Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu… here with episode 32 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies used to advance human rights around the world… Today –
- An alliance between frontline activists and professional litigators in South Africa – what makes it work?
- And in the Coda, the young hip hop artists calling attention to a tyranny the world seems happy to ignore
AA: This podcast is an offshoot from a project I work on, called the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, which brings together human rights leaders from all over the world to talk to each other about what undermines their work and what helps them succeed. And one theme that crops up pretty regularly in those conversations is that of the relationship between those who work on the frontline, defending communities from abuse of their rights, and those in the rear, providing support. Although they both work to protect rights, there’s a lot to navigate there. What seems urgent and non-negotiable to the defender on the frontline, for example, may seem risky and provocative to the lawyer or advocacy team providing the support. There maybe asymmetries of funding, of education and class, of access to powerful political actors, or of geographical location and so much more. And yet these two groups of actors need each other. Walking away when things get difficult isn’t an option. So is there a key to making such a partnership work? In this episode, we’re getting a ringside seat on a partnership in South Africa between a frontline movement that defends shackdwellers – Abahlali baseMjondolo – and their partner, a human rights litigation NGO called the Social and Economic Rights Institute, or SERI for short. I was lucky enough to be able to get Abahlali’s president S’bu Zikode and SERI’s director, Nomzamo Zondo into the studio together to reflect with each other on how they work.
AA: Welcome, Nomzamo.
Nomzamo Zondo: Thank you.
AA: Welcome, S’bu
S’bu Zikode: Thank you, Akwe
AA: Nomzamo. I’m going to ask you to stay on one side briefly while I just talk with S’bu and get a sense of, Abahlali’s work, and then we’ll bring you back in. So, S’bu, can you just talk a little bit about what is Abahlali? Who is Abahlali?
SZ: Well, Abahlali is the shack dwellers movement of South Africa, which started, uh, in 2005. So we are almost 18 years, uh, in action. So the movement was formed to fight for, protect, promote, and advance the interest and the dignity of the shack dwellers and the impoverished in South Africa. So as you would understand that the question of land remains the crisis in South Africa. So many of the indigenous people, majority black people in South Africa, remains without land in their own country. And you would remember also that, during the apartheid struggles, majority black people weren’t allowed to go to cities. Now, in 1994, when we thought we were free, then there was so much urbanisation and migration into cities, and we discovered that our cities’ infrastructures were unable to accommodate the influx of people coming to cities, especially those that are poor, who would not be able to pay for rent and so on. And as a result of the landlessness of the, the impoverished in South Africa, shack settlements were the only option for people to be closer to the active economic, places where they could find jobs and so on. So many of our members therefore lives, um, in the informal settlements, in the land that they do not own but by virtue of being South Africans and human beings, they ought to have, one way or the other, a space to live, in the urban centers. Now, the challenge has been then when people occupy this vacant and unused land in our city so that they can be closer to job opportunities and be able to support their families, in many cases, the city governments, municipalities have been very hostile and people have been facing consistent evictions that are not just unlawful, but they’ve been brutal, and criminal acts in a sense that they will not have been carried in the manner that the law requires them to do. So the challenge has been the evictions, but also the fact that poor people do not have the right to speak, the right to, to have a, a place called home.
AA: I mean, those are already egregious, outcomes for a country with a constitution like South Africa’s and with a history like South Africa’s. But I imagine in addition, living conditions – access to the basics, water, power, secure housing, safety, personal safety from criminal, abuse – are also serious issues. Is that right?
SZ : Yes. No, absolutely. I think it would be a big mistake for me not to help listeners, to actually understand the living conditions in the informal settlements that really force us to do something about the conditions. So, the shack settlements or informal settlements, what the UN will call slums –we are opposed to that term, obviously -there is hardly any access to water and sanitation. Can you imagine life without access to clean water and sanitation? There’s hardly any road access. There’s hardly access to refuse collection. There’s no light. People will use candles as a source of light and use paraffin stoves as a source of, of energy. And in many times, these stoves will explode. Or if the candle is left unattended, then it burns. So if one shack is on fire, the entire settlement, the entire village is on fire. So we’ve lost lives in the informal settlements. So these issues pertaining life, because I mean, refuse would not be collected, there would be high rate of diseases, especially the tuberculosis. People would, from time to time have running stomachs. So as a result, somebody had to do something.
