Organise or Starve: Life under lockdown in South Africa’s shackdweller movements

Abahlali baseMojondolo write on the solidarity being shown in the face of State and capital’s violence against impoverished South Africans.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic social movements have been in the forefront of building networks of mutual aid and solidarity. In Brazil our comrades in the Landless Workers’ Movement, the MST, have already provided more than 40 000 food baskets to poor neighbourhoods. Here in South Africa our movement has been providing food to branches across the country, running community kitchens and growing organic and heathy food on occupied land in Durban. In Cape Town activists have formed Community Action Networks. Around the country there have been important local initiatives.

These networks have been of great assistance in distributing food, forming community kitchens and also, in some cases, democratising science by educating people about the virus and combatting fake news. In Cape Town these networks have often been formed by young people who are willing to risk their own health despite the increasing numbers of infections in the province. Unlike the state progressive grassroots activists make no distinction between people based on the country in which they were born when building solidarity and organising mutual aid.

Before the lockdown millions of people in South Africa were impoverished with the result that they were living in life threatening conditions in shack settlements and often going hungry. Many families have spent their whole lives living under inhuman conditions. It must be clear that the issues that have risen to public prominence during this period are not new. They have always been there. People who are not well organised have been unable to voice them beyond their own communities because the media was not there to report on them.

The lockdown has pushed millions more into impoverishment and radically worsened the situation of already impoverished people. Hunger has become an everyday reality for millions. Our comrades in Cape Town tell us that people get hugely anxious and stressed when the food provided by activists runs out before their turn comes. They don’t know what they will say to their children when they get home.

In this situation of serious crisis impoverished people have been criminalised by the state. The police and the army have humiliated and beaten large numbers of people. Two weeks ago it was reported in the media that 11 people had been killed by the police and the army during lockdown operations. Once again we have been reminded that our lives do not count to this society.

As everybody knows Collins Khosa was killed in Johannesburg on Easter Friday after being severely assaulted by soldiers. Members of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department were also present during the assault. After Khosa’s family successfully won an urgent application against the ministers of the police and the army Bheki Cele tried to get the family to abandon the most important part of the court order that they had won. As the proverb says, the fish rots from the head.

The abuses that we have seen during the lockdown are not a new experience for impoverished black people. We are generally treated as if being poor makes us criminal and as if we don’t count to the law. People are illegally and violently evicted from their homes all the time. Grassroots activists have often been assaulted by the police, tortured in police stations and murdered by the police on protests. In Durban political assassinations were an everyday bread when Jacob Zuma was President.

The problem of serious abuse and criminality by the police is also not new. All that has changed is that the media is now taking this seriously. Before the crisis the media would often ignore abuse and violence against impoverished black people by the police, or just report police press statements as if they were the truth. Even well organised communities have faced this.

When Nqobile Nzuza, an unarmed teenage girl, was murdered by the police in Cato Manor in 2013 the police claimed that they were the victims and most news reports repeated this without seeing any need to speak to anyone who witnessed the murder. This was despite the fact that we had issued a clear press statement, the truth of which was later confirmed in court when the police officer who murdered Nqobile was found guilty of murder and given a prison sentence.

The programme by the state to provide food in this time of crisis has been too late, too little and clouded by corruption and nepotism. Once again this is not new. The provision of food parcels, support after shack fires, government jobs and government houses has always been inadequate and distorted by corruption and party politics. Usually the media ignore the corruption by ward councillors and their committees. But in this crisis the corruption and politicisation of access to food parcels is being covered.

Despite the relief that has been made available by the government, people continue to starve. Many people have had far more support from social movements, religious organisations and progressive NGOs than from the government. This is because social movements and some religious organisations and progressive NGOs have always been on the ground with communities. We are not aware of anyone in our movement or any of our communities who has received the promised R350 special grant. There are cases where ward councillors and ANC branch executive committees have had the names of well-known members of our movement scratched off lists of people due to receive the vouchers for retail outlets Shoprite (R650) and Spar (R600). They make it clear that if you are with “the red shirts” you will not get support.

This crisis doesn’t only mean State violence and starvation. It also means that many people are being retrenched. Some experts think that millions of people could lose their jobs and that many people in the middle classes could find themselves falling into impoverishment. Progressive trade unions are doing their best to resist the wave of retrenchments but the neoliberals in government have made it clear that they will sell out the workers. For them the interests of the capitalists always come before the interests of workers. In this situation it is essential that progressive trade unions and poor people’s organisations unite in struggle to insist that social concerns are given priority over the interests of capital and that the state puts the interests of impoverished and working-class people before those of the predatory elite within and around the ruling party.

Another problem faced by the working class is that many employers are rushing to open their businesses even though there are no safety measures in place. This is putting employees at serious risk. We have seen in the United Kingdom and the United States that the people most at risk from this virus are poor and working-class people of colour. But despite this our government has failed to put directives in place to force the bosses to ensure the safety of all workers. The inaction by the government makes employers feel that they can get away with exploiting workers and putting their health at serious risk.

Our government represents the interests of an elite. Since 1994 they have consistently sold out the interests of impoverished and working-class people to advance their own interests by making their own deals with capital and looting the state. In this crisis the situation of impoverished and working-class people is getting worse by the day. Many middle-class people will soon taste the bitterness of poverty too. Things will get much more difficult in the next few weeks and months.

There is always the risk that the government and the politicians will try to survive the hard times that are coming by turning the oppressed against each other. We have already seen a highly disturbing escalation in xenophobic rhetoric by senior people in the ANC. It is vital that all progressive organisations work together to build unity among the oppressed and to resist all attempts by the state and the ruling party to encourage xenophobia.

One good thing about this crisis is that, at last, issues like police brutality and the politicisation and corruption of welfare are starting to get taken seriously by the media. Another good thing is that a new generation of young activists is emerging in response to the crisis and the corruption and violence experienced from the state. When people started rebelling against their councillors and organising big protests from shack settlements around the country from 2004 a new generation of young activists came to the fore. Now we are seeing another new generation of young activists coming to the fore.

The only way out of this crisis is for impoverished and working-class people to build democratic popular power from below and to insist that we begin the process of building a genuinely just, equal and democratic country. The state and the economy must be brought under democratic control. Land, wealth and power must be shared. As the trade union slogan says we must organise or starve. If we fail to do this we will be destroyed by the coming storm.

The time to organise is now.

Yonk’ indawo umzabalazo uyasivumela.