April 27, this coming Saturday, marks thirty years since the formal end of apartheid in South Africa. For the country’s newly liberated, Nelson Mandela’s 1994 ascension to the presidency was the beginning of a time of great promise. Yet the decades since the African National Congress (ANC) rose to governmental power have, for some, been marked by increasingly bitter disappointment—including for the millions of impoverished people living in shanty towns on the outskirts of cities. In this interview, S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for “Residents of the Shacks”), reflects on what the movement describes as the enduring “unfreedom” that has followed apartheid’s end.

Abahlali baseMjondolo emerged in 2005 after a political rupture with the ruling ANC in the Kennedy Road shack settlement, a shanty town near a municipal dump in the port city of Durban that, at the time, housed around six thousand people. After the ANC’s brutal suppression of a protest against the sale of land, Zikode and other Kennedy Road residents joined eleven other settlements to form an autonomous movement.

In the early years, the movement largely defended existing centrally located shack settlements from evictions and forced removals to “human dumping grounds” beyond the urban periphery. It then moved on to supporting new land occupations. In recent years it has sought to develop occupations into communes, democratically managed communities organized around production—primarily food—as well as habitation, and including social infrastructure such as community halls, political schools, communal kitchens and the like. Its political vision, not yet fully realized, is to build a movement of communes.

Today Abahlali baseMjondolo has more than 120,000 members in four of South Africa’s nine provinces—by far the largest popular movement to have emerged after apartheid. Its repertoire of struggle includes occupations, road blockades, legal forms of mass protest, strategic use of the courts, engagement with the media, and negotiation, all while undergoing a constant process of collective reflection and political education.

In spite of the waves of political violence that have targeted its leaders, the movement has won land for many thousands of people, forced important policy changes, developed an inclusive alternative to the ethnic and xenophobic forms of politics that now fester in South Africa, and enabled access to voice and power in a range of spaces for the country’s impoverished people. In our conversation, Zikode speaks about the development of his political consciousness, the movement’s decades of struggle, and the need to build a “new system” beyond the existing order. 

—Richard Pithouse

Richard Pithouse: Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, suddenly opening up the field of political possibility after a long and exhausting stalemate between the progressive forces, which were largely organized in two groups: the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the trade unions, and the apartheid state. What did Mandela’s release mean to you?


S’bu Zikode: I was fourteen years old, and in school. At that time, we were divided. It was the time of the war between [the right-wing Zulu nationalist organization] Inkatha and the UDF. People could easily draw the line between the two sides along a river or a road. Everyone on one side was Inkatha; everyone on the other side was UDF. A lot of people were killed or had their homes burnt down just because they were living on this or that side of the line.

Some people had guns; we young people had sticks. If you turned back from a battle you would be shot. You had to face bullets from the front and the back. Terrible things happened, very painful things. We don’t talk about it.

When the news came that Mandela would be released, there was huge excitement, huge celebration among some people. For them, it was the opening of the world. But for others, the real believers in Inkatha, the world was shutting down. There was a fear that democracy meant that the land owned by the Zulus would have to be shared and that traditional leaders would lose their power. Their biggest fear was that if [Inkatha leader] Prince Buthelezi lost the election, Zulu people would be dominated by other nations. To think of freedom at that time was really to think about peace. It was about the end of war, the end of the politic of blood.


RP: What were your hopes for your own life at the time?


SZ: Well, I was still in school. It was not just the people who were poor; the schools were also poor. That in itself is a lesson to children—a lesson that they do not matter. My mother raised my two sisters, my brother, and myself on her own. When I was eight years old, she had to leave us to go to work for a white family in Estcourt. I remember this moment very vividly. As a child you don’t understand the history behind the system that has made some people poor and other people rich. All you know is that your mother is leaving you.


RP: You finished school in 1996, two years after Mandela became president. That was still a time of real optimism for many people.