AA: So give me a sense of how Abahlali organizes against those conditions. You’re an organization right on the frontline with people who need, uh, an improvement in their lives. How do you go about trying to make that happen?
SZ: Yes. Abahlali is an organizing movement. I think we’ve done that pretty well. Um, so what we actually do, we build the power of the impoverished from below. What does that mean? Is that we make sure that we educate ourselves about our own rights, about the constitution of the republic of South Africa. You would find it very interesting when people are not even educated for that matter, but if you ask them at least about section 26 of the constitution, I mean, any old mama will tell you, uh, because it, it talks about the right to housing, something that resonate, that is so close to, to, to their heart. So we discuss those issues and educate ourselves, empower ourselves. So we use three strategies when we organize. One is what we call people’s power, the political power, which is the art of organizing impoverished people to really be able to define themselves. Who are we? Where are we? Why do we find ourselves in the situation that we find ourselves? So in this people’s power building, it’s really important because, the only weapon that impoverished people have, it’s really, their unity, they are masses speaking in one voice. But the second strategy that we use in organizing obviously, is the use of media. Making sure that we expose the corrupt injustices so that the world can see the lies of our democracy, the democrats that continue to serve the interest of the, minority at the expense of the majority. And the third strategy and the last strategy that we use in organizing is litigation. Because litigation is understood as, a strategy that requires money. Lawyers are costly, lawyers are expensive. So in order for us not to create dependency, we will make the litigation as a last resort, but also it helps, so that people understand that the problem that we’re facing are not just legal challenges, but they are political in their nature. Litigation on its own without building power, without looking at the broader structural issues, it’s just ticking a box. Um, it’s a matter of going in court, out of court, but the problem continues. Hence litigation becomes the last resort.
AA: And I’m guessing, Nomzamo, as a human rights lawyer and the director of the Social and Economic Rights Institute, that that’s where you come in. Uh, SERI is a support organization. It exists to intervene on behalf of communities in the courts. Is that right?
NZ: Starting in the courts. Um, but we also intervene other places. Uh, for instance, when S’bu speaks about building the power of people, as part of SERI’s work, we do a lot of documentation. In fact, in the last year, we, produced a Community Practice Note following the history of Abahlali. And in following that history of Abahlali, we were hoping that other movements and other activists could see how Abahlali reacted, how they poised themselves in different situations, and be able for themselves to build their own power. Out alongside that, I think we live in a country where many people see we have a progressive constitution. Uh, we are led by people who themselves were activists fighting a brutal government, in the post-apartheid government. Uh, and we see part of our work, as exposing to them the lived realities of people like the members of Abahlali and other South Africans who are surviving in very inhumane conditions. And we then seek to use the constitution and use the law to translate to them what their obligations are in those circumstances. Um, and I think in, in, in relation to litigation, I think the one thing that we’ve always been clear about is that SERI’s role is to amplify the agency of poor people, is to amplify the agency of, of organizations like Abahlali. And therefore we’ve sought to use the courts as another space, as another site of struggle, um, that is then opened up for them to make the claims that they want to make, about these are the conditions that we demand, that we demand the redistribution of land, that we demand to have homes, in the inner city, close to livelihood opportunities, and even close to other social amenities.
AA: So there’s clearly a partnership between you, but you’re two different types of animal. There’s a social movement on one side and an NGO or an organization, a formal organization on the other. What’s that – what’s the articulation between you two?
SZ: Well, for me, I mean, this is really an exciting, kind of partnership, we view SERI not just as a partner, but as a movement in its own right, in a sense that it is not really confined in a lawyering shop because lawyers can really be dealing with what is on paper, what is before them, arguing the facts and not beyond that. But the, the work of SERI has really opened our mind to really learn about the importance of sharing spaces, that we cannot have answers to all the challenges, and it is important, therefore to keep building partners and alliances. So Abahlali has taken time to build more allies so as to build our capacity, but also amplify solidarity as well. So I think our partnership has really been a fantastic one.
