“Normally it is seen that the poor are poor in mind and that everything needs to be thought for us. But poverty is not stupidity; it is a lack of money. And we always remind people that the same system that made the rich rich has made the poor poor. We are still fighting to insist that there should be nothing for us without us. No one has a right to make decisions for us while we still have a mouth and mind to use”–Bandile Mdlalose, General Secretary Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM).
Very slim and standing at under 1,50m tall, Bandile Mdlalose is one of the shack dwellers movement’s smallest members. She is modest and unassuming when you first meet her – not the person you’d ever think would be arrested for any sort of violence.
Bandile has three lovely children and lives with a supportive family. The Mdlalose household is the default community centre of the K Section township in KwaMashu (Durban) where AbM branch and community meetings are held, food cooked for events, and organising meetings are planned. Her mother, known by most as MaMdlalose, is a stalwart of the K Section community. When bad things are going down, people come to her for mediation and support.
Bandile is a giant of the Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement, a South African-based membership organisation of over 10,000 people. AbM emerged in 2005 out of a road blockade which was a response to the intended forced removal of Kennedy Road shack settlement residents to poor exurban areas of Durban. As the general secretary of the movement, it is not until you see her get up in front of a crowd of 500 mhlali (comrades) and speak, that you get a glimpse of her power.
It’s a power built upon a movement fighting for the dignity of those who live in shacks; the “Damned of the Earth” as anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon once said. In fighting with her fellow shackdwellers, Bandile is asserting her own fortitude as a black woman living in an oppressively patriarchal and racist society. Her power is not only her unwillingness to accept “her place” in society but also her commitment to band together with others on that same defiant basis. Her influence is based on the masses, not the other way around.
She is driven to challenge and transcend the discrimination she faces as a short and black and female mother who is also a shackdweller, and then link her own struggles with that of fellow mhlali – this is why Bandile has been targeted for political arrest by Durban police.
For the past 8 months, since shackdwellers were evicted from a housing development in the area of Cato Crest in Durban, they have been embroiled in a recurring struggle for a place to call home. Their occupation of vacant municipal land which they named “Marikana” (after the miners strike and subsequent massacre by police) merely to make sure they have a roof over their heads, has earned them the full violent response of the state: home demolitions, evictions, rubber bullets, tear gas and multiple murders.
Two Cato Crest housing activists, Nkululeko Gwala and Thembinkosi Qumelo, were assassinated this year – residents believe by armed criminals close to the local ANC councillor. Others have been shot by law enforcement officials during protests and lie in critical condition at local hospitals. On the 30th of September, 17 year old Nqobile Nzuza was shot and killed in the back by police who – as in the other more famous Marikana strike – cry self defense. Yet, as usual, no police were hurt during what by all local accounts was a peaceful protest.
There is a definite campaign by politically connected people in the local ANC government to squash the Marikana Land Occupation in Cato Crest (a former white middle-class area close to the city centre). Yet, despite the violence coming from the municipality, the political assassinations and the illegal home demolitions, the community of hundreds refuses to budge. After evictions, the community has just rebuilt their shacks. As a response to the state-sponsored violence, AbM have now begun a city-wide civil disobedience campaign where residents have marched without giving notice to authorities and engaged in road blockades.
The political forces, which seem connected as high up as eThekwini Mayor James Nxumalo, have now become desperate. In addition to targeting those involved in the occupation in Cato Crest, they have also taken to threatening Abahlali baseMjondolo’s central leadership with retribution. Bandile, as general secretary of the movement has been a prime target of these death threats. She has been in Cato Crest day-in and day-out helping coordinate support from AbM branches throughout the city and organising legal support during the illegal demolitions.
Her powerful oratory voice and organisational capability has now led the police themselves to target her for arrest. This, like most arrests against Abahlali members, is a political arrest. Bandile has not committed any act of brutality against anyone thereby making the police’s charge of “public violence” inappropriate. (This is the standard charge laid against activists falsely arrested by police in South Africa.) Investigators have no evidence against her and yet, like with the now vindicated Kennedy 13 (Abahlali members arrested for murder in 2009), she is being denied bail.
Instead of working for justice, the courts are refusing to allow Bandile to go back to her children and family – this, on no basis except to fulfil the wishes of those who want to destroy Abahlali baseMjondolo. And it’s no coincidence that these attacks are happening exactly a year before the national elections. It seems, right now, these forces are pinning their hopes of destroying the largest independent movement of organised poor people in South Africa squarely on 150 centimetre tall Bandile Mdlalose.