SZ: I felt the world was changing. I wanted to go to university and become a lawyer, so I was excited when I got a letter of acceptance from the university. But then I had to face the real world. I had to travel to Durban; I needed a place to stay, food, books. Most of all, I needed to pay the university fees. It really stressed me. I felt alone. Luckily, my brother-in-law offered me a place to stay in Durban. When I took the bus to the university from his flat we would pass Kennedy Road [a large shack settlement in Durban].

“The ANC meetings really discouraged me. I was carrying a mandate from the people, but there was no interest in the lives of the poor.”

Even though I had a place to live, I still couldn’t find the money for school fees. Then my brother-in-law moved to Johannesburg—meaning that I had no place to stay. It all just got cut. This happened to many Black people. People at home had hopes in me, but I saw myself as a failure. I was thinking more and more about committing suicide. I asked myself why I thought in the first place that I could go to university: I felt that I should have known from the onset that it wasn’t for somebody like me. Out of a home and out of money, I moved to Kennedy Road, the settlement I used to pass every day on the bus, and found a job at a petrol station. Accepting that I had been defeated, giving up on my hope of going to the university, and moving to Kennedy Road liberated me from the extreme stress that I was suffering.


RP: This is when you became politically active in Kennedy Road.


SZ: Growing up, I thought that I knew what it was to be poor, but when I got to Kennedy Road, I came to realize that I was not as poor as I thought I was. In that way, setting foot in Kennedy Road was devastating. When a normal person sees children eating worms at the toilet to feed themselves, a child being bitten on the head by a rat, a baby burnt in a fire, or people being brutalized by the police, they want to do something about it. So I got involved in the ANC and was elected as the deputy chairperson of the ward.

But going to the ANC meetings at night really discouraged me. The meetings were dominated by middle-class people, people living in big houses. Meetings could finish at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, and none of the middle-class people there thought to offer us lifts back to the shacks in their cars. I was carrying a mandate from the people who had elected me in Kennedy Road, but there was no interest in the lives of the poor. The meetings were about positions and power: Who do we put in power? Who do we mobilize against?

In 2004 there was a big meeting about a proposed housing development in Kennedy Road with various government departments. The Kennedy Road ANC branch was not invited. Eventually, we learned why: the meeting opposed the housing development. The government officials at the meeting didn’t want us to live with middle-class people. They wanted to take us to human dumping grounds far outside the city, even further out than the townships built under apartheid. After this experience, I left the ANC. At the same time, the Kennedy Road Development Committee [an elected group formed to advocate for the shack settlement] declared 2005 as the year of action.


RP: 2004 was a politically explosive year across the country: people, mostly people living in shacks, started organizing road blockades as a form of protest.


SZ: Yes, I remember when Tebogo Mkhonza was killed when police opened fire at four thousand people blockading a major highway in the Free State. He was seventeen. We saw many protests in the media, but we had no connection to what was happening elsewhere in the country.

Then suddenly in March 2005, without explanation, a small piece of land near Kennedy Road that had been promised to us for housing was put under construction. The people working there told us that it had been bought by a businessman who was going to build a brick factory. On March 19, we blocked the road to demand that the ward councilor come and meet with us to explain what was going on. We wanted to talk, but he sent the police to beat us instead. When the councilor finally arrived in an armored police vehicle, he declared that we were criminals and that we must be arrested. The response to our demand to be included in discussions about our own lives was to be treated as criminals.

After we organized the road blockade, we began to meet with other nearby settlements. On  October 6, 2005, at a meeting of leaders from twelve settlements, we decided to form one organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Our demands for land and housing in the city were clear, and at least understood even if opposed. But we also insisted on being recognized as people who—like all other people—think, as people who should be included in discussions and decision-making, as people who should not be treated like children or criminals, as people whose dignity should be respected.

It was clear that the existing forms of politics at that time excluded the poor. Neither the national government nor any of the city councils wanted to collaborate with the poor to resolve the problems of the poor. No political party represented the poor. The trade unions represented their members, not the millions of poor people outside of formal employment. We needed our own politics: a politics by and for the poor. This politics would be a space for the poor to think together, build our power together, and express and advance our interests. For it to work, we needed our politics to make sense to the masses of the country. The thinking was already there in shack settlements and rural villages, the places where poor communities live, but to build power, that thinking had to be organized, focused, and connected.


