The Struggle to Affirm the Dignity of the Poor in a Society in which we don’t Count
by S’bu Zikode, Presented in Mexico City on 6th August 2012
Before Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed the shack dwellers in South Africa were considered by government and some other people in our society to be the undeserving poor. This claim came as the result of the perception that the poor are lazy, uneducated and people who do not think and therefore do not count the same as other human beings. The general public, civil society and the media could not defend the poor against this indignity. The media had little or nothing to report on anything that surrounds shack dwellers, be it good or bad, that considered us as human beings or citizens. We were mostly seen as a threat to society – as a problem to be controlled. When shacks were on fire radios and televisions would not air or broadcast this. On the other side the state would refuse any provision of basic services to the shack settlements or to engage us as citizens. We have always been considered as people who cannot think for ourselves. Someone from somewhere else would always be hired and paid to think for us, to represent us and to take decisions on our behalf. This has been the state mentality towards the poor. It has also been the mentality of most NGOs and of most of civil society. It has also been the mentality of what we have called the regressive left – that part of the left that thinks that its job is to think for the poor rather than with the poor. The rights that we have on paper were always refused in reality. This included our rights as citizens and our rights to the cities. Whenever we asked for our rights to be respected, for our humanity to be recognized, we were presented as troublemakers, as people that were being used by others, or as criminals. Our request to participate in the discussions about our own lives was taken as a threat.