A bishop's pursuit of justice for South Africa's shack dwellers

The first black South African to hold the position of Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Natal, and chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council (KZNCC), Rubin Phillip is currently in the UK to raise awareness about the plight of the Durban-based shack-dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Abahlali have insisted on speaking for themselves about the realities of the poor, and on the right of the poor themselves to shape their own lives. For this, they have won support in many shack settlements, and have also incurred the wrath of the political establishment.

In September 2009 Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) leaders were attacked in the Durban-based Kennedy Road settlement by an armed mob chanting ethnic slogans. The police refused to come to the aid of AbM and only stepped in to disable spontaneous resistance to the mob. Two lives were lost during the attempt to mount a defence against the mob, and the homes of more than 30 AbM leaders were destroyed and looted following which local leaders of the ruling party seized control of the settlement.

Leaders of the ruling political party in the city and the province attacked the movement in extremely strong language in the days following the attack, accusing the movement of being criminals and ‘anti-development’. Twelve supporters of AbM were arrested in relation to the attack on the movement, and eight months later they are still waiting for the presentation of evidence from the state.

The Kennedy Road attacks were explicitly directed at Abahlali baseMjondolo as a movement, and its activists and supporters.

Three weeks after the attacks AbM succeeded in having the Slums Act declared unconstitutional in the Constitutional Court. It was a remarkable victory. This Act gave the provincial Minister of Housing the powers to make it mandatory for landowners and municipalities to institute eviction proceedings against shack dwellers. The Act undermined tenure security for all shack dwellers in the province.

Despite this victory at the Constitutional Court, supporters of the ruling party were simultaneously openly issuing public death threats against the movement’s leadership in the context of intense hostility to the movement from local party leaders and police officers.

The church believes it is imperative to establish, publicly and with confidence, the truth of what has happened and to help ensure that those who are found to be responsible are held accountable. This call has found wide support in South Africa and around the world.

As the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Natal (KZN), with the support of the KZN Church Leaders' Group, Bishop Rubin Phillip will accordingly appoint a properly independent Commission. This is the first time the ANC will have been challenged at a national level since their ascent to power in 1994.


He speaks to us more here:


What initially inspired you to get involved with Abahlali?
RP: I got involved because of my long-standing participation in peace and justice issues. As a young priest I was involved in the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko and deputy president of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) in 1969, and my participation in the struggle for justice has continued, I have never stopped, even when I became a Bishop. So when I was invited to meet with the leaders of Abahlali a few years ago to hear about their struggles and problems I knew that, as a church leader, there were important issues of justice and democracy at stake and I could throw my lot in with them.

I have attended meetings, memorials, mass ecumenical prayers, marches and even Abahlali’s UnFreedom Day to show that the freedom poor South African’s were promised in 1994 has not been a reality for a large majority of poor, oppressed people.

The fact that Abahlali was - and still is - so full of initiative and dedication, is a huge inspiration. When I first met the group leaders they were in control of their situation and they weren’t asking anybody to come into direct them or to speak on their behalf or anything like that, rather they simply wanted people to come to stand in solidarity with them. I think it’s fantastic that people who are suffering and living in desperate situations on a daily basis are able to take charge of their destiny and future.

But it wasn’t just words - they were already involved in practical projects in the community such as an HIV programme and a feeding scheme, despite having very few resources. There is real hope for change among these people, and it is blossoming out of very little, which always inspires me.

What of Abahlali’s on-going struggle for land, housing and dignity?

RP: So often people think of those informal settlements or slums as hopeless places, but they are thriving communities where people feel a real sense of pride in belonging to that particular land. These people don’t want to be told where to live, in isolated areas away from the city, which is why I was so happy to support the group in challenging the constitutionality of the KZN Slums Act.

I demanded the political leadership of KZN to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abahlali base Mjondolo as a democratically elected, non-aligned movement of the people and work with them and not against them. This government in particular should know that when you suppress the voices and political aspirations you never win. This is the tale of a small, under-resourced organisation taking on the terrifying might of the government and I applaud them wholeheartedly.