RP: The response from the ANC and the local government to the emergence of a movement outside of their control was intensely hostile. You were specifically targeted.


SZ: On September 12, 2006, Abahlali deputy president Philani Zungu and I were arrested on our way to speak on a radio station. We had been warned by a senior politician not to speak to the media. I was being beaten by the head of the police station near Kennedy Road. While my head was being banged on the wall, I was constantly asked, Who the hell do I think I am to think I can lead ignorant people, rubbish people, to think that we have a right to live with middle-class people, to be a part of society? He asked me if I thought I was a Jesus Christ that could liberate all those jondolos [shack dwellers].

“Imagine that: they can kill you, and then offer to bury you and pay for your funeral.”

When you are being beaten, the physical pain is one thing. But it is also an emotional assault. The inner pain, the inner damage—I found it very stressful. There was so much hatred, when all we were asking for is that the dignity of everyone be respected, for us all to be human beings among other human beings. That one was difficult to heal from because it leads to depression. You go off, you go mad.

That night in the cells, I ask myself, “Who the hell am I?” I wonder who is ordering the police to do this. I ask myself if I should continue with the struggle. Then comes the dawn. I haven’t slept. I’m on my own, separated from the people who have asked me to lead, who have given me that responsibility that the police violated. Suddenly I see myself as worthless, infected, a disaster, a disgrace. I am reduced to weightlessness.

But then in the morning, I was brought to appear in court, and I saw that there were so many people in red shirts [the color of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement] outside in the corridors. When I came up the stairs into the dock, there were so many. Everyone was quiet, but I felt the power of all the people there. I made the decision then to commit my life to this struggle.

Solidarity must be expressed at a personal level. You need to know that you are not alone. People can collapse when they are alone. You see the end of everything. It causes irreparable damage.


RP: The charges were eventually dropped, and the police were successfully sued for torture. But the repression continued.


SZ: Yes—and it got worse. In 2006, there were national municipal elections. In Abahlali baseMjondolo, we followed the position the LPM [Landless People’s Movement] in Johannesburg had taken in 2004, when they said “No Land! No Vote!” and boycotted the election. The LPM were repressed and some of their people were tortured. In 2006, we too declared “No Land! No House! No Vote!” This wasn’t just taken as criminal. The politicians spoke as if it were treason. In 2007 we organized a collective march on the Durban mayor, a combined action by all the branches in the different settlements. It was illegally banned. When we decided to march in defiance of the ban, the police attacked us with batons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. We were treated as not worthy of being human.


RP: The insistence on dignity has always been central to your struggle, and to the struggles of impoverished people around the country, and around the world too.


SZ: A lot of people think that we can only come together around our living conditions. Of course, this is important, and we struggle very hard to improve those conditions. But when we are together, the first thing we must do is recognize the humanity of each and every one of us, because it’s only from that position of humanity that we can take our place among other people on this earth. We came to realize why people lie to us and make fake promises to us: it is because in their eyes we are not human enough. It is very deep. So we come together because our humanity is troubled. We come together to develop and defend our humanity, our dignity, to make the world more human. Only after this do questions of living conditions come into being.

For us, the first questions are whether you respect us and how you respect us. Do you engage with us in a respectful way, allow us to speak what we think is right? We want to fully participate in decision-making. We want to participate in development. We want the state and the NGOs to think with us, not for us.

I often talk about the African idea of ubuntu. When I do, I’m not just referring to a concept, but the praxis that demonstrates, builds, and defends collective humanity. It is a broad political spirit of humanism that also appeals to the questions of freedom and liberation. And for us, the political form that humanism must take is socialism—particularly democratic socialism built from below.


RP: In 2008 impoverished people, often encouraged by local elites, began to turn on one another. You had been warning for years that the anger of the poor can go in many directions.


