Anglican Church honours Abahlali leader

Bishop Rubin Phillip's citation of Holy Nativity award to S'bu Zikode

The Christian churches in South Africa, and in particular the Anglican Church under the guidance of Bishop Rubin Phillip, have confirmed their courageous and principled stand in defence of human rights by the award by the Diocese of the Natal Anglican Church of the Order of the Holy Nativity to S'bu Zikode, the elected president of the shackdwellers' movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM).

"Jondolo" is a term for a shack. "Abahlali" are the residents who have no option except to live in one. 

In the week before Christmas 2009, the Natal Anglican Church has given a lead to the whole of South Africa in the basic matters of defence of life, of the right to decent housing, and of respect for law and the Constitution.

The award of the Order of the Holy Nativity at this time looks to the contemporary reality of the birth of Jesus in a shack. Given the repression currently suffered by members of AbM in KwaZulu-Natal and the fate of S'bu Zikode and his family, it anticipates also, though, a recollection of the tradition of Christian martyrdom in the founding centuries of the faith. A deeply significant statement has been made, with resonance beyond the church into everyday civil and political life. 

This award by the Diocese of the Natal Anglican Church is clear evidence of a new politics in South Africa which nevertheless remains far beneath the radar - not merely of the government, as Amnesty International has acknowledged - but of the opposition political parties, the press, and almost the whole of The Great and the Good whose opinions hover over South Africa like a great cloud, fixed in place for the past 20 years.

To its huge credit, and drawing upon a long spiritual tradition, the Anglican Church in KwaZulu-Natal has broken with a bad consensus in the public domain, to give witness beside the weak and downtrodden, in disdain of the conventional political correctness.

S'bu Zikode was forced to go into hiding when a killer squad attached to local ANC political authorities attacked the AbM residents at Kennedy Road in Durban on the nights of 26 and 27 September, his family was forced to flee and his house in the settlement was wrecked by the wreckers..

In a memorable statement, "We are the Third Force" (here), he wrote:

"Those in power are blind to our suffering. This is because they have not seen what we see, they have not felt what we are feeling every second, every day. My appeal is that leaders who are concerned about peoples' lives must come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6 000 people. They must dispose of their own refuse while living next to the dump. They must come with us while we look for work. They must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap. They must have a turn to explain to the children why they can't attend the Technical College down the hill. They must be there when we bury our children who have passed on in the fires, from diarrhoea or AIDS."

The citation by the Diocese of the Natal Anglican Church of the award of the Order of the Holy Nativity to S'bu Zikode appears below.

At a time of mass immersion in the pleasures of the moment, it speaks of deeper matters.




Whereas by resolution of Diocesan Council in the year of our Lord 2003 the Order of the Holy Nativity was authorised for Distinguished Lay Service to the Diocese of Natal.

And whereas the name of our beloved in Christ, SIBUSISO ZIKODE, has been submitted to us by Citation for such recognition.

We, Rubin, by Divine Permission, Bishop of Natal, do by those present confer the aforesaid honour upon him on the following grounds:

S'bu Zikode was born in 1975 in Loskop near Estcourt in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. He has become known to tens of thousands of shack-dwellers in South Africa, as well as admirers around the world, as the elected president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers movement. That movement, and the style and content of Zikode's leadership within it, has been a beacon of dignity and hope in the ongoing struggle for genuine freedom and transformation in our country.

Zikode not only leads by listening and by taking action, he is also an extraordinary wordsmith capable of capturing and sharing the heart of a militant but quite beautiful and salvific poetics of struggle. We quite deliberately rely on his own words throughout this citation for he and Abahlali baseMjondolo have consistently made it plain that the poor can and should speak for themselves.

Zikode and his family first moved into a shack in the Kennedy Road settlement in Durban because the rental was affordable and the location was close to work and schools. "Life was much better because we could live close to work and schools at an affordable cost. But I told myself that this was not yet an acceptable life. ... It was not acceptable for human beings to live like that and so I committed myself to change things".

A key to Zikode's involvement in that process of change was a thorough democratisation of the local development structure, the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC), which had been in control of the settlement until then. "We mobilised the young people. We started with youth activities, like clean up campaigns, and then when the people were mobilised, we struggled to force that there must be elections, that there must be democracy".