We really cannot underestimate the importance of this victory, not only for Abahlali but any individual or group in South Africa fighting for their fundamental human rights. This legal precedent set by Abahlali could quite literally change the tenure rights lives and therefore lives of millions of people across South Africa, so if I can use my position as a Bishop to help alleviate people’s suffering and bring about change then that’s what I will do. That is my duty and my prerogative.

The movement has imprisoned leaders and the political paradox between Abahlali and the political establishment...

Because of the political nature of the case five of Abahlali’s leaders remain in prison and seven are on bail as the case keeps getting remanded. We think that is because the local government is bent on keeping them inside to show people that they’re tough, they mean business, and that they won’t be challenged. Abahlali has a strong voice and opinions and it appears that the government see them as a threat to their rule and authority.

The ANC as a liberation movement, knew how to protest, how to challenge the government of the day. But maybe now that they are in government they have become institutionalised and do not hear the voices of the poor. . They become frightened of change, whichThis is a very sad thing and something the church is very concerned about. The church has stood on the side of the poor and oppressed, and played a significant role in the quest for the liberation of South Africa, so we feel deeply aggrieved that this is happening to this group.

Abahlali have made demands on the state as citizens which they have a right to do, simply by asking for basic human rights such as clean water, housing, electricity and health care. These demands are not only for physical improvements but for the political space to live in a dignified and respectful way, and that poses a serious threat to those in power now.

The point is that we’re willing to stand up, the church is prepared to be a prophetic ministry, and there will be victories, the people will win. In one sense we shouldn’t be surprised that the government is behaving in almost illegal and shabby way towards the poor, because they know the effect of protesting and advocacy as they used similar actions themselves during the apartheid years.

… and Mandela?

RP: My favourite memory of Mandela is when he came to Durban to spend a few days in the Presidential guest house. He invited some of the church leaders to meet with him so about five of us arrived at the house.

He was very down to earth and the security at the guest house was rather relaxed - he laughed and said that if he can’t feel safe with church leaders he can’t feel safe with anyone, and he thanked the church and the South African people for standing by him while he was in prison. He spoke quite movingly about the role of the church although he was also critical and said that the church should always get its facts right before speaking out. I challenged him on this and told him that was not the role of the church – if you’re going to prophetic you are going to speak from what you know and see, and if you need to check out your facts with those in charge then it is no longer prophetic. He smiled and said ‘Well I can’t argue with a Bishop!’ That was a memorable meeting.

I think Mandela would express a real sadness about what is happening in the country today because he has always been someone with integrity and justice and liberation for the poor is all that’s motivated him in life. He must feel deeply aggrieved when he hears about some of the events that are happening.

The bottom line is that the problem is enormous. We’ve been left with a legacy from the days of apartheid which is not going to disappear overnight - it may take a few generations - which is all the more reason why the government needs to work in tandem with local communities and help develop them. The state needs to actually welcome the critique that comes from people like Abahlali and hear their voices when they speak and protest, rather than seeing that as being disloyal or an affront to the government.

I think the ANC feel that they have the moral high ground when it comes to liberation but it has to accept that fact that they are not – they are a government and they have become institutionalised. It’s a worrying sign that people in government are losing touch with their roots.

Where do you see the future of the Commission of Enquiry?

RP: We don’t have a date yet but we have consulted lawyers in the country as well as other academics. We have recruiting a professor of history who is now retired – he’s passionate about the very first Anglican Bishop of Natal John Colenso – made famous in the 1964 Zulu film. The principle aim of the Commission is to establish the truth of what happened on that night in Kennedy Road.

This Commission is extremely important because it has wider implications for South Africa as a whole in terms of the role and scope of the state, their definition of democracy, and the political space the government allow the poor to occupy. It will begin to bring under the microscope the behaviour of the state vis-à-vis the poor and those who want to stand up and be counted and make their voices heard. Abahlali are a significant part of the new struggle for a truly democratic South Africa and they will be heard sooner or later.

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