented (12). The state has instead turned to revanchism via a return to the apartheid language of “slum clearance” (13). Shacksettlements are now slums to be eradicated from the cities rather than communities to be fully integrated into the cities. Once again shack settlements are being presented as a threat to aspirations for an elite modernity.

Three primary strategies are being deployed to eradicate shacks. The first is to withdraw or limit services such as water, electricity, refuse removal and so on to the point where conditions in the settlements become life threatening. The second is the use of various forms of surveillance and state violence to prevent the expansion of settlements or new occupations. The third is the destruction of established settlements. When established settlements are destroyed some residents are allocated houses, often in peripheral settlements, while others are coerced into state-built shacks, known as transit camps, and others are left homeless (14).

The state’s actions towards shack dwellers are systemically unlawful and, indeed, criminal. Mahendra Chetty, Director of the Durban office of the Legal Resources Centre attests that:

The City, as a matter of regular and consistent practice, acts in flagrant breach of the law… A recurrent theme with these evictions is the simple callousness with which they are carried out. They are carried out in an extremely authoritarian and high handed manner against the most vulnerable people in our society — poor black women, old people and the unemployed.” (15)

A popular challenge to the resegregation of the cities, this time on the basis of class, began to emerge with the beginnings of some important social movements from around 2001 (16). Since 2004, South African cities have been convulsed by thousands of municipal revolts, largely, although not always, organised from shack settlements (17). Their primary tactics have been road blockades and vote strikes. Despite rapidly increasing repression resulting in regular arrests and police violence, a violence that has occasionally been fatal, these protests have continued to gather intensity (18).

A key demand has been for people to be able to make their own decisions about where they would like to live. Sometimes this has been generalised into a collective demand for the right to the city. In many instances, protesters have demanded to be able to stay in their centrally located shacks rather than to be moved to new housing projects on the periphery of the cities, showing that the question of housing is not reducible to being formally housed by the state. A second key demand has been the right to co-determine ‘development.’ This includes both a demand to recognise grassroots urban planning (19) that has already occurred by, for example, formally recognising past land occupations, and a demand that future planning, such as the building of houses or the provision of services, be jointly undertaken by communities and the state.

In Durban, an organised shack dweller’s movement emerged out of the general ferment. In March, 2005, a road was blockaded by residents of the Kennedy Road settlement. Kennedy Road is the inner suburban core of the city and had been marked for eradication. In the months after the road blockade there were intense discussions with people from twelve nearby settlements, all in the inner suburban core, and in October that year a decision was taken to form the Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers) movement (AbM) and to pursue a politics of the poor, by and for the poor (20).

The movement was not founded by an NGO or a political organisation nor had it donor funding. It was, in the sense developed by Marcelo Lopes de Souza, an autonomous political project (21). It drew on the traditional language of the dignity of each person, reworked into a cosmopolitan form appropriate for urban life. From the beginning, the movement had something of a feeling of the warmth and mutual care of a congregation (22), a slow, deliberative and deeply democratic political culture (23) and an impressive diversity in terms of ethnicity, race and nationality (24).

Since then, the movement’s experience with the state has swung from outright repression to a cautious but productive engagement and then back to an even more ruthless mode of repression. From the founding road blockade in March, 2005, until September, 2007, when a legal and peaceful march aimed at the city’s mayor was violently attacked by the police (25), the state had refused to accept AbM as a legitimate organisation.

In some respects settlements that had collectively been affiliated to the movement were treated as dissident territories by the police and there were instances where settlements were occupied by the military at times of heightened tension. AbM protests were unlawfully banned and then attacked when they went ahead in defiance of bans. Well known supporters of the movement were forced out of their jobs and there were more than 200 arrests and all kinds of other forms of police harassment, including the use of police violence to physically prevent the movement from taking up invitations to debate politicians on radio and television (26). During this period of repression, the movement was subject to virulent slander from the state, much of it alleging a political conspiracy by a white agent of a foreign government tasked with destabilizing the country (27).

Despite the difficulties faced by the movement from October, 2005, until September, 2007, a considerable amount was achieved. The movement declared a University of Abahlali baseMjondolo and, in the discussions of that university, resolved to protect its autonomy by refusing party politics. It was decided to only engage with NGOs if and when they were prepared to work with the movement on the basis of mutuality (28) and useful connections were made with the churches. A key slogan in what came to be called the movement’s “living politics” (29) became “talk to us, not for us.” In the words of the movement’s chairperson, S’bu Zikode:

[T]he time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves, before someone else defines them, before someone else thinks for them, and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. I’m pleading to intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, for our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and from our experiences. We are asking the intellectuals and the NGOs to work with us to create a space where we can think and discuss together. We don’t want them to think and to speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on the point of order. Not government, not NGOs, no one. Because we are prepared to talk to anyone (30).

