“The first Nelson Mandela was Jesus Christ. The second was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The third Nelson Mandela are the poor people of the world.”
These remarks, celebrating the release of 14 fellow activists from jail in 2005, were given by the leader of the biggest protest movement to hit South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994. His name is Sibusiso Innocent Zikode, or S’bu Zikode, and he is the founder of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Zulu for “people who live in shacks.” He delivered these comments in a settlement of 7,000 people with just seven working taps and no toilets, which tells you a lot about life in modern South Africa and about Zikode.
The end of apartheid meant freedom of movement for South Africa’s poor, but without any houses to live in, close to 7 million people now live in “informal settlements.”
“Nelson Mandela promised jobs, security, education, a Rainbow Nation where all people would get fair, even treatment and respect,” Zikode recently told Southern Africa’s Southern Times newspaper. “What’s happened is that the oppressed have become the oppressors, [and] a huge gap has opened between the poor and the rich.”
If it weren’t for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the dozens of other anti-apartheid movements, there wouldn’t be any shack dwellers. They’d still be living in rural bantustans, where apartheid confined the majority of Africans. The end of apartheid meant freedom of movement for South Africa’s poor, but without any houses to live in, close to 7 million people now live in “informal settlements.” These archipelagoes of rickety shacks, some as small as 30 square feet, thread through the richest suburbs, where jobs, health care and good schools are easier to find.
Zikode is currently the chair of the shack-dwellers’ movement, fielding calls from people who need help with evictions, taking on corrupt city politicians, fighting police brutality. On the day we meet, he’s subdued. The only way he sleeps is by turning his phone off last thing at night, and powering it up at six in the morning. Last week, we woke to the news that one of the movement leaders, whom he was to meet that very day, had been shot by suspected ANC-related thugs. Today, he’s planning the funeral march. And, just as in the ANC’s heyday, a funeral is both a chance to mourn and to mobilize.
Like many shack dwellers, Zikode, 38, grew up in abject poverty. “We had to stay with different families,” he recalls. “My mother was at work as a domestic worker and could only see us once a month.” He passed from family to family and school to school. When he was 10, a nun introduced him to the Boy Scouts, an organization that would bring stability to his life – and his dress code. As with Mandela, you seldom see Zikode dressed anything other than impeccably, usually in his slightly oversized black suit, the most persistent part of an otherwise unsettled life.
Despite stellar test scores, Zikode had to forego university because he could not afford the tuition. Instead, he found work as a gas station attendant. Shortly thereafter he was elected head of his neighborhood’s association, and, together with others tired of waiting for the ANC to deliver on its promises, he helped found the shack-dweller movement.
His rhetorical footwork … was more than good political theater; it was vintage Mandela.
When shack dwellers started taking to the streets, the ANC responded quickly. The well-dressed Zikode was portrayed as a political Svengali, and he and his fellow activists were accused of being a part of a Third Force, an apartheid-era term used by the ANC, including Mandela, for the rogue right-wing security forces violently opposing the end of apartheid.
Zikode took the accusation and rolled with it, penning his remarkable Third Force manifesto, an Obama-esque tract that spread like wildfire through the South African media in 2005. The tract transformed the dialogue surrounding shack dwellers and made Zikode the focal point of the new movement.
“I am the Third Force myself. The Third Force is all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives,” wrote Zikode. “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.”
His rhetorical footwork, slipping in the punch of slander while pummeling the government and invoking the aspirations of millions, was more than good political theater; it was vintage Mandela.
Zikode’s house was burned to the ground that year, in an attack on the settlement next to the trash dump where his family used to live. He escaped with his family and has kept moving. Given temporary shelter by Amnesty International, but too politically dangerous for even the most sympathetic employer to salary, he has continued to lead the shack-dwellers’ movement, with his family supported by his wife’s clerical job.
“No Land! No House! No Vote!” is more than a slogan. It’s a political strategy. The ANC depends on the poor for its majority and its legitimacy. So it’s quite the wake-up call when the poor scorn elections as “the chance to choose the people who will oppress you.”
The shack dwellers have a dim view of the existing political process. “It’s easy to be corrupted in a system that’s already corrupt,” says Zikode. Exhibit A here would be JZ – President Jacob Zuma, who is currently embroiled in a scandal over who, exactly, funded his multimillion-dollar compound. “Yes, JZ built his own city, but does nothing [about the poor] in his own neighbourhood.”
But Zikode hasn’t given up hope. “We still believe that change is still possible from outside mainstream politics. In the meantime we are sticking to the politics of truth.”
There will never be another Nelson Mandela, and nobody will occupy a loftier perch in the collective psyche of South Africa. But his struggle continues. In contrast to Mandela, who trained as a boxer, Zikode hopes one day to stop bobbing and weaving, to walk away victorious from his movement’s fight for freedom, so that he and the millions like him can find homes where they can rest their heads for a lifetime.
Why you should care
S’Bu Zikode hopes to realize Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow Nation for millions of poor black South Africans in shantytowns.