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Hopeful stories of communities organizing

Columnist reports on South African challenges

Cameron Conner


In columnist Cameron Conner's final month in South Africa, he worked with Abahlali baseMjondolo—Zulu for shack-dwellers—"one of the most impressive networks I have spent time with so far."

South Africans celebrated Freedom Day and the anniversary of the end of apartheid on April 27, with a ceremony and public holiday, but 30 years after the election of Nelson Mandela as president, millions of black South Africans are still waiting and fighting for freedom.

For families who still live in shack settlements without running water, electricity and access to sanitation, this celebration was bitter.

Many feel let down and physically threatened by Mandela's party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has been in power since 1994 yet failed to deliver on commitments for safe, fair housing.

These communities were mobilizing to unseat the ANC at the parliamentary election on May 29. Political analysts expected the party to lose its majority.

On April 21, more than 10,000 shack dwellers poured into a sports ground in Durban, South Africa's third largest city, to launch this campaign with a day-long UnFreedom Day event. The assembly was organized by the social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo—"shack dwellers" in isiZulu.

Challenging the powerful in South Africa is dangerous. Twenty-five Abahlali local leaders have been killed fighting since 2013. Now its national leaders are in hiding after death threats allegedly from the ANC.

"Thirty years of freedom, but we still do not know what freedom is!" S'bu Zikode, the Abahlali president, told the crowd to cheers. "The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer. Far more people live in shacks than in 1994. We remain landless and without work. Millions are without even the most basic services, such as water, sanitation and refuse removal. Millions are hungry, and we continue to live in terrible violence."

The sea of shack-dwellers, dressed in Abahlali's colors, red, black and gold, were seated in rows inside a vast white tent. Many travelled thousands of kilometers from rural areas and urban shack settlements across South Africa to express solidarity.

Leon Bennett, 35, a construction laborer who came with a delegation from his settlement on the outskirts of Durban, put it bluntly: "We wake up every morning in our shacks thinking about what to put together in order to survive. Survival is not freedom."

Today such settlements are home to about 2 million households, according to 2023 data from the National Department of Human Settlements, even though shack-dwellers were granted the right to proper homes in the 1994 ANC constitution. Many are the legacy of apartheid-era townships where non-whites were forced to live under strict racial segregation.

Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed in 2005 in response to the ANC's apathy or hostility to these communities. The spark was ignited when land promised by a local councilor to people in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in North Durban was leased without warning to a private company.

Zikode, now president but then leader of Kennedy Road's community development committee, realized they needed to organize to hold elected officials to account. Uniting with five settlements, they voted to create Abahlali. Its goal: a unified front of shack dwellers opposing demolitions and forced removals, and negotiating for quality housing for their families.

Today the movement is one of the largest, most effective unions of shack dwellers in the world with 87 branches representing more than 120,000 dues-paying members across four of South Africa's nine provinces.

In the crowd on Unfreedom Day, three Zulu words printed in bold black letters adorned almost every red shirt: umhlaba (land), izindlu (housing) and isithunizi (dignity). They are Abahlali's three tenets.

For individuals who feel unseen and powerless, Abahlali is a powerful vehicle for protecting the rights the ANC failed to uphold.

Bennett joined "because we were being evicted. The government tore down people's homes. We were forced to rebuild with whatever we had left. When we joined this union, we saw our rights were taken into consideration. As soon as we joined, the municipality showed us a different mindset." The frequency of demolitions and police raids in Bennett's community dropped significantly.

Beyond its work with evictions and displacement, Abahlali has also pressured state officials to bring electricity to settlements, create safe access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and improve access to schools, clinics and housing.

Its victories have come at a heavy cost—25 killings and leaders in hiding. "We fear for our lives," said the general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, who fled the region because of ANC death threats. "When you organize outside of the ANC in South Africa, you face brutal attacks and have to pay the highest price—burying our comrades."

Addressing this on Unfreedom Day, Zikode said: "I am aware how serious allegations against the ANC are. They have been tested in courts."

In 2016, two ANC councilors and their hitman were sentenced to life in prison for assassinating an Abahlali leader, Thuli Ndlovu, in 2014.

The history of violence and the new threats led Abahlali to declare its most daring political strategy: to vote en masse against the ANC in May. "It is imperative that the ANC be given a strong message that repression will not be tolerated. It is preferable to remove them from power," Zikode said.

After discussion across the country, Abahlali decided to vote for the leftwing Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa's third largest party.

Zikode said this was a tactical decision. It was no use hoping the ANC would listen. "Voting for the ANC is like digging your own grave."

With South Africa's election, 30 years of democracy under ANC rule were being evaluated. With millions no closer to the dream of freedom than they were in April 1994, many are left asking how and when would their rights be recognized?

Cameron Conner's columns for The Fig Tree are from blogs he is writing during his Watkins Fellowship in Spain, the UK, South Africa and Mongolia. His blogs are at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June 2024