During this time the movement continued to grow and was able to achieve a remarkable degree of unmediated access to elite public platforms. In practical terms, AbM had been able to: reach a point of being able to successfully resist evictions in all the settlements where they were strong; build and defend new shacks; openly undertake and successfully defended their expansion of existing shack settlements; win access to various state services outside of party patronage; set up crèches and various mutual support projects; (illegally) safely connect thousands of people to electricity and many to water; vigorously contest police oppression; democratise the governance of a number of settlements to win sustained unmediated access to voice in the popular media; defend the right to dissent against local party elites; contest the withholding of welfare as a punishment for dissent; and fight a high-profile battle for land and housing in the towns and cities.

AbM has been able to call meetings and initiate campaigns in which those NGOs, academics and lawyers willing to work with a grassroots movement on the basis of mutual respect, and on the terrain where the movement is strong, rather than, as is more typical, on the basis of an assumed right to lead, could work with the movement. The first campaign developed in this way was against the Slums Act. The Slums Act was first proposed and passed in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 2007 and was meant to be replicated in other provinces. The Act essentially criminalised the unlawful occupation of land, resistance to evictions and any form of shack dwellers’ organisation that occupied land unlawfully and raised money via a membership fee (31). The process of resistance to the Slums Act included mass mobilisation, public debate and an ongoing legal battle to have the act declared unconstitutional.

It slowly became clear that the movement had entered a second phase after the attack on the march in September, 2007. This attack was witnessed by the local bishops who strongly condemned (32) it and it was also condemned by international human rights organisations (33). Unlawful police repression stopped, the state recognised AbM as the legitimate representative of fourteen settlements in Durban and negotiations began with city officials (34). In the beginning, there were explicit attempts to persuade AbM to shift from a political discourse to a development discourse. This was refused.For a while there was something of a standoff but once AbM had secured the right to remain political in and outside of the negotiations (35), the negotiations could continue.

In May, 2008, African migrants were attacked and hounded out of shack settlements across the country in a wave of xenophobic pogroms (36) AbM took a decision to shelter and defend all people born in foreign countries (37) and were able to ensure that there was not a single attack in any of the settlements affiliated to the movement and to stop two in-progress attacks in settlements not affiliated to the movement (38).

In February, 2009, AbM and the Durban Municipality announced a deal which committed both parties to the in-situ participatory upgrading of three settlements, including Kennedy Road, and the provision of some basic services to fourteen settlements (39). It marked a number of major victories including a decisive break with the spatial logic of apartheid (the settlements to be upgraded are in the inner suburban core), which signifies an acknowledgment that settlements need decent access to services and a recognition that development can be a collaborative process between communities and the state.

However, in September, 2009, AbM leaders were attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement by an armed mob chanting ethnic slogans (40). The police refused to come to the aid of AbM and only stepped in to disable spontaneous resistance to the mob. Lives were lost during the attempt to mount a defence against the mob and the homes of more than 30 AbM leaders were destroyed and looted following which local leaders of the ruling party seized control of the settlement. Party leaders in the city and the province attacked the movement in extremely strong language in the days following the attack, excoriating it for taking the government to court to have the Slums Act declared unconstitutional and accusing the movement of being “anti-development.” Police officers, statemovement in order to stop development so that they can keep Africans poor and sustain their access to donor funds.

Three weeks after the attacks, AbM succeeded in having the Slums Act declared unconstitutional in the Constitutional Court. It was a remarkable victory (41). But supporters of the ruling party are openly issuing public death threats against the movement’s leadership in the context of intense hostility to the movement from local party leaders and police officers, as well as patently unlawful conduct towards the movement by a local magistrate (42). The state-backed attack on the movement is happening amidst a general turn towards authoritarian ethnic politics and the future of the movement, and, indeed, of any popular affirmation of the right to the city in South Africa, is not at all clear.

