When the poor become powerful outside of state control

Published on Pambazuka News, by S’bu Zikode, Nov. 11, 2010.

The power of the poor becomes evident when the poor are able to organise – a moment of great promise, but also danger, S’bu Zikode told an audience in the United States recently … //

… The power of the poor starts when we as the poor recognise our own humanity – when we recognise that in fact we are created in the image of God and are therefore equal to all other human beings. But the recognition of our humanity without action to defend our humanity is meaningless. It is very important that we as the poor begin to define ourselves before someone else from somewhere else begins to define us. It is very important for the poor to say, this is who we are, this is where we are and this is what we want. In our movement, as in many movements around the world, we say that we are the poor, those who do not count. We say that we are the excluded and the disrespected. We say that we want our full humanity, that we want justice, that we want dignity and full participation in the planning of our communities … // 

… When our case was heard in the Constitutional Court it was clear that the state couldn’t answer our case. The state was humiliated by the inevitability of a serious defeat by shack dwellers. There was a long moment of silence. We continued to feed our orphans, to look after our sick. We continued to build crèches and vegetable gardens as projects of self help. We continued to discuss our living politic at our University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. All these good efforts of trying to build an equal society became a major threat to authority. Some state institutions have good people who we kept engaging while being very careful to always keep our autonomy. We carefully managed different negotiations without being co-opted into the system so that we could claim victories from the state while continuing to build our power outside of the state.

But as we kept building a strong movement the state was busy preparing itself to destroy our movement. On the 26 and 27 September 2009 a group of about 40 armed men violently attacked our head quarters in the Kennedy Road settlement. The police failed to protect us. As people tried to defend themselves there was fighting and two people were left dead and others injured. The homes of our leaders, their families and friends and the general membership of Abahlali were destroyed and we were driven out of the settlement and forced out to hiding. The attack was openly endorsed by the provincial leadership of the ruling party and the provincial government. Up until today our attackers were never made to answer to their crimes committed on the day of the attack. Abahlali called for the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the attack, but this call fell on deaf ears. A short time after the attack we won a historic victory against the constitutionality of the Slums Act.

This attack is the sort of heavy price that a movement of the poor may have to pay for the prize of a human world, a world of equality and dignity, a world where the land and wealth are shared. This sort of attack happens when a movement continues to organise, to think and to grow outside state control. A living politic is not built in one day. It is built in prayer, humility, sacrifice and courage. Our struggle is a class struggle. It is the struggle of the poor – those who are living in shacks, selling on the streets, doing domestic and security work. To build a fair world where everyone matters we need allies amongst those in a similar class and amongst those with better resources and opportunities.

The time will come when the poor, the uneducated but human, will be required to play a humane role in society. A time will come when the humanity of every human being is recognised in society. This time may or may not be the judgement day. When this time comes will depend on our commitment and courage. It will also depend on how well we can support each other’s struggles. History will judge us all … (full text).

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