NZ: So S’bu earlier, spoke about how a part of Abahlali’s work is making sure that people’s voices are heard. in South Africa, pre-1994, it was clear that the black majorities aren’t meant to be heard. And in our partnership and in our relationship, one of the things that we’ve learned quite clearly is the importance of that. Um, uh, S’bu and I keep sharing this example about how we were involved in a court case where we managed to stop an eviction, and then the property owner come back to evict again. And the community member was saying, I’m too busy at work, I can’t do it, and Abahlali was saying, “it’s important, Nomzamo, that you understand as lawyers and as the movement, we can’t act before the person who is the victim of this acts.” So in our relationship, we’ve learned to understand that agency also includes responsibility. In our relationship, we’ve learned the importance of collective action. Because I think in a courtroom, it’s very easy to know. It’s clear. You act for this party, you are opposing this party. And in our relationship with Abahlali, we’ve learned how to infuse the importance of collective power, of building collective power in the work that we are doing. As staff of SERI, our work, yes, is in a professional capacity, but we’re also contributing to a struggle for a better South Africa. And therefore it’s not simply a matter of us just providing a service. We are also walking a much longer journey towards a much brighter future.
AA: So could you guys walk me through a kind of lived example of how a problem began, and how you worked together to, to try and solve it?
NZ: So I want to start, S’bu, if you’ll let me.
NZ: Just at the beginning of the hard lockdown, there were two settlements, that were close to each other in Cato Manor. And there had been repeated evictions at those settlements. Now, the one thing about Abahlali is, as S’bu explained, is that litigation is the last resort. So there would be an eviction, the community would pull other resources, rebuild and stay there. And then the city’s forces would come back and remove the community again.
SZ: In fact, there would’ve been, a lot of back and forth in terms of resisting, um, why resisting? because the act of the municipality would’ve been unlawful and criminal. So that’s why we would rebuild, to demonstrate that what we’re actually doing is not unlawful. But we also do so to resist, because we want to show our power, the people’s power, that you cannot just tear one’s home down without any consequences from the people that are victims of that before we can actually invite the professional support intervention.
NZ: Maybe at the third or the fourth time or the fifth time, Abahlali would call and say, okay, SERI, we have this problem. We need you to seek an interdict.
AA: When you call Nomzamo or call SERI at that point, what are you asking them to do? And is it already known between you, or do you give her a map of what you want? Or do you work it out together?
SZ: So we will then call SERI, we’ll brief SERI. Um, SERI may be aware, but they’re very disciplined to wait. They have to wait until we say it’s okay for you. Because if they were ever to jam the organization and connect with the community direct, for us, that would really be creating dependency syndrome?
AA: Because they would be choosing what to do rather than letting you tell them what to do?
SZ: They would actually not allow the community to decide on their strategy and to think through what they’re going through and, and, and, because we want SERI to come when the pot is really cooked. So it’s not their job to organize and, and, and do all the political work. We understand their professional intervention, and we want them to stay on their lane at the same time.
AA: Got it. Okay. Let’s go back to Cato Manor.
NZ: So, so what happens then? Once they reach out to us, we say, look, we’ve, we’ve got all the evidence of these demolitions. We are gonna ask the court to tell them that this is unlawful and you can’t do it again. Just to highlight the importance of what S’bu says, about cooking the pot, the response from the court is to dismiss our application. With the evidence of – here are people’s homes, uh, here are the pictures, here are even the videos of what the municipality has done. And, and the court just simply says, “look, they must go back wherever they came from,” uh, which is almost like a swear word in South Africa, because we know what that means. It always meant, “not in South Africa, not in the urban centers. You must go back to the rural areas where we allow you to be.” And so this, judge just says, “application dismissed. You must go back to where you came from.” And what that would’ve meant, right? If all of us had been invested all our energy in the legal process would’ve meant the occupation is over, these people have lost their homes. But precisely because there was political mobilization, the response was sort of, well, okay, we tried that, it didn’t work, we move on, and the settlement continued.
