This article, by Jacob Bryant, centres on the early days of the Kennedy Road struggle and is based on interviews and conversations with shack dwellers from the Kennedy Road settlement.
TOWARDS DELIVERY AND DIGNITY: COMMUNITY STRUGGLE FROM KENNEDY ROAD1 Jacob Bryant, December 20052
‘Now that we’re protesting, our voice is heard . . our struggle is the voice of silent victims . . . we hadn’t been able to talk before’
– System Cele
When it assumed leadership in 1994, the African National Congress and its ruling alliance partners encouraged a policy of demobilisation for the very organisations that, via mass-mobilisation, had helped bring them into power. After a period of relative quiet, many of the same people who had fought against apartheid took to the streets again in the mass-movements that have emerged post-apartheid, protesting the policies of the new, African-led government. The grievances of these movements range from frustration with government inaction on HIV/AIDS to the evictions of the poor who cannot pay rent, but all express frustration with how little the circumstances of the poor have changed with the ‘new dispensation’,3 and bring their frustrations to the state.4 One of the more recent ‘movements’ began with large protests from Durban’s Kennedy Road settlement against their local councilor, which then inspired and grew into Abahlali baseMjondolo5 (AbM), an organisation of shack-dwellers. Through AbM, the scope and participation of the movement have increased dramatically over the past year, garnering significant media attention and winning small concessions from the Durban municipal government. The topic of Kennedy Road is important beyond the demands this movement makes or the tactics it employs, however, for what it represents: a thrust for ‘bottom-up democracy’6 in a country whose leaders are being criticised increasingly for highly-centralised control7 and a directed, public articulation of the grievances of the poor.
This paper explores how the people of the Kennedy Road settlement understand themselves, their movement, its goals and tactics, and its relationship to the state and to the struggle against apartheid. To understand these connections, this project also explores the origins of the Abahlali movement (and how these origins are remembered) and the sustaining culture and networks that the movement has spawned. Thus, the guiding questions to be answered are simply ‘why did a movement arise from Kennedy Road?’ and ‘how has this movement been sustained?’ But because this movement, as are most, is sustained by many of the same things that produced them, particular focus will be made on its beginnings – on people’s frustrations, on how these turned into action, and on the feelings and gains that resulted.
In explaining the origins of social movements, scholars generally cite the ‘political opportunities’ afforded to movements by the state, the ‘mobilising mechanisms’ that movements employ, or the manner in which they ‘frame’ their grievances as the critical factor in successful mobilisation.8 With Kennedy Road and AbM, all three of these explanatory factors play a role in successful mobilisation, in line with an emerging consensus amongst theorists of social movements. Thus the task is not to identify which of these factors mobilised people, but rather the way in which their interplay gave rise to a movement.
At Kennedy Road, the movement began with a convergence of people’s frustration over a series of events which they saw as broken promises from the Durban municipal government. These frustrations then converged through the mass-meetings the community holds, and were mobilised through the elected formal leadership structure as well as through the informal friendship and kinship networks within and beyond the settlement. The movement has been sustained, though, not only by the power of people’s frustrations, but by a democratic, consultative culture that involves as many people as possible in its decisions – what some call ‘bottom-up democracy’. Interestingly, this bottom-up democracy couples with a strong culture of leadership, and some twenty or thirty committed leader-activists work hard to preserve the consultative culture of the community and of the movement. Additionally, important in the movement’s beginnings and maintenance is the ‘framing process’,9 where the settlement has movingly voiced its grievances in contrast to the state’s promises. These framings have consolidated support for the movement within the Kennedy Road settlement, attracted the solidarity and partnership of other settlements, and have fueled sympathetic media coverage, taking the movement to a national and international audience. Critically, the movement has also linked productively with academics and professionals, whose media-skills, legal interventions and strategic advice have kept the movement alive and have brought it broader audiences and access to networks of resources.
In this paper, I will retrace a history of the AbM movement through the accounts people gave in their interviews and through a collection of newspaper articles written as the protests began. The body of this paper will then present my findings from interviews and observation, sketching a ‘geography’ of the movement. In a section on movement origins, we turn back to reexamine the events charted in the background section through the eyes of the people living at Kennedy Road, trying to understand how and why they ‘broke with authority’10 and took their grievances to the streets. Here too we begin to see the structures or ‘mobilising mechanisms’ that initially ‘got people out of their shacks’11 and have brought sustained, broad-based support. As with their mobilising structures, the ways that the movement framed their frustrations and cause has been important in gathering support from other shacks-dwellers, from academics, and from media, and this paper will examine the language of the movement and the support it has attracted. As language and culture are intimately intertwined, examining language will build to an evaluation of the ‘culture of struggle’, the operating norms of the Abahlali movement, and this culture’s implications for the movement’s future and growth. The paper will conclude by exploring the direction of the movement and its members’ views of institutional politics, including recent negotiations with the municipality around toilets and housing. And because movements are eminently contextual and AbM’s context is South Africa, engaging with institutional politics also asks the question of engagement with the ‘first struggle’, and the paper will thus explore people’s understanding of the connections between the fight against apartheid and the shack-dwellers’ movement.