1 Gerrard Winstanley: His Thoughts and Works edited by Subrata Mukherjee & Sushila Ramaswamy Deep & Deep Publications: New Delhi, p. 44, 1998.
2 See for instance, Holding Their Ground edited by Philip Bonner, Isabel Hofmeyer, Deborah James & Tom Lodge (Raven Press: Johannesburg), 1989 & The People’s City: African Life in Twentieth-Century Durban edited by Paul Maylam & Iain Edwards University of Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg, 1996.
3 Richard Pithouse ‘Shacks in Durban Till the End of Apartheid’, The Commoner, December 2009,
4 For an interesting case study of the Crossroads settlement in Cape Town see Crossroads: The Politics of Reform and Repression 1976-1986 by Josette Cole Ravan Press: Johannesburg, 1987.
5 Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions, Business as Usual? “Housing Rights & ‘Slum Eradication’ in Durban, South Africa” (Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions: Geneva), 2008, www.cohre/org/southafrica
6 Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions, “Business as Usual?”.
7 Michael Neocosmos ‘Civil Society, Citizenship & the Politics of the (Im)Possible: Rethinking Militancy in Africa Today’ “Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements,” No.2, 2009,
8 Marie Huchzermeyer, “Unlawful Occupation: Informal Settlements and Urban Policy in South Africa and Brazil” (Africa World Press: Trenton, New Jersey), 2004.
9 Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions, Business as Usual?
10 I base this claim on five years of research on the housing question in Durban and will develop it further in forthcoming work.
11 Department of Housing, “Breaking New Ground”, 2004, p. 12.
12 Richard Pithouse “A Progressive Policy Without Progressive Politics: Lessons from the failure to implement Breaking New Ground’’, Town Planning Journal, No. 54, 2009, pp.1-14.
13 Richard Pithouse “A Progressive Policy Without Progressive Politics: Lessons from the failure to implement ‘Breaking New Ground”.
14 Richard Pithouse, “Business as Usual?”.
15 Richard Pithouse, “Business as Usual?”, p. 52.
16 Richard Pithouse “Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Struggle for the City in Durban, South Africa”, Cidades, Vol. 6, No. 9, pp.241-272.
17 Richard Pithouse “Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Struggle for the City in Durban, South Africa”
18 Richard Pithouse “Burning Message to the State in the Fire of the Poor’s Rebellion”, Business Day,
19 I am using the phrase ‘grassroots urban planning’ in the sense developed by Marcelo Lopez de Souza. In his paper ‘Together with the state, despite the state, against the state: Social movements as ‘critical urban planning’ agents’, City, Vol. 10, no. 3, 2006, pp. 327-342.
20 Richard Pithouse ‘Struggle is a School: The rise of a shack dwellers’ movement in Durban, South Africa’ Monthly Review, Vol. 57, No. 9, 2006,
21 See Marcelo Lopes de Souza ‘Urban Development on the Basis of Autonomy: a Politicophilosophical and Ethical Framework for Urban Planning and Management’ Ethics, Place and Environment, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2000, pp. 187-201, 2000.
22 Richard Pithouse ‘Coffin for the Councillor’, Journal of Asian & African Studies, Vol. 41, Nos 1-2, 2006.
23 Raj Patel ‘A Short Course in Politics at the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, p. 95-118, 2008.
24 Richard Pithouse, Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Struggle for the City in Durban, South Africa
25 See Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions Open Letter to Obed Mlaba & Michael Sutcliffe, 2007, and Human Rights Watch World Report 2009,
26 Stephanie Lynch & Zodwa Nsibande, The Police and Abahlali baseMjondolo: A List of Key Incidents of Police Harassment Suffered by Abahlali baseMjondolo, 2008,
27 For an example of this sort of paranoid state discourse see Lennox Mabaso and Harry Mchunu, Shackdwellers ‘under the sway of an agent provocateur’, Sunday Tribune, 24 September 2007, For a response to this sort of discourse by AbM President S’bu Zikode see We Are the Third Force, November 2005,
28 For reflections on this by movement activists see Living Learning edited by Mark Butler (Church Land Programme: Pietermaritzburg), 2009,
29 For an insider’s reflections on the politics of Abahlali baseMjondolo see Richard Pithouse, ‘To resist all degradations and divisions: an interview with S’bu Zikode’, Interface: A Journal for and About Social Movements, No. 2, 2009,
30 This statement was given to Richard Pithouse by S’bu Zikode and was read during a talk about the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, held at the Soho Theatre in London on June 5, 2007,
31 Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions, “Business as Usual?”.
32 “Police Violence in Sydenham”, 28 September, 2007: A Testimony by Church Leaders,
33 See Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions “Open Letter to Obed Mlaba & Michael Sutcliffe”, 2007, and Human Rights Watch World Report 2009,][]]
34 Richard Pithouse, “Abahlali baseMjondolo & the Struggle for the City in Durban, South Africa”.
35 For example there was a serious attempt on the part of the movement to politicise shack fires. See “A Big Devil in the Jondolos” Matt Birkinshaw, 2008,
36 Richard Pithouse “The May 2008 Pogroms: xenophobia, evictions, liberalism, and democratic grassroots militancy in South Africa”, Sanhati, 16 June 2008,
37 Abahlali baseMjondolo, “Abahlali baseMjondolo Statement on the Xenophobic Attacks in Johannesburg”, 21 May 2008,
38 Nigel Gibson “Upright and free: Fanon in South Africa, from Biko to the shackdwellers movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo)” Social Identities, Vol. 14, No. 6., pp. 683-715, 2008.
39 Malavika Vartak “Experiences of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Kennedy Road Settlement, Durban, South Africa: A report for the Development Planning Unit of University College London”, December 2009,
40 See Amnesty International, South Africa: Failure to conduct impartial investigation into Kennedy Road violence is leading to further human rights abuses, 16 December 2009, and Michael Neocosmos, Attacks on shack dwellers a failure of citizenship, Pambazuka News, 10 December 2009,
41 Marie Huchzermeyer, “Ruling in Abahlali case lays solid foundation to build on”, Business Day, 4 November 2009,
42 See Bishop Rubin Phillip, “Grave Concerns about the Detention without Trial of the Kennedy Thirteen: This Travesty Must End”, 18 November 2009,

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