AA :So what happened on your side after the application was dismissed?
SZ: Well, that’s an interesting question because that’s the whole point of organizing, because ultimately we say law or no law, the power remains with the people. Actually, even the law should have been made by the people. So sometimes, and at difficult, uh, moments where we lose, which is rare, we would have prepared for that, you would have divined plan A, plan B, should we not win? What do we do? So all that was set. The bigger lesson on that question is that if you are tactically and organized enough, you would actually realize and learn that you can actually win in court, but still lose politically. But at the same time you can actually lose in court, but remain on the land <laugh>.
AA: So where did that leave you? The court has dismissed it, you are staying on the land, but you had gone to court to try and resolve these constant evictions. So what was the next step?
SZ: That’s where of course, the police brutality comes in, because one of the things that SERI has, has taught us well, is the act of really documenting and recording. So you would find that information in the community, they will know at this date, at this time, these municipality vehicles with these registration numbers came at this time at gun point or whatsoever, documenting that really makes it easy for lawyers, which is why, SERI, I think sometimes they’re quite, impressed working with us because, I mean we have to give them information to work on. So we, we don’t expect them to be the Messiahs that will just solve the problems without really us having done our part, which is really collecting the evidence, the information that will be key when they take over the matter.
AA : So you’re smiling, Nomzamo, are you, are you impressed?
SZ: She has to! She has to! <laugh>
NZ: No, no, definitely <laugh>. Without a question, I’ve, I’ve been impressed multiple times. And I think for instance, this example, because the one thing that it does, for those of us who do believe in the law, who do believe in the power of the Constitution, is that in that moment, I was completely, uh, demobilized. But because I was working with a partner who knew what to expect, they were ready to move on. So while, while I sat in my bedroom crying about,” how could we get here?” uh, life continued and, and S’bu explained, I mean, I remember that time in that, in that specific circumstance, the army and the police and the municipality, all three of them kept bothering the community, but because the community stood their ground, they tired and they walked away.
AA: So, by default in the end –
NZ: The occupation continued and the community won.
SZ: Yeah. the one element I forgot was the power of women at that moment. I mean, they went and did this sit-in, where their homes were demolished. They actually said, well, we have nowhere to go. So we would just sleep there. Then it was another matter, another discussion; was it really, within the moral standard for the city to harass women? Because now there was no shelter. There was no shacks, but women spent at least two nights and said, well, we have nowhere else to go. They were, threatened with arrest. And the police said, it’s either we are going to arrest you or you leave there, you leave the place. And the women were saying, well, because we have nowhere to go, you may as well arrest us.
NZ: It’s safer, there’s shelter there It’s, yeah.
SZ: Yeah. <laugh> <laugh>. Yeah. So,
AA: So, but was that the end then of the litigation strategy from your side? Or is there more that you can do in a situation like that, even though you’ve lost on this particular approach, is there something else that you go on to do after that?
NZ: So, so interestingly almost a year later we meet with Abahlali, it’s like an annual meeting that we kind of look at, okay, what are we doing? What could we be doing better? And we are saying, but we can’t keep going to court every now and again over a single community. Because we can tell the story of, we did lose, but the occupation continued and people are now secure in their homes. But then in a month’s time, we are before a court over a different community. And Abahlali were saying to us, is there a way that we can respond to this systematically, not just community by community? Cause our resources are not infinite. We can’t be doing this every now and again. And in the discussions we’re quite clear to say, actually what we need to do is focus on the power of these anti-land invasion units and what they’re able to do. The easiest way for us to address it systematically is to clip the wings of this institution, which is giving you the most trouble.
AA: So a land invasion unit is like a, a security force that’s specifically dedicated to clearing informal communities?
