“Leaders are meant to lead and to be led [by those who elected them]” - Lindela Figlan, Abahlali baseMjondolo movement
Fourteen years since the transition to democracy, leadership in South Africa is in a state of flux—and South Africans know a thing or two about leaders. For every Mandela, after all, there is an Mbeki. In his seven years of presidency, Mbeki has mistaken denialism for leadership and appeasement for diplomacy. The liberation victors in the ANC have tied up the ruling party in its own historical mythologizing, determined to hold its grasp on the state. Now, for every Mbeki, there is the possibility of a Zuma.
In May, immigrants living in the townships and shack settlements of South Africa woke to find that they no longer had a place in their adopted homeland, as their neighbors chased them out of their houses and shops. Yet for ten days while pogroms burned, their country’s leader was nowhere to be found. Even afterwards, Mbeki and other leaders, in failing to acknowledge the profoundly xenophobic nature of the state, and blaming the violence on the poor themselves, did little to calm the storm. Thousands have since left in mass exodus.
Of course, turning to neighboring Zimbabwe to provide a shining example of good leadership in this dearth finds none as Robert Mugabe and his military junta continue their absurdist drama: struggle heroes turned autocrats, fighting their own people instead of fighting for them. For South Africans, whose roster of liberation fighters reads off names like Tambo, Sisulu, Biko, First and Hani, the present situation is somewhat of an anomaly.
But in midst of this crisis, hope for a new kind of leadership can be found in an unlikely place: the Kennedy Road shack settlement , in Clare Estate, Durban. In the middle of a Saturday night in June, a group of thirty odd women and men , some as young as 17, has gathered in a small room that serves as a community-driven crèche during the week. They are here to induct newly elected leaders of their organization of shack-dwellers who collectively call themselves Abahlali baseMjondolo. The Abahlali, since emerging in 2005, has grown to become the largest social movement in the country, with members in more than 40 settlements and over 30,000 active supporters in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The Abahlali take leadership very seriously. For years since the transition, they have patiently waited for their leaders—in the government and in the ANC—to fulfill their promises for land, housing and development. What they received instead were violent evictions, demolishions, and forced relocations to the peripheries of cities away from access to jobs, schools, and health care. Their former comrades in the struggle against apartheid now began treating them with open contempt, condemning their lifestyle, and criminalizing their activities. The poor found that they were not welcome in the new South Africa that they had fought for.
In response, the Abahlali have said, “Enough is enough .” In the three years since its launch, the movement has carried out a series of large-scale protests and marches, but has also resorted to other, less public means of resistance within settlements: by using legal tactics to fight illegal evictions and forced removals, by knowledgably and safely connecting shacks to electricity and water, and by skillfully maneuvering the media, to ultimately advance a ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary’  in response to a lack of state leadership.
The Abahlali workshops aim to facilitate a conversation on the qualities of good leaders and to teach leadership skills. Those who congregate come from settlements such as Foreman Road, Motala Heights, Jadhu Place and Joe Slovo, and they plan to stay (and stay awake) through the night. Standing in front of the packed room, in this particular workshop, President S’bu Zikode poses the question: “What makes a good leader?”
The gathered group forms the leadership of the newly elected Youth League, whose president Mazwi Nzimande has just turned 17. All are volunteers—for Zikode, full-time—sometimes sacrificing other opportunities, including jobs, and all are here tonight by choice. Some have traveled great distances to attend, coming in from the movement’s new branches in the settlements of Tongaat (EmaGwaveni) and Ash Road in Pietermaritzburg. Many of those present are also fathers and mothers, including Zikode. Philani Zungu and Ayanda Vumisa, husband and wife and active members of the movement (Philani is former Vice-President and Ayanda is the current Vice-Secretary of the Youth League), both arrive late from Pemary Ridge in Reservoir Hills, having waited until their children were asleep.
The wide demographic represented at this meeting also affirms the egalitarian nature upheld by the movement more generally. The Abahlali are proving that leaders are not of a certain age, gender, race or class. For them, leaders—holding foreign degrees, matriculating at elite universities and being well versed in the technocratic jargon that prevails in development discourses of the state—have all failed them. More important is for a leader to have intimate knowledge of their experience and of their plight: “They must feel what we feel,” participants at the meeting declare, “and only those who feel must lead.”
To this end, the Abahlali encourage affiliated settlements to democratically elect leaders from their own communities, and to ensure that all their decisions are taken in discussion with the people who chose them. Sihle Sibisi, from Joe Slovo, explains, “A leader is someone who listens to everyone, who respects everyone they lead.” They “do not take a position on behalf of or for the people but with the people.” Members express frustrations with the populist rhetoric of local politicians, who visit their settlements intent on gaining their votes for the next elections. Leadership cannot be reduced to this, they argue. It cannot be confined to a single term or a single meeting. Rather, it is an organic and “ongoing process” with no start or end.
