South Africa: From Red to Blue, Abahlali’s Survival and Ideology
In May 2014, news broke that a radical shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, had thrown their weight behind the centre-right Democratic Alliance in Kwa Zulu Natal. This was a shock to most in the South African left. The shock reverberated in all the places this remnant finds itself; that is to say, twitter, facebook, social science faculties and on listervs anticipating revolution.
At face value it is shocking. Abahlali was the poster child of total autonomy in social movements, giving their voice to no one but themselves. Scholars of the movement told us that, at the movement’s core, not only as strategy but as principle, was their celebrated slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”.
From Badiou the movement could be seen to recognise that:
“The ballot becomes at once the most disposable part of democracy, and the most vital symbol of acceptable tyranny. To put it another way, elections are more than simply window dressing on authoritarianism. They are a way of conscripting citizens to the authoritarian project, a way of creating class-based ownership of the rituals of democratic tyranny, and of legitimizing the exclusion of mass participation because the only opinions that matter have already been heard.” (Raj Patel)
Abahlali took direct action against evictions instead of trying to change policies through representative democracy. As such Abahlali constituted the land question in a way that took it beyond the reformist confines of land as an “electoral question”. According to the same Abahlali scholar, the movement’s eschewal of party politics made its members the poignant and haunting refugee-like figures Agamben mentioned: cities without true citizens.
Not only was non-participation in elections a defining feature of the movement’s ideology, but the organization was portrayed as resolutely left-wing too. In countless academic papers, speeches and press-statements, Abahlali was cast as the organizational heir to the radical humanism of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. I cannot do justice in this note to the high claims made about the shack dwellers’ progressive intellectual and political pedigree. They were the Zapatistas of Africa, the Paris Commune of Durban. Kennedy Road, their headquarters, was a University of radical, ‘living democracy’, where every gogo could speak and decide. Abahlali resolutely warded off malevolent political parties and insidious NGOs alike. Were shanty-towns not, as one of their scholars suggested about Abahlali:
“the native’s decision to invade, at whatever cost and if necessary by the most cryptic methods, the enemy fortress. The lumpen-proletariat, once it is constituted, brings all its forces to endanger the ‘security’ of the town, and is the sign of the irrevocable decay, the gangrene ever present at the heart of political domination”? (Fanon quoted by Pithouse)
Abahlali’s President since inception, S’bu Zikode, in particular, was held up as the epitome of a wise and principled, non-authoritarian radical democrat. As late as 2014, the same Abahlali scholar praised S’bu Zikode, whom he anointed the movement’s most important intellectual, for his commitment to a “living communism”. (Pithouse)
In light of these portrayals, the question is: if Abahlali’s electoral chastity was to be given up, why then to the DA? After all, the DA governs in the Western Cape and it is busy evicting shack dwellers in organisations allied to Abahlali. There were plenty of other parties to support less imbricated in neo-liberalism and white supremacy, for example WASP, the UDM or the EFF. Why even invite the DA to tender for shack dweller votes?
Abahlali explains things thus:
There was a long debate about whether or not we should invite the DA to address us. We all know that they have been illegally evicting our members and other poor people in Cape Town and that, like the ANC, their politic is highly anti-poor. Also, like the ANC, they can’t understand that democracy is about more than voting and think that there must always be some other force behind our struggles. They do not understand that poor people think and organize their own struggles. However in the end, and after a long discussion, we decided that while we will ask the DA a long list of questions about their conduct if they do come to our meeting the meeting will be open to all political parties except the ANC because as much as the DA are oppressing our comrades in Cape Town they are not murdering our comrades.
A special congress was called in consequence of this intelligence. About 150 people attended. 134 voted for the DA, 16 for the EFF. There is no record of how many members abstained from voting about voting. But, on 2 May 2014, at the head of such an overwhelming majority, Abahlali president, S’bu Zikode swapped a red T-shirt for a blue one. He tried to maintain that Abahlali had not dissolved into the DA. Abahlali’s support was solely for the 2014 election. As mentioned, the Left threw a fit, in the virtual equivalent of a phone-booth. And from this phone booth, it declared Abahlali finished.
I’m not going to detail the criticism Abahlali received. The words “sell-out” and “house negroes” featured. Others suggested that Zikode had been bought off. I’ll stick to two comments made by actual Abahlali members.
Abahlali spokesperson, Mnikelo Ndbankulu, defended the DA hook-up on facebook. Secretary General of Abahlali, Bandile Mdlalose, disagreed with him:
“They have sold our fore fathers struggle. But that what happens if u r controlled by white they always drive u. Today they have proven that the movement is controlled by whites”.