NZ: Definitely. So in South Africa, it’s there, at least in the major centers. Uh, but then also, the municipal police play that role. And therefore from that time we were saying, okay, let’s go back to actually pull out our history of the work that we’ve done in different settlements. Of course, some of them are now five years old, seven years old, where we’ve had to fight this action and go and convince the courts that actually there’s something wrong with this. This cannot continue in a country that does actually protect you against arbitrary eviction, in a country that actually says, before you can be evicted, someone must know who you are, must know what will happen to you if you’re evicted and is also at the law developed to a point where it says, you should not be evicted if you’ll end up homeless. See, there’s something wrong with actually giving these officers the power in that moment just to come into the settlement and then destroy, destroy your home. And there’s no accountability. It was interesting, that the opportunity to address that point did then not come from Etekhwini, or even Gauteng, where Abahlali is very active. It came from the exercise of the very same power in the city of Cape Town, in a case that, colleagues, the Legal Resources Center, brought to the South African Human Rights Commission. And it gave an opportunity for Abahlali to say, actually, we know all about this. We want to come and tell the court our experience and why you can’t have these units having this power, uh, to just destroy people’s lives in this way and –
AA: As a friend of the court type of thing?
NZ: As a friend of the court, actually, that’s exactly what happened. Abahlali actually came as a friend of the court and after what was probably a year and a half of litigation, the courts just simply said, we agree with Abahlali. The moment that someone puts up, a corrugated iron sheet, they put up a pole and they intend to build their home. You as the municipal authority must start in a court before you come to them. You must come bearing a court order before you come to them, because the municipality, of course, would kind of create this example of saying, no, we are trying to stop these land occupations. These people have places where they live, um, and they are just trying to grab this land. And as S’bu said, in a country where there’s so much landlessness, that’s insane.
AA: So you are clearly, working in a very collaborative alliance, as two different entities with shared goals. I’m curious what happens when you disagree, do you have a standard set of off-ramps or strategies to deal with that? Or does it just fester until you have it out with each other? What’s your strategy for disagreement?
SZ: Well, we haven’t really had much of that, but obviously, we would always sit, in fact, I think we would envision such a possibility before it actually happened but also I don’t think to a large extent, we see ourself as different entity. We kind of see ourself as just one organization with different unit and responsibility, because basically what SERI is capable of doing, that professional support, we’re unable to do that. And vis a vis what we are capable of in terms of organizing on the ground, SERI – it’s not their terrain. So I think we are so much respecting each other on what we are called to do.
AA: Okay. But let me just imagine a situation. SERI says, it is clear that there’s a great path for litigation here. And you say, we do not want litigation at this time. And SERI says you have to take this moment. If you miss this moment, something bad will happen. Is it SERI’s job to defer to you because you are in the front line, or do you just have to argue it out until you reach some point of consensus? Is there an automatic right for the frontline to dictate?
NZ: It’s such a difficult question, right? Because I think in the South African context that deference has been so important, um, precisely because, I think for the longest time, the people in organizations like SERI were mostly white, had not experienced, the troubles that Abahlali, have experienced, but also know that they are sheltered completely from the consequences of whatever choices are made. Um, and therefore it’s been important to say keep the deference, Abahlali must lead. But the one thing we are not scared of is that we are in a relationship and we are a space where there should be discussion. It can’t simply be “Abahlali says” full stop. I think there is space for us to discuss. There is space for us to interrogate as a partner, right? Uh, but knowing that ultimately Abahlali must make the decision, ultimately Abahlali will make the choice. But it’s not simply saying, oh, okay. Oh, is that what you want to do? Sure do it. We are in a journey where we’ve been working together, where we can actually reflect, negotiate, and ultimately be able to say we disagree – you make the choice. And I think one of the things that I’ve appreciated with our relationship with Abahlali is that in those moments where we have disagreed, there’s never been a hiding of their reasons. And also at the same time, they’ve never been scared to say to us, “actually, we’re not satisfied with what is going on.” They are quite clear to say, “you must know these are our expectations. Uh, this is where you do not meet our expectations. How do we change this for the future?” And I really appreciate that relationship.
