Guest Column

The world has lost an inspirational leader in Jockin Arputham

2018-10-24 10:34
Jockin Arputham

Jockin Arputham

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Lindiwe Sisulu

The world lost an inspirational leader and fighter for slum-dwellers' rights, who died in India on Saturday, 13 October 2018, at the age of 71.

The gentle giant will be missed by all of us around the world, especially his constituency in Africa, Asia and South America for his energy, vision, dogmatic certainties and commitment – all of which knew no bounds. Jockin Arputham fought for the rights of slum dwellers for over 40 years – going back to the early 1970s when he tried to stop the bulldozing of the settlement in which he lived in India.

In order to further these efforts, Jockin founded the National Slum Dwellers Federation, enduring constant harassment.

Jockin's tolerance is in the same ilk as some of the great leaders, including Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. "Talk with government," he would say, "not fight with them." It was not weak and compromising. It was a tolerance of others that came from complete self-assurance and a deep understanding that resolution of conflict came from seeing your own humanity in those that the gross inequalities of life forced you to challenge.

He saw the need, above all, to get government to see the "slum" population as a tremendous resource that they could work with.

"I am a proud slum dweller," Jockin often said. "There is a war between the urban rich and the urban poor … And I'm trying to make peace between them." He went on to say, "We are not impinging on resources. We don't take much water, electricity, public transport. We are the human resource of the city."

Jockin was a mentor and friend of the South African Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Alliance since its inception. Through him, they first started saving after visiting India where they saw that poor people could unite through saving and data collection. The result of this relationship was the formation of the Federation of Urban Poor (FEDUP), a federation of savings groups set up by women living in our informal settlements. Together, using a range of tools, including community-based saving schemes, community-led data gathering and mapping of informal settlements, FEDUP has devised innovative housing projects that have set precedents for better project implementation.

Jockin and this federation showed government that slum dwellers could work together to expedite delivery and promote efficiency.

These are the tools and experiences he brought to the formation of the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) that he helped found in 1995. Today, the SDI has affiliated federations in over 30 countries. It is a global network that learns from and supports each other, demonstrating innovative alternatives to governments and international agencies.

The many tens of thousands of people who met Jockin will miss his magnetism. He was an enormously charismatic human being. All over the world, Jockin's mantra to the homeless and slum dwellers was "Identify the land, dance on the land, have a picnic on the land, and then develop the land. When government asks you how many people live in your settlement, don't say 'plenty'. Collect your data and tell them a number. Because information is power."

He was an unstoppable force for good and an unbelievable champion of the urban poor. For their rights most certainly and for their humanity and for the recognition – not yet won – that they were not a mass of victims or guinea pigs. Instead, he was determined to show the ever-growing number of people who understood the importance of listening to him, that the capacities, the resilience and the collective wisdom of the urban poor presented governments with a blueprint for a better future.

Jockin in his beautiful gentle manner, challenged us; not to score ideological or abstract victories (although he certainly understood their value) but to make real, tangible differences in the lives of poor people. Ministers, MECs and mayors in South Africa who had the privilege of working with him knew this well.

Few, if any organisation in the world, can demonstrate a similar scale and depth in terms of Jockin's or the SDI's impact on poor communities – through enumeration, settlement mapping, securing tenure, installing drainage, upgrading services and incrementally building houses. The United Nations (UN) Human Settlements Programme acknowledged this and in recent times, the SDI has occupied prominence at all UN events.

This required superhuman energy and courage. It necessitated a brilliant mind. It demanded the capacity to see opportunities and seize them. Most of all, it required the ability to mobilise, humanise, conscientise and inspire people like himself – people downtrodden, excluded, evicted, exploited and objectified.

We mourn Jockin Arputham who has long taught and challenged us. Jockin, perhaps more than anyone else, has shaped and informed our work in urban areas. Those hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers who belong to Jockin's beautiful, rag-tag, festive but deeply determined army are on the march. They are the ones who will fill the "Jockin-sized hole" that the great man has left behind.

- Sisulu is the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and former Minister of Human Settlements.

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