Former founding member M’du Hlongwa was more haunting:
“I’m the co-founder of Abahlali Basemjondolo, and through the dirty politics I moved out and I’m so ashamed to hear that the struggle that we built whole-heartedly under death threats from the ruling party, is now going through the darkness of voting the DA out of all the parties for God’s sake. My heart is crying for all the Shackdwellers, the less-heared, the Voiceless, the Street-traders, the flat-dwellers who can’t afford rent, the rural-dwellers and all the powerless Blacks. I’m crying blood tears if it’s true that Abahlali Basemjondolo have decided the DA…”
Abahlali’s move is not surprising to me at all nor am I inclined to denounce them for making it. At some level it is perfectly natural that Zikode has ended up behind a table at a defector’s press conference holding a DA shirt. In the time I knew him, he struck me as an innately conservative man. Struggle was thrust upon him by an uncaring municipality wanting to bulldoze his home. Who would not organize, march and resist? And who would not form alliances, democratic or not, with those who might offer a reprieve?
Initially, this help came from Left academics at UKZN. Zikode and his movement only donned red T-shirts, before the blue ones, because that is what their initial patrons required and, incidentally, paid for. It was not made explicit but it was quickly understood, as these things usually are, that legal, financial and organisational support was dependent on appropriate behaviour. Abahlali was small and vulnerable and no-one else but the academics bothered with them.
Over time, the leaders of Kennedy Road were happy to tell all who would listen that they were into Fanon and Biko and direct democracy and treating women well. Later, when the academics fell out, they picked a side and got on with also being against the (bad) lefties at the CCS that their (good) lefties despised.
Abahlali’s middle-class patrons had comfortable upbringings in the suburbs. They chose left politics for the thrill or fashion or conviction. S’bu Zikode chose it for survival. Had he grown up with a swimming pool in Kloof, I really doubt he’d be mucking about with Fanon. Indeed, reading articles on S’bu Zikode, much is made of his strait-laced origins. He was a respectful guy from a rural area, a Boy Scout and a police reservist, someone wanting to bring change to society through law but being thwarted by lack of funds. He is constantly demure about having to take to the streets, it was the only option left. In dress and demeanour, Zikode holds himself like Mmusi Maimane long before Mmusi Maimane did. He was always the safest, most level-headed potential land invader around.
S’bu Zikode’s reputation as a radical leftist was fashioned by a group of academics, (Richard Pithouse, Raj Patel and Nigel Gibson, being the leading members), and thrust upon him. I do not mean to suggest that it was oppressive to Zikode. Not at all. Nor do I deny that he benefitted from this identity and had some input into fashioning it. But, unless you’re an A-lister, you take the roles that come along. But the typecasting as a shackland Che Guevara didn’t suit his natural talents, nor those of other Abahlali leaders.
I have made the point before:
We have seen movement leaders whose politics is actually quite conservative acknowledge the supposed influence of Frantz Fanon, Alain Badiou, and Steve Biko. This is more the wishful thinking of their academic supporters than the true character of these movements.
Behind the bluster and pose of an organic politics developed, as a matter of principle, in the shantytowns, what is actually revealed is enormous ideological and logistical influence by university-based mentors. The symbiosis is an ultimately, unhealthy one, producing false knowledge about how radical and powerful these movements are while simultaneously facilitating their contraction, political moderation, and irrelevance.
Indeed, only the most patronizingly indulgent reading of S’bu Zikode’s actual words could render him a communist of any sort. Not a left intellectual either.
In surveying Fanonian thought in South Africa, David Johnson valiantly combs through the speeches of Zikode (published by Nigel Gibson) to find anything theoretically profound from the Abahlali leader. He does not succeed. Every quote from Zikode could just as well fit in with the vague populism even the DA has mastered in its marches against the ANC for jobs and against corruption.
The signs that there was a gaping hole between Zikode and his image were there to see. Consider the words ‘dignity’, ‘voice’ and ‘human being’. A frequent Zikode riff, which played very well with white liberals, was that the struggle of the shackdwellers, in a nutshell, was about being afforded the dignity of having their voices heard and about being recognised as human beings. The academic left threw all sorts of spices to Biko-up what was essentially chicken-soup from Zikode. Voice, being consulted by government and wanting to be recognised as human beings certainly makes for a poignant politics – but it is not particularly radical. It’s sad and pathetic actually. However, in the hands of the white Left, this was a ‘new humanism’, prefiguring a new politics, which was somehow above mere service delivery agitation.
I made this rather unpopular point before, referring to an interview Zikode gave on KPFA while on a speaking tour in the U.S.:
“Prompted in detail by the interviewer to comment upon whether and how neo-liberal policies that are applied in SA and across Africa have affected ANC policies, Zikode says that there has been a shift “you know, uhm, looking at issues at the humanistic ways where you find money as the only dominating substance that is coming to reign our society, that have come to steal what was to be the human justice. So we, we are concerned about the growing trend of our country following the neoliberal policies that have no dealings about the human agenda…”.
