/ 1 May 2024

Abahlali baseMjondolo’s elections choice comes from no choice

Shack Dwellers Movement Protest Against Alleged Theft Of Covid 19 Funds In South Africa
The political strategy of the socialist shack dwellers’ movement is grounded in two decades of activism against oppression and for land (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Since Abahlali baseMjondolo was founded in 2005 we have struggled to liberate ourselves from impoverishment, indignity and repression. Our struggle has been grounded in our occupations of land. We have moved from the occupations into the streets, the media, the courts and various kinds of negotiations. We have built strong relations with radical movements and intellectuals around the world. While we have always understood that building the power of the oppressed from below is the most important strategy for humanising the world, we have, since the 2006 local elections, made various kinds of tactical interventions in elections while remaining autonomous from all political parties.

Prior to 2014 we called for a boycott of elections in protest against the failures of the ANC, and its repression of our movement, and other poor people’s movements such as the Landless Peoples’ Movement and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign. 

Our leaders began to be assassinated in 2013 and we called for a tactical protest vote for the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 national election to put pressure on the ANC to cease repression. It was effective. There were no more assassinations till 2017. In the 2019 national elections we called for a vote for the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP). Although it was launched very close to the elections and our own process was rushed we felt that we should offer critical support to a left party.

In 2022, repression reached its worst point. Three of our leaders were assassinated in the eKhenana Commune in Durban. Ayanda Ngila was assassinated on 8 March. Nokuthula Mabaso was assassinated on 5 May. Lindokuhle Mnguni was assassinated on 20 August 2022. Siyabonga Manqele was murdered by a masked police officer in the nearby eNkanini occupation on 11 March. 

The previous year Ngila and Mnguni had spent six months in Westville prison after being arrested on bogus charges and denied bail before the charges were dropped. A number of others were also held in Westville prison after being arrested on bogus charges, including our deputy president, Mqapheli Bonono. 

A total of 25 people have lost their lives during the course of our struggle. Many have been assassinated and others have lost their lives to violence by the police, the land invasion unit and private security companies. 

We are not the only organisation that has faced assassinations and police murders. We cannot forget the assassinations of grassroots activists such as Sikhosiphi Rhadebe, of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, and Fikile Ntshangase from the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, as well as principled civil servants such as Babita Deokoran. We cannot forget the Marikana massacre or the many people murdered by the police during protests.

At our general assembly on 3 February this year, we began a process to enable our members to discuss the question of a tactical response to this year’s election. We began from the understanding that it is imperative that the ANC be given a very strong message that repression will not be tolerated, and preferably that it be removed from power altogether. We agreed that the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party is an off-shoot of the ANC in which some of its worst people and tendencies are present and that it must also be considered as a serious threat to society and to our movement. 

It was clear that no party shares our politics of building democratic socialism from the ground up and that we could not vote for any party with any confidence in its allegiance to the oppressed and to progressive principles. We also agreed that because of the seriousness of the crisis of repression, abstention from the elections was not a viable strategy. 

In the 2016 local government election we called on people to vote against the ANC according to their conscience. But for these 2024 elections we concluded that there is a possible benefit in voting as a bloc because whichever party we decided to give our tactical support would know that this support is conditional on accepting some key principles. We also agreed that for our vote to have an effect it must go to a party that has enough support to threaten the ANC. We were aware that any party that we chose to support may hand our votes back to the ANC or the MK party — to the people who are assassinating us — during coalition negotiations.

The role of Abahlali’s leadership was to facilitate the process of thinking together and to listen very carefully to the views and feelings of members. This process was held in all our communities, and all the different structures of the movement. A central part of this process was the formulation of a set of minimum demands that our movement could use to organise its own thought and to put to the political parties. 

Our members were very clear that they do not trust any of the political parties and generated a clear demand addressed to the movement. They want Abahlali to, working with like-minded membership-based organisations, begin a process of considering how to build a political instrument for the people that aims to put the people in power rather than a new set of individuals. This is a major challenge.

A three-day camp for leaders from all provinces was held from 22 to 24 March in the Valley of a Thousand Hills to finalise what we decided to call the People’s Minimum Demands and to discuss the difficulties we faced in making a tactical intervention in the 2024 elections. The first part of the discussion was easy, and in fact, exciting. The second was difficult because there were strong criticisms of all the political parties.

At the camp we decided that we would invite interested political parties other than the ANC, MK and the DA to the Abahlali general assembly on 7 April and present the People’s Minimum Demands. The parties would respond to the people’s demands rather than the people responding to the parties’ manifestos. We would then consider their responses before formulating our final position.

Several political parties came to our general assembly. They listened and responded. Our members were giving marks as the parties responded and made commitments. At the conclusion of the process one party agreed to commit to more of the People’s Minimum Demands than any other, with particular clarity on three issues that are of the utmost importance to us: land, education and Palestine. That party was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

We were very clear that Abahlali is not joining the EFF or offering it uncritical support. Abahlali will keep its autonomy and remain a people’s movement. We are merely lending our vote to the EFF as a tactical choice with the primary aim of removing the ANC from power or seriously weakening it because the repression that we have suffered is intolerable. We hope that this strong message to the ANC will be heard by all other political parties and that when new governments or coalition governments are formed they will be aware that repression will not be tolerated.  

Our call to other organisations and to individuals concerned about the crisis of our country is to carefully consider their options and to vote against the ANC according to their conscience and strategic calculations. We are pleased that some membership based organisations have decided to conduct their own democratic process to formulate their own demands and take a position on the election. Some, such as the Amadiba Crisis Committee, have already begun their process of putting their demands to the political parties.

We welcome constructive criticism from comrades who care about our movement and our struggle, have listened to our explanations of our process and reasoning and are willing to try to understand the seriousness of the repression that we have been living through. But we urge them to suggest concrete alternatives for a way forward. Critique without a proposal for an alternative strategy does not open a new path. 

Criticism of our position that is only grounded in hostility to the party to which we decided to lend our vote and does not take the severity of the repression we have suffered from the ANC seriously is not helpful. We urge those who are far from our experience of the destruction of our homes, imprisonment, assault, torture, murder, long periods of living underground and the constant awareness that a bullet could come at any time to come and spend some time with us, even for a day, to feel, touch and experience our pain. They are welcome to attend Abahlali funerals when we are killed just for insisting on our dignity. If, after all this, their views remain the same, we hope that they can make a positive proposal for how to use the elections to register our strongest possible rejection of almost 20 years of repression by the ANC.

We remain firm in our commitment to use all available terrains of struggle to oppose repression and to insist that the ANC must be removed from power.

S’bu. Zikode is a co-founder of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the movement’s president.