The Lessons of South Africa’s Largest Poor People’s Movement Resonate at Home

Two youth leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African Shackwellers Movement, the largest poor people’s movement in post-apartheid South Africa, paid a visit to Chicago to share their struggle for land and housing, as part of a month-long tour throughout the United States.  In Chicago, their messages on the central importance of organizing as a community and developing the collective, in particular, resonated deeply with local organizers.


NESRI’s Housing Program participated in two events hosted by NESRI ally the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign: a public screening and discussion of the Shackdwellers’ documentary, Dear Mandela, which follows their movement’s successful campaign to stop the forced evictions of the residents of South Africa’s informal settlements, home to nearly half of the country’s population, and an intimate strategic exchange with Chicago’s housing organizers.


These conversations revealed the enormous parallels between the modern struggles in South Africa and Chicago, and the United States more broadly.  In particular, both struggles are operating in a political landscape that proclaims to have resolved the inequalities of the past, despite the reality that injustices continue to live on in the present, and, in fact, have arguably grown worse.  To fight for real freedom in post-apartheid South Africa, said Zawa, the elected National Administrator of Abahlali and General Secretary of the Movement’s Youth League, required a heightened kind of clarity: the targets are not as obvious as before, “a person must fight with heart and mind to go forward.” 


Abahlali has developed great collective clarity with a process they call “living politic.”  Meeting all day once a month, all members of Abahlali are simultaneously teachers and students.  Lived experience, with an emphasis on cross-generational exchange, is the basis of developing shared understanding of history, politics and economic realities.  It is also the foundation on which the Movement has built a strong sense of community and a profound wisdom that is widely shared.  It is through organized community, emphasized Zawa, that Abahlali is “able to reach far.”


In Chicago, as in other parts of the United States, it is clear that we have some key additional challenges we must confront in order to develop the kind of movement-based knowledge and strength in community that Abahlali has modeled so successfully.  Individualism is a dominant ideological force in the United States, and as S’Bu, the elected President of Abahlali, reflected after visiting the United States in 2011, “there are many kinds of walls and gates and gated communities that make it difficult to have community meetings and they depoliticize poverty.” 


J.R. Fleming, Chairman of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, added to this point on Tuesday in dialogue with Zawa and Mnikelo, one of the founding members of Abahlali also in attendance.  J.R. noted that, in the United States, low-income communities of color have been constantly uprooted and widely dispersed, such as through the demolition of public housing, causing real disruptions in the progress of establishing and maintaining a strong collective. 


Despite such added challenges, the astute analysis of committed leaders in Chicago and the inspiring global solidarity with movements like Abahlali illustrate that great strides are being made here at home.