In the early years of this democratised KRDC, Zikode and his colleagues worked with the local and regional party political structures of the ANC and the City of Durban to try and address the challenges the community faced. But the repeated lies and failed promises built up, and disappointment led to reflection and a commitment to taking action on the people's own terms. The Kennedy Road settlement made newspaper headlines in 2005 when they blockaded a major road nearby after yet another promise of better housing turned out to be a betrayal. That event also marked the decisive break from party politics to establishing a new politics of autonomous, grassroots action and reflection.

Zikode himself comments on how that day of the blockade felt: "It was good. ... It was difficult to turn against our comrades in the ANC but we weren't attacking them personally. We wanted to make them aware that all these meetings of the ANC - the BEC meetings, the Branch General Meetings, they were all a waste of time. In fact they were further oppressing us in a number of ways. ... It had become clear that the only space for the poor in the ANC was as voters - there was no politics of the poor in the ANC. The road blockade was the beginning of a politics of the poor".

And out of that politics of the poor )emerged Abahlali baseMjondolo:

"I had no idea that a movement would be formed, no idea. And I didn't know what form would be taken by the politics of the poor that became possible after the road blockade. Most people think that this was planned - that a group of people sat down and decided to establish a movement. You know, how the NGOs work. ... But all we knew was that we had decided to make the break. To accept that we were on our own and to insist that the people could not be ladders any more; that the new politics had to be led by poor people and to be for poor people; that nothing could be decided for us without us.

"The road blockade was the start. We didn't know what would come next. After the blockade we discussed things and then we decided on a second step. That's how it went, that's how it grew. We learnt as we went. It is still like that now. We discuss things until we have decided on the next step and then we take it. ... In the party you make compromises for some bigger picture but in the end all what is real is the suffering of the people right in front of you. In fact it had become a shame. To say that ‘enough is enough' is to walk away from that shame. Instead of the party telling the community what to do, the community was now deciding what to do on its own".

And this approach has shaped the movement's understanding of its politics - which it refers to as a 'living politics' - and its leadership style. At their heart, both flow from a common sense understanding that "everyone is equal, that everyone matters, that the world must be shared":

"Our movement is formed by different people, all poor people but some with different beliefs, different religious backgrounds. But the reality is that most people start with the belief that we are all created in the image of God, and that was the earliest understanding of the spirit of humanity in the movement. Here in the settlements we come from many places, we speak many languages. Therefore we are forced to ensure that the spirit of humanity is for everyone. We are forced to ensure that it is universal.

"There are all kinds of unfamiliar words that some of us are now using to explain this but it is actually very simple. From this it follows that we can not allow division, degradation - any form that keeps us apart. On this point we have to be completely inflexible. On this point we do not negotiate. If we give up this point we will have given up on our movement". 

This universality of equality, implied throughout the scriptures from Genesis' account of our creation in the image of God to Revelation's promise of a new heaven and a new earth, is the singular mark of genuine democracy and is the heartbeat of every genuine struggle for freedom and justice. In recognising S'bu Zikode and in conferring the aforesaid honour on him, we join ourselves with that struggle.

Our decision to confer the Order of the Holy Nativity on Zikode was made before September 2009 when the Kennedy Road settlement was attacked by armed vigilantes, and AbM was violently ejected with the connivance and support of police and local ANC leaders. These attacks have placed acute pressures on the movement and its politics. We have spoken out publicly against these developments and will continue to denounce them and to support Abahlali.

It is our hope that this award helps to strengthen Zikode and the shackdwellers' movement - for we have seen before, in the history of struggle in South Africa, that concerted violent attacks on people's politics and movements can result in a certain sclerosis of decent, open and democratic politics. It is vital, not just for Abahlali itself, but for all of us concerned with the project of transformation and true democracy, that its 'living politics' is kept living, defended in principal and established in practice..

We give thanks for this dedicated servant of the people and servant of the Lord.

Given under our hand and seal on this Sixteenth Day of December in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Nine in the Fifteenth Year of our Consecration.