Abahlali baseMjondolo, emboldened by its victory over the eThekwini municipality that stopped it from evicting shack residents without court approval, has taken its cause to Gauteng.
Abahlali spokesperson Ndabo Mzimela said the movement had been invited to visit high-density shacklands such as those in Germiston, Diepsloot and Soweto. It also wanted to “make public presentations about the movement so people don’t push personal agendas under its banner”.
This week the high court in Durban ruled in favour of Abahlali in a case that dates back to 2013, when the eThekwini municipality and the provincial human settlement department sought, and was granted, an interim order to halt invasions of government-owned land earmarked for housing. The provincial government estimated that more than 1 000 pieces of land were invaded at the time.
The Socio Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri-Sa), acting on behalf of Abahlali, took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal, where the appeal was turned down. But the Constitutional Court ruled that the shack residents should be allowed to challenge the order being made final.
The matter was returned to the Durban high court, where Judge Fikile Mokgohloa quoted Constitutional Court Judge Johann van der Westhuizen as saying: “Not for a moment do I doubt the seriousness of illegal invasions. But serious too is the illegal eviction of vulnerable individuals with nowhere else to live.”
This week, following the thwarted invasion of land in Dundee, the office of Ravi Pillay, the MEC for KwaZulu-Natal’s human settlement and public works, issued a statement warning that groups like Abahlali will become emboldened by the court decision, which could lead to further land invasions and a disruption of development planning.
The spokesperson for the MEC, Mbulelo Baloyi, said the ripple effects of the ruling would soon be felt and the results would take time to undo.
“The judge said he is aware that land invasions are serious, but his judgment doesn’t cover what we should do about what is, in effect, trespassing,” said Baloyi.
“What the judgment says is, if you didn’t see this person invade, and by the time you do see them they have settled, you need a court order.
“There have been people who have respected the law and waited for their housing, but what happens is, when people see development [in one place], then they all follow to that place. And the only way you get rid of invaders is to prioritise them [for housing].”
Abahlali, on the other hand, has always maintained that people need to be an ANC member to benefit from development in the eThekwini municipality. “There are people in some ward committees in Cato Crest who have three houses each,” said Zandile Nsibande, the chairperson of Abahlali’s women’s league. “Whenever there is development coming, people who are on these databases who are Xhosa-speaking are told to go back to the Eastern Cape, or people from Hammarsdale are told to go to Hammarsdale.”
In an earlier statement, Pillay said one did not need a court order in all cases to resist a land invasion. “We will have to devote more resources to protecting land earmarked for development, indeed all land.”
This is likely to mean a return to older, abandoned tactics.
Richard Pithouse, a Rhodes University political contemporary theory and urban studies lecturer, said: “The attempt to make land invasions impossible goes back more than 10 years.
“What’s new in Durban is that, in the last couple of years, they had lost control of it. Ten years ago, they had land monitors, they were using the branch executive committees in the ward councillor system, they were using aerial photography to survey and control everything.
“This was effective because a lot of the political structures on the ground accepted the authority of the ANC, but that’s no longer the case. If you drive or fly in over Durban, you can see there are new occupations everywhere.”
In some cases, Pithouse said, the ANC and other political formations were joining in the land occupation fray, which was causing confusion.
Bent, bruised but not broken
On the day Thuli Ndlovu, an executive committee member of Abahlali baseMjondolo, was murdered at her home in KwaNdengezi last year, she is alleged to have foretold the event to everyone in the room.
Ndlovu, also a branch chairperson of Abahlali, allegedly knew she would die when she saw Mduduzi Ngcobo’s car making its rounds in the area. Ngcobo, also known as “Nqola”, is currently out on bail and will stand trial for the murder.
Ndlovu’s murder took place in front of her teenaged daughter, a toddler and her daughter’s maths tutor, who survived two gunshot wounds to the stomach.
Her murder was the fourth shooting of an Abahlali member since the unsolved March 2013 murder of Thembinkosi Qumbela in Cato Crest. It capped a reign of terror over the organisation that has placed it under tremendous pressure over the past two years.
Abahlali spokesperson Ndabo Mzimela says 2013 and 2014 “were very rough on us. This year represents, in some ways, relative calm. But some of our comrades, including me and the organisation’s president, S’bu Zikode, are in hiding.”
Some observers argue that the pressures of organisational growth and continued resistance in a life-threatening climate, the decision to back the Democratic Alliance in last year’s local government elections and the growth of land occupation as a political strategy have altered the movement in varying but profound ways; some of these pressures have seen key founding members depart.
“The DA decision, for example, may have been misconstrued by people eager for publicity, but it was a majority decision so people had to respect it,” says Mzimela.
On how it affected relations with the municipality, Mzimela says: “No matter what we decided, we’d be looked down upon in any case. For us it was about making our own decisions to reduce the ANC’s stranglehold on power. After all, we are the only ones wading through the mud in the squatter camps.”