SZ: Migrants from other African countries and Asia were attacked and killed in broad daylight, starting in Johannesburg and then elsewhere across the country. We were able to make sure that there were no attacks in any of the areas where we were strong and to give shelter to people who had fled their homes. But once the urgency of the immediate crisis was over, these attacks presented us with a moment of introspection. We realized that we needed to reflect on the things we said, on the commitments we made, and on the contributions we made to society. We had to be clear that we were not only struggling for ourselves to have better lives but to build a better society for everyone.

When oppressed people feel disrespected, they may try to regain some sense of respect by turning on other oppressed people, aiming to make themselves feel better than other people. Since Abahlali baseMjondolo’s founding, we had been talking about dignity for ourselves, but in 2008 we had to affirm that we mean dignity for everyone. We declared that a person is a person wherever they may find themselves, no matter where they were born. There is no real freedom without others being free, without your neighbors being free.

We also saw how xenophobia and ethnic divisions are intentionally used to divide poor people—people who might otherwise feel themselves to be the same—when they pose a danger to the system. From time to time, the system has to remind them that they are not the same, that they must see each other as enemies. The system must make poor people think that they are denying each other opportunities to a flourishing life. We must be divided by language, gender, sexuality. But this hate will keep us all poor. And because this hate always weakens the poor, it has to be rejected by poor people first. We have to continue to build our consciousness, to connect with struggles around the world, to learn from each other.


RP: The movement’s tenacity eventually forced ANC to concede your right to participate in the formal political sphere. But as it did so, it shifted repression toward informal violence: violence backed by the police but not carried out by them. This began with an attack by an armed ANC-aligned mob.


SZ: We were attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement in late September 2009. At the time, we were having a youth camp at the hall in Kennedy Road. We also had a concert in the community hall, and there was a soccer tournament at the sports ground. A lot was happening.

Our leaders and Xhosa-speaking people living in the settlement were attacked by a large group of men. They were armed, and drunk. They were shouting that they were ANC and Zulu and that S’bu Zikode was putting Xhosa-speaking people ahead of Zulu-speaking people. Homes were ransacked and set alight. The attack continued in broad daylight, in front of the police. That same day, very senior ANC politicians and ministers came to Kennedy Road and announced that Abahlali was disbanded. Later, they went to parliament and said that “Kennedy Road has been liberated.”

As a result, we had to go underground. We were scattered all over the place. At first we met secretly in a funeral parlor; then we started meeting openly in a park. We had suffered a heavy blow, but our movement had survived the attack. But then the ANC began to use assassinations. On June 26, 2013, they assassinated Nkululeko Gwala, a leader in our movement, in Cato Crest [an area in Durban that includes public housing, suburban housing, and shack settlements].   


RP: You gave an electric speech at Nkululeko’s funeral that was widely covered in the Zulu media.


SZ: The funeral, held at Nkululeko’s home village in Inchanga, was incredibly tense. From the very start, the ANC tried to make it an ANC funeral. Imagine that: they can kill you, and then offer to bury you and pay for your funeral.

James Nxumalo, the ANC mayor at that time, was present, along with other high-profile government people, lots of police, and intelligence. The local ANC councilor spoke first, setting the tone. He implied that this was an ANC funeral, that this village was an ANC home. He said that there were no shacks in the village, but that people from the shacks were here. He was mocking our poverty. The warning was very clear.

After he spoke, the senior leaders of the movement took me to the side and counseled me not to speak. It was too dangerous. But then the master of ceremonies, appointed by the Gwala family, called me to speak.  Nkululeko was beloved by the community. We could not show fear. And anyway, I was fuming, not scared—just really angry at the situation, at the ANC’s lies and hypocrisy.

I spoke very diplomatically, saying, very respectfully, that the family needed and deserved to know the truth. I deliberately went against every single thing that the councilor had said. I explained how we knew Nkulukeko, how we understood him, and what he meant to the community and the movement. I explained that people in rural communities like this village had been abandoned, just like poor people in the cities, and that Nkululeko had given his life for those people, for the oppressed.

