Who produces this ‘rigorous knowledge’?

Debatable: The shack-dwellers organisation, Abahlali baseMjondolo, is at the centre of a heated exchange about how best its story should be told. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

Debatable: The shack-dwellers organisation, Abahlali baseMjondolo, is at the centre of a heated exchange about how best its story should be told. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

In the education pages of the Mail & Guardian, Professor Marie Huchzermeyer of the University of the Witwatersrand attacked the journal Politikon for publishing my paper The Rise and Fall of Abahlali (“Journal publishes and is damned”, July 3). 

Two things made her angry.

First, my article, on the role of academics in the shack-dwellers’ organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo, was not properly referenced or labelled as “comment”. Because it was published in an academic journal, people searching for knowledge about Abahlali might take what I said more seriously than they should have.
Academic journals are supposed to be places where knowledge is “rigorously” made, peer-reviewed and footnoted. To Huchzermeyer, a journal was no place to point fingers at real academics as I did.

Second, Huchzermeyer suggests that what I said about Abahlali is probably false. What I say resembles the warnings other people have been issuing about this social movement all along, so therefore I am now supposedly influenced by them. Besides, Huchzermeyer says, she has first-hand knowledge about Abahlali – and the organisation has not fallen at all.

Knowledge is a funny thing. When I was general secretary of Abahlali, I remember that, when the organisation was criticised, S’bu Zikode, our president, would advise us to keep quiet. “Wait,” he would say, “let our trees talk first.”

Our “trees”, I found out, were the academics who supported us. They would write journal articles or letters in newspapers supporting us. 

What these doctors and professors said was taken very seriously because they were producing real know

-ledge about us. Letting our trees talk worked very well. It always looks better having other people defend you than doing it yourself.

But, although the academics were creating rigorous and referenced knowledge about shack-dwellers, they were also very much involved in the organisation. I know because I was communicating by email with these academics almost every day. There were three or four trees guiding us, talking to funders for us, arranging overseas trips, going on overseas trips, writing and editing beautiful speeches and press statements for us.

They knew the truth about Abahlali, though. For instance, they knew that our website was not controlled by any of us, that we were not really as big or united as we said, and our thinking was not as radical or nonsexist as they claimed.

Yet this knowledge never found its way into their footnotes. Our trees never told their readers in journals and on websites how deeply

their roots had sunk into us, into the dirt of our internal politics, taking sides in Abahlali battles, suggesting tactics, suggesting slogans, suggesting who our friends and enemies should be.

For a few years, I was happy to operate under the cover of these trees. As a young person from the township who never went to university, I was amazed and impressed by them. Of all the trees, one stood higher than all the others: Dr Richard Pithouse at Rhodes University. It was Pithouse to whom I was referring, chiefly, in the Politikon issue. It was his behaviour I criticised, which upset Huchzermeyer.

But why chop down a tall, protecting tree? As general secretary of Abahlali, I was in contact with a small group of academic advisers all the time. It was a custom that our press statements and speeches went past one of them who, in a friendly way, we in the office actually nicknamed “Press Statement”!

Yet a number of things began to make me doubt whether the academics were really protecting us or using us for their own reasons and careers. Their influence was really control. Their fights became our fights. When we said the things they liked, they spoke about us with the tongue of love. You must see the wonderful things written about me when I was still playing along!

When some of us asked too many questions, however, bad things were written about us. We were corrupt, ill-disciplined, divisive, did not understand issues properly and were being used by other people. One of the academics actually drafted Abahlali’s letter to funders, doing all the damage control when the vice-president, the spokesperson and I left Abahlali in 2014. All of this I explained in the Politikon article.

What I wonder is how, when the tall trees were writing about Abahlali for all those long years, saying only good things, how was it that this qualified as knowledge when what I say does not? 

It seems strange that academics can quote from press statements or speeches they themselves have edited or written, criticising other people, and that qualifies as “rigorous” knowledge. 

Is it because Abahlali can be “referenced”, but when I make my own criticism of people, not hiding behind anyone or any organisational front, I cannot reference myself? What did the peer reviewers say about the closeness of these

academics to the movements they have described all these years? Or was this relationship not openly disclosed to them?

By 2012, Huchzermeyer was one of Abahlali’s trees. She wrote many articles about Abahlali, using the organisation as evidence for her academic theory. This theory is that good middle-class academics like her can work well together with shack-dweller movements.

I do not think it is unfair to say that, if Abahlali is exposed for what it is, Huchzermeyer has a lot of explaining to do to the people who quote her.  

Though the trees protected us, we were also sometimes asked to protect them. I remember getting emails from Pithouse in 2013 urging Abahlali to support a letter written by Huchzermeyer. She was protesting against what was said about another organisation, Slum Dwellers International, in a Nobel prize nomination. She used Abahlali to support her argument. If Abahlali as a organisation supported her, it would make her stronger. We did.

Then, in April 2014, trouble broke out in the movement. There were divisions between Zulu and Mpondo members, big arguments about the way the annual general meeting was run and, finally, anger over the undemocratic decision made by a few Abahlali leaders to vote for the Democratic Alliance in that year’s election.

I wrote to Huchzermeyer, one of the tall trees, about this bad situation, and she replied:

“Your letter is full of such lessons and of a wisdom that comes from the very hard experience you’ve had. You remain a leader and a very strong one. Ultimately it’s the consistency of your courage and integrity that will make you stand out among others who are distracted by personal interests.”

She added: “As you probably know, my most direct contact about Abahlali is Richard Pithouse. He has been incredibly generous over the years in sharing his insights. I have no idea where he stands in relation to what has happened. All he has mentioned to me in the last weeks is that there is a ‘mess’ in Abahlali and that he’s been very concerned and stressed about it. I sensed it was not something I could ask him to say more about at that stage.”  

Huchzermeyer said she would talk to Pithouse. She did, and within hours had changed her story. Suddenly, I was bad, irresponsible, immature.

Is this a footnote? I mention it not to embarrass Huchzermeyer, but rather so that we can learn a lesson about how “rigorous” academic research is done on Abahlali. It is done by whispers among the tall weeds pretending to be trees.

Bandile Mdlalose is president of the Social Justice Movement in Durban

Bandile Mdlalose

Bandile Mdlalose

Bandile Mdlalose was the general secretary of the South African shackdwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. She is now the President of Community Justice Movement which operates in some informal settlements of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. Read more from Bandile Mdlalose

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