/ 29 April 2024

Abahlali baseMjondolo’s tactical EFF vote allows us to reimagine democracy

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File photo: Members of shack-dwellers' movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, protest the alleged theft of hundreds of millions of COVID-19 funds in KwaZulu-Natal on October 19, 2020 in Durban.(Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

On 22 April 2024, the national shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo announced that it would lend its vote to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the upcoming elections. The movement’s stance is principled, strategic and a demonstration of its profound commitment to amplifying the voices of the poor.

Born out of collective discontent, and shaped by a tradition of struggle, Abahlali baseMjondolo stands as a testament to the resilience and revolutionary potential of working-class organisations in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Its over 150 000 active members are spread across communities in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. Established in 2005, the movement organises in the shadow of the 1994 democratic project, challenging the grand narrative of freedom in post-apartheid South Africa. 

It has organised communes across Durban, based on principles of participatory democracy, where every resident has an equal say in matters that affect their lives — social, political and economic. The communes seek to subvert hierarchies and operate through dialogue, consensus-building and collective decision-making.

The movement was painstakingly built through mass mobilisation, direct action and community organising to confront state repression and capitalist exploitation head-on. 

Since its establishment it has navigated the decay of the country’s social fabric and provided moral leadership and hope for hundreds of thousands of people — well beyond its membership. 

It has resisted forced removals, successfully fought government corruption and championed the constitutional rights to education, healthcare, sanitation, electricity and water — especially for poor people — while building solidarity networks with oppressed people at home, in Palestine and across the world.

Its unwavering commitment to its principles has come at a high price — the wrath of state and capital violence. Over its almost two-decade history, 25 of its members have been murdered and hundreds have been arrested and assaulted by hitmen linked to local political elites, the police and private security companies. On 27 April 2006, its UnFreedom Day rally was surrounded by police armoured vehicles and circled by a helicopter.

Abahlali baseMjondolo self-defines itself as a socialist mass-democratic movement fighting for the poor in South Africa.

So, why on earth would it back an opportunistic and authoritarian political party, such as the EFF, whose leaders are tainted with allegations of corruption?

Abahlali’s  2024 UnFreedom Day statement clarifies that it is not endorsing the EFF or extending it uncritical support. It is, instead, calling for a “tactical vote”.

The tactical vote

In his book Politics of the Governed, political theorist Partha Chatterjee discusses how voting blocs in marginalised urban communities and informal settlements in India use their votes tactically to influence political outcomes. Community movements, some organised similarly to Abahlali’s branches, leverage their collective votes to negotiate better social services and representation with political parties. They force parties to compete for their votes, using them as tactical tools to address their socio-economic challenges.

Like marginalised communities in India, Abahlali has consistently viewed the vote as a tactical tool. For 12 years after its establishment, it successfully brought attention to the plight of people living in informal settlements by boycotting elections through its No Land! No House! No Vote! campaign, which also challenged the notion that only the vote can affect structural change for poor communities in a democracy.

Tragically, the campaign resulted in heightened state repression, with Abahlali leaders assassinated and members attacked. 

The movement fingered ANC power holders as sources of its repression and intensified its opposition to the ruling party. In the 2014 elections, it abandoned the No Vote! campaign, choosing a tactical vote instead. Its members “lent” their votes to the Democratic Alliance (DA), to weaken the ANC, attracting much criticism, including from others on the left. 

The strategy proved successful — the DA became the official opposition to the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal for the first time and violent repression against Abahlali’s members reduced. 

Political fluidity

The movement recognises the 2024 elections as a unique opportunity to leverage their collective votes and deepen its power. For the first time in 30 years, the ANC is not guaranteed a majority nationally and in some major provinces. This has made our politics more fluid and increased competition for votes among political parties. 

This fluidity gives people’s movements, such as Abahlali, the opportunity to use their votes to intensify political party competition, centre the demands of marginalised communities and expand their influence. 

It’s an especially important opportunity for Abahlali, who also understands that there is currently no left-wing political party in South Africa with an allegiance to the poor, leaving the political field wide open for tactical choices. 

Thus, on 3 February 2024, the movement began a national discussion among its members on the question of a tactical vote in response to this year’s highly contested election. Central to these discussions was an urgency to campaign against state repression and to force parties to compete to represent the “People’s Minimum Demands”. 

On 24 March, Abahlali members adopted 20 demands, their minimum criteria for any party to win the movement’s votes. Parties were asked to commit to, among other things, ensuring adequate land and housing; quality education; climate justice; ending repression and supporting freedom for Palestinians. 

The movement invited political parties to its general assembly on 7 April. The ANC and uMkhonto weSizwe party were excluded because they are considered sources of repression against Abahlali members and the DA was excluded because of its commitment to privatisation and its stance on Israel’s Gaza genocide. 

The assembly presented shack dwellers’ demands to politicians instead of allowing parties to present their manifestos. Of the parties that attended, only the EFF committed to taking the demands forward, particularly those on land, education and Palestine. 

We can’t be certain of the outcome of the 29 May elections, but there’s no doubt that Abahlali will play a role in shaping it, nationally and in the contested province of KwaZulu-Natal. Of course, the EFF has a track record of shifting its political positions for self-interest but it would be inexpedient to disregard the 150 000-member strong social movement.

After the April general assembly, the movement’s president S’bu Zikode declared: “Abahlali will remain Abahlali, keep its autonomy, and remain a people’s movement. On 29 May, we will vote. On 30 May, we will continue the struggle.”

Reimagining democracy

This process reflects a nuanced understanding of power and the desire to use democracy to improve the lives of poor people. Crucially, it also sharply challenges narrow understandings of the 1994 legacy.  

Elections are not a ritual that we’re forced to participate in every few years, so that we can pledge our allegiance to the elite group we identify with the most.

Rather, elections represent but one instrument of democracy and should be used to deepen and broaden people’s participation. Real democracy is what happens between elections, in informal settlements, on shop floors, on koppies next to mines, in churches, mosques, schools and universities. 

Abahlali’s instrumentalising the vote allows us to reimagine a democracy where the needs of the most marginalised are at its centre.

As our politics becomes more fluid, and in the absence of a left political alternative, Abahlali’s campaign will inspire people’s movements and workers across the country who have been, for 30 years of democracy, building a more just society.

Minhaj Jeenah is the executive director of social justice NGO, My Vote Counts.