Editor’s Note: As the worldwide economic meltdown continues, it’s becoming clear that the fight against foreclosures is not simply an American issue; it is a global issue. And as US activists come to terms with the human consequences of the crisis, there is much to be learned from activists elsewhere who have been grappling with these issues for years.
The following open letter to US activists is a response to Ben Ehrenreich’s “Foreclosure Fightback,” published February 9 in The Nation. It is a letter of support and solidarity from a group of South African activists who have considerable experience fighting for the rights of the poor and dispossessed in post-apartheid South Africa.
The Nation welcomes responses from community activists around the world about your efforts to fight foreclosure and protect the most vulnerable from economic disaster. Use the e-form at the bottom of this page to tell your story. We’ll publish as many of your responses as possible in our ongoing “Tell The Nation” series.
To: All poor Americans and their communities in resistance
The privatization of land–a public resource for all that has now become a false commodity–was the original sin, the original cause of this financial crisis. With the privatization of land comes the dispossession of people from their land which was held in common by communities. With the privatization of land comes the privatization of everything else, because once land can be bought and sold, almost anything else can eventually be bought and sold.
As the poor of South Africa, we know this because we live it. Colonialism and apartheid dispossessed us of our land and gave it to whites to be bought and sold for profit. When apartheid as a systematic racial instrument ended in 1994, we did not get our land back. Some blacks are now able to own land as long as they have the money to do so. But as the poor living in council homes, renting flats or living in the shacks, we became even more vulnerable to the property market.
It is chilling to hear many people today speak with nostalgia about how it was better during apartheid–as if it was not apartheid that stole their land in the first place. But, in an obscure way, it makes sense. Back then in the cities there was less competition for land and housing. Because many of us were kept in the bantustans by a combination of force and economic compulsion (such as subsidized rural factories), the informal settlements in the cities were smaller and land less scarce.
But in the new South Africa (what some call post-apartheid South Africa and others call neoliberal South Africa), the elite have decided it is every man–or woman or multinational company–for him or herself. And thus, the poor end up fighting with the rich as well as with themselves. The elite use their wealth and their connections to all South African political parties in the pursuit of profit. There is very little regulation of this, and where there is regulation, corrupt and authoritarian government officials get around it in a heartbeat. People say that we have the best constitution in the world–but what kind of constitution enshrines the pursuit of profit above anything else? They claim it was written for us. That may be. But it obviously was not written by us–the poor.
So, the recent realization that there is a financial crisis in the US (we think the crisis has been there a long time, but was hidden by economists) reminds us of where we ourselves stand. While our neoliberal government has touted growth and low inflation figures as proof of the health of our country, 40 percent unemployment has remained. While Mandela and Mbeki were in power and the economy grew, poor South Africans had their homes stolen right from under them. For our entire lives, we have been living in a depression, and at the center of this crisis is land and housing.
As the poor, we gave the African National Congress government five years to at least make some inroads towards redistribution. But instead, the land and housing crisis has gotten worse, inequality greater, and we are more vulnerable than ever.
So, in 1999, 2000 and 2001, farms, townships, ghettos and shack settlements all across South Africa erupted against evictions, water cutoffs, electricity cutoffs and the like. We have been fighting for small things and small issues, but our communities are also fighting two larger battles.
The first is embodied in the declaration we make to the outside world: We may be poor but we are not stupid! We may be poor, but we can still think! Nothing for us without us! Talk to us, not about us! We are fighting for democracy. The right to be heard and the right to be in control of our own communities and our own society. This means that government officials and political parties should stop telling us what we want. We know what we want. This means that NGOs and development “experts” should stop workshopping us on “world-renowned” solutions at the expense of our own homegrown knowledge. This means we refuse to be a “stakeholder” and have our voices managed and diminished by those who count.
In the 2004 national elections and again in this year’s elections, we have declared, “No Land! No House! No Vote!” This is not because we are against democracy but because we are against voting for elites and for politicians who promise us the whole world every five years and, when they get elected, steal the little we have for themselves. Elections are a chance for those in power to consolidate it. We believe this is not only a problem of corruption, but also a structural problem that gives individuals and political parties the authority to make decisions for us. We reject that and we reject voting for it.
Second, while our actions may seem like a demand for welfare couched in a demand for houses, social grants and water, they are actually a demand to end the commodification of things that cannot be commodified: land, labour and money. We take action to get land and houses and also to prevent banks from stealing our land and houses. When a family gets evicted and has nowhere else to go, we put them back inside. (In Gugulethu last year we put 146 out of 150 families back in their homes).
When government cuts off our electricity, we put it back on. In 2001, we were able to get the City of Cape Town to declare a two-month moratorium on evictions. We break the government’s law in order not to break our own (moral) laws. We oppose the authorities because we never gave them the authority to steal, buy and sell our land in the first place.
Combined these are battles for a new emancipatory structure where we are not stakeholders but people; where land is for everyone and where resources are shared rather than fought over.
This anti-eviction movement you are waging has the potential to help build a new kind of liberative politics outside of the political parties. We have found that these politics must be about the issues (including land and housing). It must not be about personalisation of the struggle. No politician or political party can or will fight the struggle for you. As a hero of your past once stated: power concedes nothing without a demand. Being in the struggle for over nine years, we have learned the following:
• Beware of all those in power–even those who seem like they are on your side.
• Beware of money, especially NGO money, which seeks to pacify and prevent direct action.
• Beware of media, even alternative media written by the middle class on behalf of the poor. Create your own media.
• Beware of leaders, even your own. No one can lead without you. Leaders are like forks and knives. They are the tools of the community and exist to be led by the communities.
When you build your “Take Back Our Land! Take Back Our Houses!” movement, build from below. Build democratically. Build alternative and autonomous ways of living within your community while fighting for what is yours. Build your own school of thought.
Make sure poor communities control their own movements because, as we say, no one can lead without us. Make sure you break the government’s laws when necessary, but never break your own laws which you set for yourselves.
Most important of all, do not forget you have much to teach us as well. We all have much to learn from one another.
Amandla Ngawethu! Power to the Poor People!
The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign