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Afrique du sud : Climate Change and Poor People’s Struggles

D 21 octobre 2011     H 05:02     A Bandile Mdlalose     C 0 messages

I wish to thank the World Development Movement for inviting me to speak about Climate Change and how the Abahlali baseMjondolo experience relates to this important topic. I also wish to thank Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement S.A, the movement that I’m part of, for trusting me with the responsibility to represent it here today. I have come here with a clear mandate to speak about the political challenges of linking different kinds of crisis together and to meet with poor people’s organisations here in England, like the London Coalition Against Poverty, as well as our many comrades in London. I will report back on all the meetings here to my comrades in South Africa.

Climate change is a threat to everyone everywhere. But like all disasters it will be worse for the poor. For this reason it is essential that poor people’s organisations are included, equally, in all the discussions and struggles around climate change. This is not happening. In fact in South Africa the discussions on this issue have been dominated by the rich and their organisations on one side and middle class civil society on the other side.

We all know that attempts to stop disasters, or to provide relief after disasters, are often exploited by the rich and powerful to push their agenda. In the chaos of a disaster people with power can often force their own agenda through without proper discussion. This even happens with local disasters like shack fires. It will be much worse with a world wide disaster like climate change. This is another reason why it is essential that poor people’s organisations are included, equally, in all the discussions and struggles around climate change.

One of the problems with the way that climate change is usually thought about is that it is seen as a coming crisis that we need to organise around now to avoid in the future. This is true. But around the world millions and millions of poor people are living in a very serious crisis right now. People are not working and do not have houses. They are not recognised by their governments. They are facing evictions, disconnections, fires, sickness and repression.

When we talk about crisis as if it is only in the future we fail to recognise that for most of us the crisis is already here. If the climate justice struggle is going to make sense to most people in most of the world it has to start from the understanding that for most of us a crisis, a very serious crisis, is already here. This is another reason why it is essential that poor people’s organisations are included, equally, in all the discussions and struggles around climate change.

Often civil society in the form of NGOs and academics think that they will represent the poor people of the world against the rich and powerful in the struggle for climate justice. But you can’t be paid to really oppose the rich and powerful. Real struggles do not take place in conferences. Real struggles are dangerous. Real struggles take place where people live and, if they are lucky, where they work. People get arrested, beaten and slandered. They are called criminals. They are put in jails and driven from their homes. Real struggles are driven by ordinary people and not professionals because real struggles must be mass struggles. Most poor people’s organisations do not want to be represented by experts. What we want is to take our own place in the world. We want solidarity and not charity or people that will speak for us without speaking to us. This is another reason why it is essential that poor people’s organisations are included, equally, in all the discussions and struggles around climate change.

South Africa is one of many countries in the world that has a the high rate of poverty and inequality. We have 43% people who are unemployed and about 2.2 million shacks housing approximately 12 million people. The rate of HIV/AIDS is very high. The burden of this crisis has fallen most heavily on young people.

In 2005 some activists in the shack settlements in Durban decided to form an organisation called the Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement of South Africa. Abahlali baseMjondolo means the residents living in shacks in my language, which is Zulu. It is an organisation that fights for, protects, promotes and advances the interests of the poor in South Africa. The main goal of the comrades that formed the movement was to struggle for the dignity of the poor. Everyone was clear that the struggle itself has to be dignified if the goal is dignity. Dignity is the road and it is the destination too. We have struggled against evictions and disconnections and for land and housing in the cities. Our struggle has always been democratic. At every level in our movement all positions are elected. At every level the role of leaders in our movement is not to decide for the people but to facilitate democratic participation by the people. We have faced a lot of repression from the government and some other elites, including some in civil society, that think that the poor must know their place.

The big NGOs often think that they are the experts of struggle. But they have failed to organise the poor in South Africa despite all their money, education and international connections. The main reason for this failure is that most of these NGOs do not respect poor people. Abahlali baseMjondolo succeeded to enable the poor to organise ourselves with no money. The reason why our movement has succeeded to enable the poor to organise the poor, and why we have been able to survive repression, is that from the beginning we were committed to a living politics.

For us a living politics is a politics that can be understood by everyone. It is a politics that comes from the people’s lives and is shaped by the people. It is a politics that starts with the urgent needs of the people – housing, water and so on. It is a bottom up politics. It is a politics that starts and ends with the equal dignity of all human beings. It is a politics of the poor, by the poor and for the poor. Our movement is not perfect. We make mistakes. We don’t achieve all that we want to achieve. Sometimes differences emerge. But a living politics is a strong politics because it stays close to the lives of the people. Our movement does not ever struggle for people. It only struggles with people. We do not come to people with all the big words and the isms. When we are asked to come to a new community we come as other poor people who are willing to listen, to discuss and to work out a way forward together.