This is not the Zikode whose speeches were glossed and edited by an academic beforehand. This is a man struggling to adapt his instinctive, pragmatic reformism to appear as he is cast: a principled adherent of Fanon and living communism.
None of this means Zikode is not a smart man. He obviously is. He is just not a smart lefty. But he has been a steady custodian of Abahlali over the years, has weathered physical attacks, played the victim very effectively and has been a clever ambassador of the movement in its dealings with its patrons.
He also quite obviously has agency. I have been lambasted in the past that my critique of Abahlali suggests “the poor” in “the community” cannot think for themselves as they become “dupes” of white “handlers”. This was a simplification. I argued that the hustle was a two way street; “agency” has flown both ways. It is just that the rewards sedimented by such flows have been vastly unequal: published academic celebrity for the Gibsons, Pithouses, and Patels, political capital for the leaders of the poor, and a somehow firmer, if highly precarious grasp on survival, for their followers. But isn’t this it? A chance of survival that is slightly better than the poor person next door – that is all late liberalism has left to offer? So, again, why should anyone be surprised that Abahlali vote for the DA?
Zikode or the Abahlali group who voted to vote for the DA are not the villains. Zikode is what he is and he has accomplished a remarkable amount within those constraints. He no longer lives in a shack. He has considerable cultural capital. He has considerable frequent flyer miles. He has a steady income. He has name recognition. Abahlali has name recognition. And, as such, his horizons have increased, both personally and for his organization.
But there was a price for all this. Zikode was never his own man. Nor was Abahlali allowed to be what it really is: a pressure group seeking reprieve from immediate dangers, seeking the right to little more than remaining in the shacks where they are perched, perhaps just with some lighting and toilets thrown in. The truth about Abahlali is that they did not really sell-out any principle of non-participation by adopting an electoral strategy. Appearing to have ideological principle was their strategy in relation to their former patrons, the academic Left. And good for them.
Zikode tacitly acknowledges as much in justifying the DA move:
“As a movement of the urban poor, we think our priority is to vote out the ANC. We do not agree with the DA fundamentally on many core issues. This decision is not one that is based on ideology. Poor people do not eat ideology, nor do they live in houses that are made out of ideology”.
Clearly, the relationship with the Left has run its course. The academics have their PhDs and books. They have climbed the intellectual anthill through their unique access to a fashionable research subject. Most of all they have earned the most sought-after academic badge in left-liberal faculties across the country: integrity. And the integrity badge only goes to those who prove their participation, in some way, in authentic Black struggle. And if one must fake that struggle to get that badge, then so be it.
The true offense here is that of the Leftists who wrote Abahlali up as something that, by 134 to 16 votes, they clearly are not. Their pseudo-sociology stands exposed in the most dramatic way. The offence is also against the shack dweller leaders, many of whom, like Zikode, were written up, in articles they never read, to be anti-ANC revolutionaries at the head of huge constituencies. As such, quite naturally, if deplorably, they attracted the attentions of political rivals for the shack land vote. The suburban lefties were insulated from this fall-out, bloody on both sides.
Abahlali have never had 27 000 real members. Nor were they communists. Nor did this movement have ideological principles that Zikode sold out. They wanted a slightly better life and, I dare say, in the circumstances in which they now find themselves, they have a slightly better chance of achieving that under DA banners than on the poverty conference set. Zikode leveraged wisely.
The world is a slightly more cynical place now. The work of the Abahlali scholars, clogging up the Journal of Asian and African studies and SASCIS, stands exposed now. No matter how the Abahlali scholars spin it, the words of Abahlali members speak for themselves.
I wonder what the left intellectual jet-set who at various points vouched for the Abahlali Story, make of this: Chomsky, Silvia Federici, John Comaroff, Bono?
There are a few things the Abahlali endorsement of the DA forces the Left to confront. First, no matter how wretched you are, or how democratically your organisation’s meetings are run, you can still take ruinously bad decisions.
Second, poor Black people are not predisposed towards anti-capitalism. The true point about recognizing the agency of the Black poor is recognizing how they play the game of politics and also how free they are to choose blue over red T-shirts in this game.
Assuming, as Zikode claims, that the decision was made partly to obtain cover from being murdered, we thirdly see how prominent the instinct to survival is in the politics of poor people. There’s a certain desperation there. It supports, as I have suggested earlier, that perhaps what has been happening all this time with Abahlali was a survival strategy. And now we have the full arc of Abahlali’s ideological trajectory at last: from ‘talk to us not about us’ to ‘no eviction without consultation’ to ‘if you do evict us, just don’t kill us’. Short term slogans.
Last, if leaders were bought off somehow and Zikode is exaggerating dangers again, we see how involvement in social movements is often a very personal life strategy. Ideological principle is a rich man’s vanity. It cannot be eaten.
Imali isuka emabhunwini!
Heinrich Bohmke is a South African based author