“The price for land continues to be paid in blood.”

I pointed out how many Abahlali members were there to honor their leader, and that we were there to tell the truth about how he was killed. I explained that Nkululeko was killed for his bravery and honesty. I made it clear that senior ANC politicians had publicly threatened him, and that now there were ANC politicians at the funeral wanting to make it an ANC funeral. Emotions were very high. After my speech, the ANC people, including the mayor, could not proceed to speak. The councilor disappeared. It was clear that the ANC were no longer welcome. Immediately after the speech, my comrades pulled me out and put me in a car to rush me out of the village. They felt I was in danger, that it would not be safe to proceed to the grave. But the rest of our members stayed, and it became an Abahlali funeral.

When you have to speak for people, you have to do justice to the people. You to make sure that you say everything that they would have said. It is not about you. I had to satisfy them without fear for myself. After I spoke I was at peace, confident that I had represented the emotions of our members.


RP: There were also two police killings of Abahlali baseMjondolo members in Cato Crest that same year. A police officer was convicted for one of the killings.


SZ: Yes. First, Nkosinathi Mngomezulu was shot a number of times and seriously wounded by the police during an eviction on September 22, 2013. He really suffered. It took several months for him to die, getting weaker and weaker every day. At the end he was helpless. Just eight days later, on September 30, Nqobile Nzuzua was killed by the police during a protest against evictions. She was seventeen years old. The police claimed that they were under attack by a vicious mob and had to shoot to save their lives. They spoke as if they were the real victims. The media repeated this as if it were true: they saw no reason to talk to eyewitnesses, to the people who were part of the protest. We were made to look like savages. But when the matter of Nqobile’s killing finally went to court, it was shown that she was unarmed and shot from behind, and that there was no mob attack on the police.


RP: And then they assassinated Thuli Ndlovu in 2014, S’bonelo Mpeku in 2017, and S’fiso Ngcobo in 2018—all leaders in the movement. There were others too. In 2016 two ANC councilors were convicted of the murder of Thuli. This seemed to be a turning point in getting the media, human rights organizations, and so on to understand what was happening.


SZ: When poor Black people talk about the repression we face, we are not believed unless the courts, or middle-class people like journalists or academics, confirm the truth of what we are saying. The ANC should be using the power of the people to confront the colonial system that continues to terrorize us and vandalize our humanity. Instead, they are using violence to repress the people so that they can benefit from the system. Some people in the ANC feel that for them to be in charge, for them to be leaders, their power must be felt in a physical way: somebody must feel the pinch; there must be fear. This makes them feel better. It stops them from looking at their emptiness. But fear is not respect. There has to be a new kind of politics, a human form of politics.


RP: You often speak about this kind of politics—becoming human and gaining humanity—as a process.


SZ: The fact that your bones are those of a biological human only means that you have the skeleton of a person. It does not confirm your humanity. You may be a skeleton that is still in the process of building, that still needs ubuntu toward yourself, to others, to nature. A human being is incomplete if it is defined in isolation to others.

There is no emancipatory politics without listening to others. Some people will say it’s a skill. But listening is much deeper than that. It’s about being human, being human together. It’s an acknowledgement, an embrace of others. And it’s not just an embrace of others as you see them, but an embrace of how they come through the world to this moment, their suffering, their hopes, their views, how they breathe, and how they express themselves.

As a leader, you have to listen to people very carefully. You have to learn from them. Every time you listen to another person you have the opportunity to learn from them. Every person is a world on their own. You can’t say that you are on the side of the people, that you are with the people, if you don’t take them seriously as people with ideas of their own. We build our humanity through listening.


RP: In 2018 you had to go underground again.