If we ever move away from our living politics and let NGOs rather than our members direct our politics and set our agenda we will very quickly loose all our strength as a movement. Many of our members are living in crisis everyday. They are facing shack fires, evictions, transit camps, sickness and repression. Many of our members do not even have enough food to eat. If we bring the climate justice struggle into our struggle in a way that is not directly connected to the daily struggles of the people it will weaken our movement.

Our comrades in other poor people’s movements that have existed for longer than our movement have warned us about the danger of letting NGOs and donors set the agenda for our struggle around big international conferences. These conferences are very important for some NGOS and donors but too much of a focus on organising around these events can take a poor people’s movement away from the urgent concerns of its members and do real damage to a movement.

For us the big challenge is to discuss and act on issues like climate change and this big conference, COP 17, which is important, in a way that doesn’t take us away from the urgent issues that confront our members every day. We have to find a way to link the crisis that we are already in with the coming crisis of climate change.

In our movement we always stress that the same system that has made the rich to be rich has made the poor to be poor. This is very important because the poor are always being blamed for being poor when in fact we are the victims of this system which is known as capitalism. Capitalism has its roots in slavery and colonialism. It has always been a violent system that is obsessed with wealth and power. It is unable to recognise the human dignity of all people because it always puts profit before people. Capitalism has been and remains a disaster for most people in most of the world. Even here in the UK many people are suffering in this system.

We have great plans for our communities but yet they are not implemented because our government is distancing himself from us. Our government prefers money to us. Our government sees us as a problem. Since 1994 we all have the right to vote but voting has not brought political power to the power. We are still treated as criminals or as children by all kinds of elites. There will be no progress until this top down system is replaced with a bottom up system. When we say that everyone counts we don’t only mean that everyone needs a decent house. We also mean that everyone has the same right to make important decisions about society and to shape the future as everyone else.

We are already under great pressure and stress. When we lose our loved ones in shack fires the government does not want to take responsibility for the shack fires. All that happens is that there are some workshops and meetings that are set without our presence so that other people can express our grievances for us. Now we are going to be struck by climate change too. It is not the time where the government should take decisions for the people but the people themselves need to take decisions because they are the one that will be affected.

I have been representing my movement in a civil society forum in Durban that is dealing with climate change and this conference. There are some very good organisations there, like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), and we are always happen to work with an organisations like SDCEA. But civil society remains dominated by the middle classes and most poor people have been excluded from the preparations for the climate talks that will be happening in Durban in November. We are the most at risk of being harshly affected by climate change and we must play a huge role in identifying how the government meets its international and national obligations. We must ensure the government fulfils its obligations to minimize the impact of climate change on people in South Africa, especially on those made vulnerable to climate change by their circumstances. But we also have to ensure that this is done in a way that reduces the crisis of unemployment. The super rich of this world have become as rich as they are by damaging the environment. It is them, and not the poor of this world, that must pay the price for fixing this damage.

I would urge that the Community Based Organizations and those Civil Society Organizations and Faith Based Organizations that are willing to work with the organisations of the people must come together and tell the government what needs to be done and what needs to be prioritized first. Mostly a stop must be made to prioritization of the top down approach from the government.

We do not trust the World Bank. Everyone knows that it has been a tool for the rich countries to dominate the poor countries. The World Bank gets countries in debt and then controls their economies and forces them to enact policies in support of the rich. We cannot allow the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or their NGOs to find a solution to the climate crisis. The people have to find a solution and that solution must be to end this top down system and to put people before profit. That solution must recognise that most people in the world are already living in a crisis. It must take this crisis very seriously and act to end this crisis. We cannot continue with a system where millions and millions of poor people around the world just don’t count to their own governments or internationally.

Many middle class people in our own country are scared of climate change. Many middle class people in the rich countries are scared of climate change. They are scared of the crisis to come. Most people in most of the world are poor and are already living in a crisis. The crisis that is already here and the crisis that is to come are both caused by capitalism. Maybe this fact could be the foundation on which we can build some unity in the struggle for the full and equal recognition of the dignity of all people everywhere.

Our movement will be marching, with other organisations, like SDCEA, on the COP17 conference. We have been holding workshops to discuss climate change and the conference. We would like to keep discussing this important issue and to keep discussing, with all our comrades around the world, how we can best find a way to link the coming climate change crisis with the global crisis that the poor are suffering now and to find a way forward that takes both seriously.

Together can fight this.

Thank you.

Bandile Mdlalose


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