The arrest of Bandile Mdlalose

2013-10-03 00:00

“NORMALLY, it is seen that the poor are poor in mind and that everything needs to be thought for us. But poverty is not stupidity, it is a lack of money.

And we always remind people that the same system that made the rich rich has made the poor poor. We are still fighting to insist that there should be nothing for us without us. No one has a right to make decisions for us while we still have a mouth and mind to use.” — Bandile Mdlalose, general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM)

Very slim and standing at under 150 centimetres tall, Mdlalose is one of the shack-dweller movement’s smallest members. She is modest and unassuming when you first meet her — not the person you’d ever think would be arrested for any sort of violence.

Mdlalose has three children and lives with a supportive family. The Mdlalose household is the default community centre of the K Section neighbourhood in KwaMashu, where AbM branch and community meetings are held, food is cooked for events, and organising meetings are planned.

Her mother, known by most as MaMdlalose, is a stalwart of the K Section community. When bad things are going down, people go to her for mediation and support.

Yet Mdlalose is a giant of the Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement. It is not until you see her get up in front of a crowd of 500 mhlali (comrades) and speak, that you see the power of the movement’s general secretary.

It is a power built upon a movement fighting for the dignity of those who live in shacks — the “Wretched of the Earth” — as anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon once said.

In fighting with her fellow shack dwellers, Mdlalose is asserting her own fortitude as a black woman living in an oppressively patriarchal and racist society. Her power is not only her unwillingness to accept “her place” in society, but also her commitment to band together with others on that same defiant basis.

She is driven to challenge and transcend the discrimination she faces as a short, black and female mother who is also a shack dweller, and then link her own struggles with that of fellow mhlali — this is why Mdlalose has been targeted for political arrest by the eThekwini SAPS.

Why is this a political arrest? Not only because Mdlalose has not committed any act of brutality against anyone, thereby making the police’s charge of “public violence” inappropriate — more salient is the political background to the struggle for land and housing in Cato Crest.

For the past eight months, since shack dwellers were evicted from a housing development in the area, they have been embroiled in a recurring struggle for a place to call home. Their occupation of vacant municipal land which they named “Marikana”, merely to make sure they have a roof over their heads, has earned them the full violent response of the state: home demolitions, evictions, rubber bullets, tear gas and murders.

Two Cato Crest housing activists, Nkululeko Gwala and Thembinkosi Qumelo, were assassinated this year; it is alleged by nefarious forces close to the local ANC councillor. Others have been shot by law-enforcement officials during protests and lie in critical condition at local hospitals. On Monday, 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza was shot and killed by police who, as in the other more famous Marikana strike, cry self-defence. Yet, as usual, no police were hurt during what by all local accounts was a peaceful protest.

There is a definite campaign by politically connected people in the local ANC government to squash the Marikana land occupation. Yet despite the violence coming from the municipality, the political assassinations and the illegal home demolitions, the community of hundreds of people refuses to budge. After evictions, the community just rebuilds its shacks where they once stood.

The political forces have now become desperate. In addition to targeting those involved in the occupation in Cato Crest, they have taken to threatening Abahlali baseMjondolo’s central leadership with retribution.

Mdlalose, as general secretary of the movement, has been a prime target of these death threats. She has been in Cato Crest day in and day out, helping to co-ordinate support among AbM branches throughout the city, and organising legal support during the illegal demolitions.

Her powerful oratory voice and organisational capability have now led the police themselves to target her for arrest. This, like most arrests against Abahlali members, is a political arrest. Investigators have no evidence against her and yet, as with the now vindicated Kennedy 13 (Abahlali members arrested for murder in 2009), she is being denied bail.

Instead of working for justice, the courts are refusing to allow Mdlalose to go back to her children and family — this, on no basis except to fulfil the wishes of those who want to destroy Abahlali baseMjondolo.

And it seems, right now, that those forces are pinning their hopes of destroying the largest independent movement of organised poor people in South Africa squarely on the 150-centimetre tall Mdlalose.

• Jared Sacks is an independent journalist and director of a non-profit organisation for children.

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