Interview with Thapelo Mohapi, General Secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Thapelo Mohapi: Abahlali is based in Durban, and that’s where our headquarters are. But we organise in four other provinces. The movement, of course, has grown. The latest statistic was 110,200. So it’s a movement that is growing despite the repression and attacks. And I want to put it on record that we are not a terrorist organisation, as we have been perceived by many. We are just fighting for a just and equal society, where human dignity for all mankind is realised. We want to see the lives of people who are living in shacks and in rural areas, under difficult conditions, to be realised the same as those of the elite and the middle class.
Amandla!: what kind of social crisis is being faced by people in Durban?
TM: We have come from a time where there were food riots, and from food riots we then had floods. And that had a great economic impact. A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people lost their means of income. Breadwinners died as a result. Remember, on 11th July it will be one year since the riots took place. We lost 300 people then. And then we lost more than 300 people in the floods, and some are still unaccounted for.
On the ground, people are traumatised, people have lost hope. And government is not coming to the party, nothing is happening on the ground as far as government is concerned. There is a void when it comes to leadership. Politicians do not care about people on the ground. They only care about votes and being in Parliament and earning the money that they earn, which is beyond what people are earning. And of course, giving people R350. And the government is even failing to deliver that R350 that they promised to people on the ground.
A!: So is the problem of xenophobia a problem that you are facing in Durban?
TM: You know, it’s very important for us as activists, as leaders in our community, to actually dispel any form of xenophobic attacks. And we have been working with other organisations, such as the refugee social services. In fact, I’ve realised that South Africans are not xenophobic. It is our government that is xenophobic. What has happened in my community, for instance: when there was a shack fire, we all lost everything. And when it was time to provide emergency services, it was the municipality in eThekwini who said we will not provide services for foreigners, we only provide services for South Africans. So, materials were provided to only South Africans and not people from Mozambique.
Now remember, you’re coming to a community where people were living in harmony. My neighbour was a Mozambican, and a Malawian next to me. And I’ve never realised that they were actually from another country because we’ve been living with them for 15 years. So I’ve taken them as my brother and sister. But it is when government comes with services and says, “I’m not going to provide services for you. Because you are letting these people use the services for free in our country.” And of course, when there’s blockages for services in informal settlements, it is politicians and officials from the municipality who would say, “well, the blockages are taking place because there was a certain number of people that were living in this area, but you allow these other people to move in. So the number is now doubled or tripled. And therefore the system is not working.”
When those things are uttered by officials and politicians, people tend to listen to them and take them seriously. And then I will start hating my neighbour from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, simply because I believe that I’m not getting enough services because of them. So I believe that they are the ones who are blocking services from coming to me as a South African. And the fact that I don’t get a house is because I live in a community where people are migrant workers.
But we must also be critical of some of the media. There is a tendency of promoting some right wing organisations, like your Dudula movement. And that movement does not have the masses. You can’t say that you would rather not listen to a movement like Abahlali, with more than 100,000 members, that is against xenophobia; a movement that has always written and said that they are against any form of prejudice or attack on migrant workers in South Africa; a movement that when it marches, Durban comes to a standstill. And then you would rather listen to Operation Dudula, to people who are right wing who have hatred, who don’t know how things are working.
The leader of Operation Dudula does not know what poverty is. I’m speaking from a point of view of the fact that I live in a shack, I grew up in a shack. But I have a heart and I have a morale because I believe that I am an African before I am a South African; that I must love my brother, it doesn’t matter where he comes from.
And so somebody who grew up and lived a life of a bourgeois for his entire life cannot come today and tell us to hate our brothers and sisters who are coming to seek better opportunities, like everyone else who comes to the cities. And I must say that these people do not have the masses behind them. They exist in Johannesburg, but when they march in Cape Town, they take the masses from Johannesburg and bring them to Cape Town.
And the media is actually promoting that. The media has a role to play in uniting South Africa. The media has a role to actually report things that are positive in our community. So when we have people in general who are living side by side with migrant workers from Mozambique, from Malawi, from Zimbabwe, we must nurture that and we must promote that. We can never promote a right-wing attitude brought by somebody who does not know what poverty is.
I’m saying that anyone who is xenophobic, anyone who attacks foreign migrants who are working their dompas in an apartheid way. It is totally uncalled for. And we should, as activists, be against it and condemn it in the strongest manner that we have.
A!: So how does Abahlali respond to things like Operation Dudula in Durban? How do you ensure that your membership takes up struggles against Operation Dudula and those right-wing forces?
TM: I think, first and foremost, it’s important for leadership to show real leadership. There are those who are grandstanding, who would say things because they feel that people want to hear. We need to dispel the fact that people are coming here to take our jobs. There are no jobs in the country. And it’s because the ANC has failed dismally to create job opportunities. Capital is actually the one who is impoverishing the poorest of the poor on the ground. Those things need to be made clear. And it is only us, who are at grassroots level, who are organising from below, who will speak to our people on the ground and make them realise.
So there needs to be an intense political education about how we as Africans can live together and dispel the notion that is brought by capitalists. Cheap labour is not created by us. It is created by the capitalists themselves, who go in the market and choose the desperate people for work. I think we should go back and work together as trade unions, work together as organisations and grassroots social movements, work together as civil society, outside of the state, and dispel whatever is being done.
So the greater the voice of ourselves organising on the ground, and those who are organising workers, that is against xenophobia, I think that is the only way to address it.