“A leader is not born but made by those they claim to represent,” says Vice-President Lindela Figlan, a fact that they must not forget. Derrick Fenner from Motala agrees, stating, “No one can lead us without us.” They assert that a leader must replace the current lack of communication and interaction with “answers for those they lead…[someone] who shares and discusses the issues with all the people.”
Each leader here was elected through a democratic process held at their respective communities, or, as in the case of the Youth League (launched 16th of June 2008), in a forum of made up of the movement’s members from across the settlements. They are the faces of their communities; as Zikode tells them, as leaders they are “the hope of the hopeless, the homeless, the jobless, the poor and the marginalized.”
It is for these reasons that the Abahlali practice strict political autonomy from the state, political parties, churches and NGOs. They do work with organizations that can bring technical skills, such as lawyers, and are engaged in a constant battle to subordinate the state’s development project to the community committees in each area. But even here they demand that development or activist profesionals “ speak to us, not for us us” and insist on recognition, dignity and full partnership from anyone wishing to work with them towards developing their communities.
Moreover, the movement has consistently espoused a philosophy of ‘living politics’ that grounds the collective thought and action that drives the struggles specific to each settlement in the hands of the people in that settlement. A living politics requires that a community seeking to join the movement make the decision autonomously and collectively. Recently, settlements in the Northern and Western Cape were formally inaugurated into the movement after residents read about the movement in the press, made contact and then discussed the issues internally within their communities, coming to identify with the Abahlali.
By remaining context-specific, the Abahlali recognize that the movement and its struggle ‘must develop its own significance within each settlement’  whether it is responding to police brutality, government contempt, landowner intimidation, or shack-fires. Through Abahlalism—their self-deemed political culture—they are cultivating their own type of leaders, all of who come from the shacks and all of whom are accountable on a day to day basis to the people who elected them
When Zikode asks the new branches’ representatives to illustrate the difficulties of leadership in their respective communities, leaders describe repressive circumstances. Gugu Luthuli and Niza Chithwoya recount regular instances of police brutality and corruption in Tongaat. For Ash Road in Pietermaritzburg, Sibahle Dlamini explains that Abahlali organizing has gone underground because of municipality efforts to suppress the movement. Yet the result of this repression is that they have found support amongst themselves.
As they listen and respond to each other’s stories, a common refrain within the group is “Qina Bahlali qina!” reminding one another to stay strong. Mutual recognition and support drive their struggle, and through them the movement helps to cultivate a shared sense of responsibility within their communities. It was the Abahlali who responded swiftly to the xenophobic riots in May, issuing a strong rebuke of the attacks in a widely circulated press statement that declared, “A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person wherever they may find themselves,” and confronted the government for its role . They actively worked against the attacks and there were no incidents at all in any of the Abahlali settlements. Bahlali were also able to take in some people displaced in the attacks.
Back at Kennedy Road, the meeting continues through the night and into the early morning. Members question movement structures, and debates emerge about the roles of the chairperson and other positions. They argue for greater transparency and challenge the current leadership of the Executive Committee, and the younger members composing the Youth League, to be up to the task. Throughout the discussion, every person’s opinion is respected and taken seriously.
It is because of rescinded promises and betrayals of their elected leaders that every year, when the country commemorates the first free and democratic elections in South Africa, the Abahlali mourn their continuing lack of freedom . What the Abahlali have found instead is that leadership comes from within—within these communities and within individual members of the movement. In the absence of role models in the Party and State, they have looked to each other for help in overcoming the daily struggles of living in the shacks. Each umhlali is a leader in his or her own right. With daybreak the next morning, the group of men and women young and old, shake hands and hug and finally disperse.
Maybe now is the time for national leaders to learn a thing or two from the people they purport to lead.
*Neha Nimmagudda is studies Sociology and Political Science at Columbia University and has been working as a volunteer in the Abahlali baseMjondolo office in Durban.
*Please send comments to or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/
1. “Sekwanele!” in Zulu. For more writing on the context of their struggle and for articulations by the Bahlali, refer to http://www.abahlali.org
2. Bayat, Asef. “The Politics of Un-Civil Society”, available: http://www.abahlali.org/node/237
3. This point was shared with me by Mzonke Poni, newly elected chairperson of the Western Cape branch in QQ Section, Khayelitsha, during his visit to Durban on 13 June 2008
4. This press release and others can also be found on the Abahlali website, http://abahlali.org
5. 27th of April is known as ‘UnFreedom Day’ instead of ‘Freedom Day’ in these communities