SZ: When you know that a decision has been made to have you killed, you have to consider a lot. I had to remember that it was not about me, and that I had the responsibility to protect people around me: my family and other young leaders. But going underground on your own creates a big problem: self-isolation. Sometimes, that felt like a bigger problem than the problem that forced me underground. The need to go underground to stay alive and to keep people around me safe captured me and put me into a different planet. Psychologically and spiritually, I was removed from the earth.

But in October, Abahlali led a huge march on the Durban City Hall in protest against repression. There were thousands of people there, and many other organizations supported the march including street traders, people living in the old workers’ hostels, trade unions, and migrant groups. There were simultaneous solidarity actions in other cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town, London and New York. There was a clear and powerful demand to end political repression. The movement, working with our comrades in other organizations and other parts of the world, won the space for me to return, and for some time the assassinations stopped.


RP: In 2022 a number of the leaders of the eKhenana Commune, at the time the most politically developed of the occupations, were put in prison on bogus charges, and three of its leaders—Ayanda Ngila, Nokuthula Mabaso and Lindokuhle Mnguni—were assassinated. In the same year, Siyabonga Manqele was murdered by a masked police officer in the nearby eNkanini occupation.


SZ: Lindokuhle and Ayanda started the commune on occupied land on the grounds that there were no jobs for young people. They were clear about the politics of the stomach: that unless the poor own the means to produce their food, they will remain subjects of those who are in authority. They did so well growing vegetables and breeding chickens that they began to be able to support the movement with their surplus. The sound system we are using today, for example, was bought for the movement by the commune.

It was amazing to have young people decide that they could live without bosses and build economic and political freedom from a commune. Producing food was just the beginning. There was a communal kitchen where they ate together and made sure that nobody ever went hungry. They had a youth club, a poetry project, which was amazing, and of course the Frantz Fanon Political School, for political education. The Fanon School became an important space for the whole movement, and for other organizations too. People from a number of countries came to learn and to teach, from Swaziland, Ghana, Jamaica, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere.

“Any individual elected into power is highly likely be co-opted, to be made to join the system.”

Lindokuhle was a committed internationalist. The first seeds for the garden came from MST, the landless rural workers’ movement in Brazil. eKhenana comrades would travel to Swaziland to be in solidarity with the movement there. They hosted people from around the world. And Lindokuhle was strongly committed to women’s equality, to building women’s power. He would not entertain reactionary positions in the name of culture. He called that feudalism. He introduced the slogan “Socialism or death” to the movement. Lindokuhle knew he would die. He gave his life for the people, for an idea. In South Africa, the price for land continues to be paid in blood.

Repression is always a lesson. It is meant to tell us to know our place, and that we should have always known our place. It is meant to teach us that there are limits to what you can say, what you can enjoy, who you can talk to, what you can demand, what value you can give to your life and to the lives of those around you. If you make the mistake of thinking that you are a human being and that you can engage others as human beings—well, then violence is inevitable.


RP: The loss of four comrades in 2022 firmed many Abahlali members’ resolve to go from organizing outside the ANC toward actively trying to remove the ANC from power. At the same time, the growing strength of the movement generated a sense that while its power should continue to be based and built in the occupations, the state could not be permanently ceded to oppressive forces. There is now considerable pressure from your members to enter electoral politics.


SZ: Any individual elected into power is highly likely be co-opted, to be made to join the system. What we have seen with the ANC is that Black people can join the electoral system and give it legitimacy for a few years before people see that it has remained the same. It could be the same if poor people take a place in the system. The system is designed for that.

We have to think about how we put the people in power, not individuals. That’s the question that we have to be battling with, because any individual is likely to be corrupted and changed by the system. It is now clear that we need to talk about the destruction of the capitalist system so that there can be a real reconstruction of a system that places the people—and the humanity and dignity of all people—at the center. We need a new system with a new relation to the world, to the earth, and all its people.

This will take courage—the courage to cross the line. Everyone dies eventually, but what’s the use of being killed slowly while the meaning you have given to your life, the value that you have given it, rots away? If we do not have an honest conversation about healing, about decolonizing the mind, we will continue to live in this violence, in the politic of blood.

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