Abahlali baseMjondolo Anthology


There are many ways by which people can take steps to change their lives through collective action and solidarity. The conundrum for me is why such tools are used so seldom. It is evident that each person is daily confronted with an abundance of vitally compelling reasons to radically remake the world and transform life from the bottom up -- in the poverties of her own everyday life, the misery of her relations with others, and the endless stream of intensifying disasters throughout her world reported in the news. All of which begs the question (which, curiously enough, very few who are already impatient for change -- those radicals and activists who busy themselves with all sorts of earnest campaigns -- seem interested in asking): why is revolt still so unpopular? Precisely what are the main concrete obstacles to revolution among the majority right now? Precisely what concrete steps might be taken to overcome such obstacles? How to do it?

Rather than attempt to initiate such discussions, most of my fellows seem content either to pass over these questions in silence, or to provide generalities about 'ignorance, apathy and fear' as answers, or again to imagine that the multi-faceted change of appearances about which most people are passionately pre-occupied somehow already 'prefigures' the total transformation far too few feel to be necessary. Certainly the struggles of the present are based on needs which can only be satisfied by thoroughgoing change at every level of life, but the mere fact that a revolutionary significance can be discovered therein by those who are willing need not prevent us from asking precisely why such people are so few and far between. Which exact objective and subjective factors, in our present conditions, prevent participants in the inevitable rebellions which continuously erupt everywhere from taking the steps to deepen and widen their struggles which is so essential if even their own limited goals are to have any hope of success? If such steps are being taken, where is this happening, and why? What are the results? Why did such steps stop where they did? How might they have continued? What practical conclusions can be drawn from this for our own future experiments? The answering of such questions is clearly beyond my individual capacity to achieve. Hitherto, few indeed in my corner of the planet have shown any interest in joining me in posing such questions, as, indeed, seems to be the case everywhere in the world. Such questions are inspired by the immense rebellious movement among township residents and workers which continues to question in practice more and more aspects of this miserable mode of existence. As such it seems we are in a situation approaching that of Portugal during the anti-fascist uprising, when 

'By mid 1975, a huge part of the economy and society were directly in the hands of the workers and run by the workers. It was in this background that the periodical O Jornal Combate was published in Portugal. The idea was to produce a non-ideological newspaper that would publish reports about these occupations and experiences of self-management. Many of the occupied factories at this time, were producing their own bulletins and broadsheets telling and discussing the issues that were at stake inside the factory and it was thought that these bulletins could be reproduced in their entirety (and not just quoting certain sections, as other newspapers were doing, in keeping with their own ideologies). Workers' Committees were interviewed and could tell their own stories in their own words. As well as that round table discussions by members of various Committees were organised and taped and these discussions transcribed and reproduced in full.

The aim of Combate was to publicize the struggles of the workers and their forms of struggle, whether in industry or commerce as well as the struggles in agriculture, both north and south of the country, as well as the Neighbourhood struggles. Also, Combate focused in on all struggles against military discipline which was especially important given the context that the armed forces were directly involved in the government and enjoyed enormous prestige for having overthrown the fascist regime. Combate also focused in on worker's struggles in other countries and almost all issues contained news of these struggles. Those producing Combate hoped that by publishing these articles and by reproducing the factory bulletins, as well as organising discussions amongst various workers that workers in similar situations could learn from their comrades and contribute their experiences and that the most advanced experiences could unite them in a common front or at least stimulate relations between the various workers' groups.' (O Journal Combate, Joao Bernardo, Rita Delgado, Jose Elesio Melo e Silva & Phil Mailer)

With the recent return of a revolutionary social-movement in this country expressed through continuous acts of insubordination, sabotage and increasingly combative wildcat-strikes in the workplace together with road and rail blockades, arson and manifold acts of creative direct-action in the streets, it seems apt to resume the practice of our Portuguese comrades from the past and publicise the voices of South Africa's rebellious proletarians in their own words, unedited and unabridged.

Unfortunately the movement is not yet anywhere near as advanced as the situation in Portugal in terms of communication, co-ordination and dialogue. It would have been preferable to include the voices of people from all over the country, from workplaces and townships, from the numerous grassroots organisation and from communities whose struggles are advanced without any institutional organisation at all. This has not been possible, because to my knowledge no recorded expressions from such people currently exists. 

This shortcoming will have to be overcome in a major way if any of the other serious practical limitations of the movement are to be successfully confronted. If direct dialogue among proletarians is the marrow of modern revolution, the self-organised production of wide-ranging publicity and international communication for these local conversations is its life-blood. Abahlali baseMjondolo, whose statements form the bulk of this anthology, has, of all the organisations now operating in this country, most consistently taken steps in this direction.  It is no surprise that this is also unquestionably the single most radical mass-based organisation operating in the country today, whose activity in the ghettos of South Africa has hammered out -- through the crucible of persistent and courageous struggle contributed -- contributions towards revolutionary theory and practice unparalleled in this country's history.  Its ongoing series of international communications, which over the years has come to form a voluminous archive of considerable historical and social value, is not the least of its contributions. 

