'Nothing for us without us' – Abahlali baseMjondolo slogan
Freedom Day was marked throughout the country with political party rallies, NGO commemorations and thousands of non-political braais.
It also marked a milestone for the South African shackdwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. As they took to the streets once again for an 'UnFreedom Day' march through central Durban, the award winning documentary on the movement, Dear Mandela, was also aired for the first time on South African television.
Even though it was broadcast on DSTV (thereby excluding the vast majority of South Africa's poor), it quickly set off a fire-storm of chatter on twitter with #DearMandela trending for hours as many viewers decided to write their own UnFreedom Day tweets to Nelson Mandela. The struggle of the shackdwellers of Durban had struck a chord even amongst those of us privileged enough to have satellite TV.
The film charts the struggles and activism of three young members of Abahlali as they take up the cause of development and dignity with their communities and unwittingly put their lives at risk when the inevitable backlash brings them face to face with ruthless political repression.
In 2009, Zama Ndlovu, a single mother of two and one of the main protagonists in Dear Mandela, went into hiding after a vigilante group of self-identified ANC supporters attacked Abahlali activists in the Kennedy Road Informal Settlement. Three years later, Zama and her family have returned to Kennedy Road, but still live in fear of another attack. In the meantime, shack fires, another violent force plaguing the settlement, have claimed her family's home three times.
Yet Zama remains unwavering in her commitment to the struggle. “Living in a shack doesn't mean that you cannot think for yourself," she says.
Mazwi Nzimande, 18 years old when the documentary was filmed, has since suffered numerous death threats, with groups of strangers showing up at his mother's home in Joe Slovo to make explicit threats: leave the movement or suffer the consequences.
Yet Mazwi echoes Zama's words and the belief that the poor must lead their own struggles. He exclaims that "Being poor in life, doesn't mean that you are poor in mind".
The members of Abahlali baseMjondolo are fighting for much more than toilets and a roof over their heads. They are demanding, not just services, but ownership of the development process itself.
Zama and Mazwi, like thousands of other members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, want to be active participants in everything that affects their lives. To them, democracy isn't something that only takes place at the ballot box, where you vote for others to do development for you, it must also be an everyday process by which people constitute their own power over their circumstances.
The need for grassroots activism as a prefiguration of freedom is clearly evident as opposition towards the Traditional Courts Bill grows. The lack of effective resistance has meant that authoritarian means of governance in rural areas remained even while they are off the legal books. The post-1994 era brought us “democracy” without democratisation. This bill, like the apartheid laws enacted to prop up the Bantustan system, will formalise the despotic power that chiefs claim over the rural poor.
Dear Mandela reminds us on UnFreedom day that freedom must be more than a farcical electoral ritual used by political parties to placate us into passive welfare recipients.
A house means nothing if it was just given to you. It means everything if it is something you have spent your life fighting for; something you been instrumental in achieving because you have recognised your own human dignity and your own self-worth in the process of living that struggle.
Through the action of working together, communities that mobilise around important issues tend to empower themselves to address other issues which affect them. For example, drug abuse and other forms of crime are often reduced when communities are united and engaged in self-organised struggles.
As Biko said “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Freedom cannot exist unless we reclaim our minds from those that oppress us and want to speak for us, without us. We must recognise that a person becomes a person through other people; that none of us are free until all of us are free.
It is therefore critical that we keep questioning our freedom in a deeper sense, through a continuously evolving bottom-up process. Instead of tweeting to Tata Madiba, let us engage with one other to explore how to fight for more authentic freedom.
The full version of this article was published in the M&G on the 14th of May, 2012.
Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based activist working with community-based social movements and the Take Back the Commons movement. He writes in his personal capacity.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.