S'bu Zikode has been the elected head of the
South African shackdwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolosince October 2005. Before that he was the Chairperson of the Kennedy RoadDevelopment Committee. He is also a well known public intellectual in South Africa who has written influential newspaper articles and often debated senior government people on radio. He has also written lyrics for the isicathimiya choir the Dlamini Kings.
Zikode was born in Escourt and is the son of a domestic worker. In 1993 he came to Durban after he finished school. He was able to attend the University at Durban-Westville for a semester during the very short period of reduced student fees after the end of
apartheid. After he had to leave the university due to an inability to pay he found employment as a gas station worker
In 2001 he was elected chair of the Kennedy Road Development Committee and before that the chair of the Clare Estate Slum Clearance Project. He speaks of having tried "so-called diplomacy" and recounts how he approached high profile members of the ruling party and tried to make deals about access to basic human necessities. Now he says it was "all in vain."
In October 2005 Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed and Zikode was elected as its first chair. Since then he has gained national prominence, appearing on TV shows, radio and in the national and local print media with his words being reprinted in pop-culture magazines with a combined circulation of 5 million. S'bu Zikode has been called the shack dweller's philosopher — indeed he articulates the struggle as "thought on the ground, running" — but he has resisted calls to run for local government or be the single spokesperson of the movement. He maintains that the problems are more systemic and sees himself only as the people's servant, elected on their behalf and subject to recall. Inviting Zikode to speak at one or another workshop, NGOs are often shocked to be told that the movement will first discuss whether or not to attend the workshop and then, if they decide to attend, will elect a representative or representatives to attend.
In response to Abahlali's refusal to vote in the 2005 local election,
African National Congresspoliticians accused Abahlali of being a "Third Force." The accusation is as outrageous as it is threatening since it associates the shackdwellers' movement with the murderous apartheid-sponsored violence of the early 1990s. But Zikode didn't deny it. Instead, he turned it around, linking the struggle against apartheid not only to the struggle for basic necessities, but also to the post-apartheid government's indifference to life in the shacks: "Government officials, politicians and intellectuals who speak about the Third Force have no idea what they are talking about. They are too high to really feel what we feel." Quite literally, high up in their offices, they couldn't see the people "down here" – physically, conceptually, experientially—and quite possibly the reality was that the Third Force was something the politicians could not understand: "We are driven by the Third Force, the suffering of the poor. Our betrayers are the Second Force. The First Force was our struggle against apartheid. The Third Force will stop when the Fourth Force comes. The Fourth Force is land, housing, water, electricity, health care, education, and work." The "second force," the ANC, had betrayed the struggle and produced not liberation but a "third force," namely the suffering of the poor. In this logic, the as-yet unrealized fourth force was, of course, none other than a vision of the future.
In a paper presented at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in March 2005, Zikode explained that the shack dweller's conception of politics is not about political office; it is a politics of the poor in the language of the people. And participation is based on a shared experience and the political practice dependent on democratic meetings in the settlements: "Our politics is a traditional home politics which is understood very well by all the old mamas and gogos [grannies] because it affects their lives and gives them a home." It is a language which all can speak and understand and thus creates a situation which is consciously collective. In Zikode's words, "we look after each other and think about the situation and plan our fight together." Zikode's notion is a challenge to the elite politics that has characterized the post-apartheid transition and its technicist aftermath. It is not a question of empowerment, or inclusion in terms of having a seat at the policy table, but a challenge to alienation inherent in the attitudes and proposals of the housing policy experts. And it is an alienation that is a result of the elite attitude toward the poor, as well as the poor's systemic exclusion from any policy decisions made about them.
The challenge to the academics and intellectuals in the setting of the university was quite clear; it required listening to and taking seriously the thinking that is done in the communities. In other words, it is about challenging the preconceived idea of who does the thinking and where it is done. This is not simply about entitlement or asserting ownership over a meeting, but to appreciate that the people who know a situation should do the thinking so they can demand a "more reality based, and a more scientific and effective mode of operation." Rather than an application of dialectics to a situation, the demand for concreteness in the Marxian sense involves tracing the dialectic that arises out of the struggle, and thus is a challenge to theory and theoreticians.
Zikode, along with a number of other members of the movement, was forced out of his job after his boss came under pressure from the Mayor. In September 2006 Zikode, and the then Deputy Chair of the movement
Philani Zungu, were arrested on trumped up charges and tortured by Superintendent Glen Nayager in the Sydenham Police Station. [ [http://abahlali.org/node/871 Shack Dwellers on the Move, Radical Philosophy, January 2007] ]
Online articles by S'bu Zikode
* [http://www.abahlali.org/node/17 We are the Third Force]
* [http://www.abahlali.org/node/842 Transcribed speech given at the University of KwaZulu-Natal]
* [http://www.themercury.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=3322172 We are the Restless Majority]
* [http://abahlali.org/node/551 Make Crime History]
* [http://abahlali.org/node/841 When Choices Can No Longer be Choices]
* [http://www.metamute.org/en/node/10945 Silencing the Right to Speak, is taking away Citizenship]
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