  • Annual renewal of local sections and detailed discussions on 'abahlalism' before joining as a guard against the possible reduction of members to passive spectators in their own organisation; 
  • Mass assemblies, revocable delegates with precise mandates, rotation of important organisational tasks to prevent accumulation of authority or expansion of members into dictators; 
  • Development of the theory of 'living communism'; 
  • Advancement of an 'ongoing collective reflection on the contemporary experience of life and struggle' in a 'University of Abahlali baseMjondolo' built from dialogue, action and camaraderie rather than degrees, examinations and hierarchy; 
  • Constant focus on the satisfaction of basic material, emotional, and intellectual human needs through 'a homemade politics that everyone, every old gogo [grandmother], can understand and find a home in’; and
  • Rejection of representation by bureaucrats and refusal of passive hierarchical social-relations both in the 'public' sphere of urbanism (the desire to 'reshape the cities from below', the demand that development offer 'nothing for us without us') and the 'private' realm of everyday life (critique of the lecture as a form of activity)
Comprise a brief, by no means exhaustive list, of its other concrete contributions towards the abolition of an abhorrent, decrepit, and miserable world. The following small anthology of texts from the vast archive of Abahlali communications was selected primarily to demonstrate how the above formulations have been elaborated by its members, as well as to provide something of the concrete context in which this activity has been sustained. 

An introductory text on the Mandela Park Anti Eviction Campaign is prefaced as an outline of the pre-history of Abahlali. It was the birth of this organisation in 2000 which began to kick off the dominant popular stupor induced by Mandealer's victory in 1994, and it provided a model for radical grass-roots activity in the 'New South Africa', setting the tone, form and content for much of the struggles to come until its demise in 2005, which co-incided neatly with the birth of AbM. An insightful perspective on the wider context is offered in the text south africa – now & then (2005/1979/1983/1985), which covers many of the neo-apartheid struggles in the period up to 2005, plus texts about S.A. in 1985, 1980 and the Black Consciousness movement from 1976 till 1979.

Newclare, Johannesburg, 8 October 2014
It is certainly necessary to recognise the limitations and contradictions of a particular collective practice; since such problems are an inevitable and potentially disastrous reality, it benefits no-one to have cheerleaders ululate uncritically about a mythical 'revolutionary subject' (whether this be a particular organisation, class, caste, ethnicity, civilisation, sex, species, whatever) destined to fulfill their own fantasies. As much as it may annoy them, we would do our friends a serious disservice if we spared them the 'ruthless critique of all that exists' whose continual elaboration in relation to our own particular conditions is so essential for the advancement of any revolutionary project. Where criticism of Abahlali as an organisation or as individuals seemed potentially useful, I have offered it elsewhere, in my own writing. I take care to remember, however, that while analysis and critique are of vital importance, they are most incisive only after an initial shared experience of practical solidarity, the sort of personal involvement that forms a prerequisite for any sort of mutual-recognition. I thus feel that it is necessary, first of all, to let my comrades act and speak for themselves, listen carefully to what they have to say, lend a hand to extend their project in a concrete way. This anthology, then, is a contribution towards that international current whose movement -- underground, unconscious, maligned and misunderstood -- abolishes the miserable state of things now dominant everywhere. It attempts to achieve this on two levels. At the local level, the aim is to direct my own immodest light towards the struggles, methods, memories, and aspirations of a group whose activity remains shrouded in a fog silence and lies, and by so doing dispel some of that darkness. At the global level, the aim is to propose that proletarians in similar situations around the world draw their own practical conclusions from the rich experiences of their South African comrades.

At the beginning of this year the greatest hero this land has ever known died. The documentary on AbM was even branded with his name: Dear Mandela. The millionaire chief died and passed on his handsome inheritance to his well-groomed spawn, who squabbled over it and control of the family brand. Nothing changed. The ground remained unmoved. The passions locked in the cloistered spirits of little girls and boys continued to be flayed a little with each passing day by elders whose nerves were as brutalised as ever by a world run on mechanics and malice, boredom and death. In a review of the above documentary, an old friend of both AbM and myself suggested that it might be time to start writing less letters to uTata Madiba and more to one another. I agree wholeheartedly. The mother of the kid killed by the hero's cops who screamed 'Mandela can go to hell!' might want to send him some hate mail. For my part, I send this anthology out into the world as a love letter addressed to all the children born into a life of modern slavery whose misery and rage is assuaged by neither the glittering colours of the 'rainbow nation' nor the star-spangled dazzle of the global spectacle. Those interested in breaking 'the golden chains of the bourgeoisie' rather than decorating them with designer-labels or padding them with styrofoam could find a fair deal of ammunition in the communications of these notorious proletarians from the ghettos of neo-apartheid SA. Let us not mourn famous men. There are more than enough of them, and if we must grieve, let it be for our own human treasures condemned to rot under the stupid garbage of a rancid world. In any case, the time for mourning is long gone; we will get nowhere until we swap our griefs for grievances. Why do I say 'we'? Why not? Ain't I a proletarian? What would Sojourner Truth say? Why wait for an answer? What worlds of unknown pleasures slip through our fingers with each passing moment? Since it's impossible for anyone living in the world today not to sense the abysmal gulf between what is and what could be, why not try to close it? What would happen if you tried? If not you then who? If not here then where? If not now then when? What does this world have to offer other than a more or less comfortable version of what one of the protagonists of Dear Mandela feared: that at his funeral all people will be able to say was "He was born; he survived; he died"'? How can the mechanical jobs, the trivial pastimes and the inane social-relations to which almost everyone is doomed ever hope to offer what this same young protagonist desired: 'I want to be able to live, to be a real person'? When will the shirkers of the world unite? What have we got to lose but our iphones? Such are some of the questions seduced into orgiastic revelry by the texts in this anthology. The may continue to run rampant through my mind indefinitely, sparking butterflies and tender kleptomaniacs of the imagination, but the cortical monkey in control of my grammar is beginning to mutiny and I have imposed quite enough of my own voice already. Enough. Let us now praise infamous proles.

Siddiq Khan
October 2014