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Publication Details

Reference
Patel, Raj  (2006) A short course in politics at the university of
Abahlali Basemjondolo. Centre for Civil Society Research Report 42: 1-19.

Summary
Meeting Politics
A genuinely political organisation…is the least bound place of all. Everyone on the ground is essentially alone in the immediate solution of problems, and their meetings, or proceedings, have as their natural content protocols of delegation and inquest whose discussion is no more convivial or superegotistical than that of two scientists involved in debating a very complex question.
Alain Badiou

It’s late November 2005 in Durban. It’s hot. There are 40 people cramped into a wooden structure of the type used as a tool shed on the better sort of construction site. But this shed is in the Pemary Ridge shack settlement in the elite Reservoir Hills suburb in Durban. On the wall are posters of birds, and vehicles– ‘the train comes down the hill’, ‘the people are in the bus’, ‘the crates are on the truck’. The most durable building in the settlement, this shed is a multi-purpose space: classroom, crèche, community centre and, this evening, meeting room. The only social purpose it seems not to serve is a place of worship. And yet, with the lights flickering, and amid the intense concentration, we are party to an important moment of political ritual.

This is an Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting. All but five of the people in this
room have been elected to represent a settlement affiliated to Abahlali; they have arrived with a mandate, and will return with a detailed report. The five of us who represent no community have been invited as Amaqabane (comrades) rather than people chosen to speak for a group of Omakelwane (neighbours). Two of the five live in settlements that have not collectively affiliated to Abahlali, and three live in places with plumbing, places to which an ambulance will come if called.

Tomorrow a smaller delegation will meet with the Mayor and key Municipal officials to discuss a promise of housing for shack dwellers. It was a
promise delivered on the wide open fields of north Durban, on the sugar cane plantations owned by the Tongaat Hulett company (now part of Anglo American).

Gesturing grandly over the land owned by his former (and quite possibly future) employers, Mayor Obed Mlaba promised a R20 billion development, in which shackdwellers would feature, receiving a small slice of public funding that would, in the main, be targeted at subsidising office parks and middle class housing. No shackdwellers were invited to the press conference, and few questions were asked about specific details. An attempt to find out exactly what the shack dwellers’ slice is, and when it will be delivered, will be made tomorrow. The shackdwellers need to hone their tactics for their confrontation with the municipality. Copies of the government’s intelligence on local settlements, obtained from municipal council offices, are passed around, and studied by candlelight. Settlers read how many of them the government thinks they are, how employed they are, how poor.

It will not be an easy confrontation. The government has demonstrated both its fear of the shackdwellers, and its contempt for the law in containing the shackdwellers’ threat. A week previously, City Manager Mike Sutcliffe illegally suspended the shackdwellers’ right to hold a public demonstration on the curious grounds that their demands were ‘political’ (Amato 2005). He dispatched the Sydenham Police to intercept, and then beat, and then shoot the marchers. The protests were the lead story on the evening news. Even the state news channel, the SABC, led with the story. (Despite not sending a journalist to cover it, the SABC were able to use footage from Sally Giles.) Within two days, Mayor Obed Mlaba called a press conference to announce that the informal settlers would be prioritised to receive housing on a development in the north of the city. ‘We were going to announce it later’, Mlaba said, ‘because of the protests and … those people using the poor African communities… we decided to announce it today’.

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