SZ: Yes. Maybe to, to add, I think our relationship is based on principle that those who feel it must lead it. Of course, we come from a very rotten history where usually impoverished people would be forced to accept anything that is imposed on them because of their vulnerability. And SERI has a good, ways of understanding that history, and we are also clear that we cannot allow, imposed instruction, or even solidarity that seems to be coming with strings attached to it. So it’s that honesty that’s genuinely very key in any relationship.
AA: Thank you, S’bu, thank you Nomzamo.
NZ: Thank you for having us, Akwe. This is a great conversation.
SZ: Thank you.
AA: I was talking with S’bu Zikode, president of South Africa’s shackdweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, and Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of the Social and Economic Rights Institute. A full transcript is available on our website, Strengthandsolidarity.org
Our coda this time, comes from a human rights lawyer living in exile whose every effort is dedicated to liberating his country from decades-long dictatorship. Equatorial Guinea, is an oil-rich country on the west coast of central Africa, ruled for over 40 years now by one man Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his family. Blessed or cursed by huge oil reserves, Equatorial Guinea is per capita one of Africa’s richest countries and yet its people rank among the poorest on the continent. Tutu Alicante leads an organization called EG Justice which works to challenge the impunity and rampant corruption in his country. He wanted to tell us about some young people he finds deeply inspiring.
Tutu Alicante: Today, we have the pleasure of listening to Negro Bay. Negro Bay is an amazing artist, a very creative mind from Equatorial Guinea, third largest oil producing nation in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet poverty is everywhere. And those are the issues that Negro Bay living inside the country is tackling with his music and his art.
TA: So this is, uh, carta al Presidente. Carta al Presidente means a letter to the President…This is a very very repressive regime that does not allow civil society to exist. There’s not a single independent journalist living in Equatorial Guinea. Political opposition is not tolerated. Everyone in opposition is in exile. So the fact that a young artist without any protection of political parties or embassies or anyone is willing to take his music and turn it into a weapon, to uh, uh, combat the autocracy that’s governed this country for 40 years, it is an amazing feat.
TA: He has emboldened a lot of, uh, other young people inside the country and outside. There is a growing group of young people who are fearless, who are using their art to break down barriers, right? Those issues that many people inside the country thought you couldn’t address, you couldn’t talk about.
TA: Right now we have I think a team of 16 people running different organizations inside and outside the country? So that is an incredible, show of what is possible when you invest in young people, right? And when you give them free reigns to do their art and do their thing.
TA: Russo Nnandong is an amazing hip hop artist, among other things from Equatorial Guinea living in exile right now in Madrid, Spain. In this album Kuestiones, with a K, he’s asking questions. Questions about freedoms, basic fundamental freedoms, right? Cuestion de Libertad.
TA: Russo Nandong is one of those artists who has broken down barriers in many fronts. Russo, not only is he an amazing actor, he’s now made several movies, several documentaries about conditions in Equatorial Guinea, very critical pieces, He’s now living in Madrid where he’s working with a group of young people. He’s transferring some of those skills that he has, trying to transfer all that knowledge, trying to transfer all that courage to these young people.
TA: It gives me a lot of hope, right? As a lawyer who is used to using the legal system, particularly outside the country, because inside the country there is no legal system, its become very clear to me that we need other avenues to combat autocracy, to combat kleptocracy, high level corruption. And arts, music, speak with universal language, that reaches people, not just inside the country, people outside the country, people in the region who might be going through similar struggles.
AA: Thanks to Tutu Alicante of EG Justice for introducing us to these brilliant Equatoguinean musicians Negro Bey and Russo Nangdong. Details – again – on our website, Strengthandsolidarity.org.
AA: That’s it for episode 32 of Strength and Solidarity…Thanks for listening and even more thanks if you’ll give us some feedback – you can write to email@example.com. And if you know someone who would find the conversations in this episode interesting or useful, please forward it to them! For now, from producer Peter Coccoma and me Akwe Amosu – See you next time.