The Abahlali baseMjondolo Shack Dwellers Movement and the Right to the City in South Africa

Charlotte Mathivet, Charlotte MATHIVET, Shelley BUCKINGHAM, 2009

Background of the Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement

In the context of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the South African government seeks to establish ‘World Class Cities’. Legislation such as the Slums Act in KwaZulu-Natal Province seek to eliminate ‘slum’ settlements, which has resulted in an increasing number of evictions of shack dwellers from their homes. Shack dwellers are being housed in temporary ‘transit camps’ which are often located far away from employment opportunities. Members from the Durban-based shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, understand the impact of the Slums Act on the livelihoods of shack dwellers in South Africa, which is hindering their right to the city.

Abahlali baseMjondolo was initiated in 2005 with a road blockade in protest of the sale of a piece of land by the local municipal government to a local industrialist, but which had originally been promised to the Kennedy Road Shack Settlement for housing. The movement is now considered to be the largest organization of militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa with the participation of tens of thousands of people from more than 30 settlements in the province of KwaZulu Natal. It defines itself as a radically democratic, grassroots and entirely non-professionalized movement of shack dwellers in South Africa and struggles for services, housing, inclusion by the local council, equal treatment by local police, and an end to intimidation and evictions by local landlords.

Legacies of Apartheid

Although the apartheid system in South Africa was defeated in 1994 with the election of the African National Congress (ANC), racism was swiftly replaced by class oppression under the country’s new capitalist system. This transition was facilitated and made easy because of the established white monopoly capitalist ruling class, and an advanced black proletariat. The end of apartheid was supposed to signify the end of racial segregation from access to economic, social and political power; however in practice this was only true for the black ruling elite class. The ANC promptly adopted neoliberal economic policies, such as trade liberalization and economic growth, in order to promote social justice, with the central compromise that capitalist ventures would need to promote black economic empowerment through established quotas of black participation. These had devastating effects, largely only benefiting a small black elite and increasing poverty and unemployment in already poor and marginalized communities. Due to these deceptions from the new black leadership, new social struggles emerged and were centered around three main issues mostly relating to government policies: the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) which would pursue trade liberalization and economic growth to promote social justice; failure of the government’s service delivery, such as slow land redistribution, and inadequate response to HIV/AIDS; and poor and marginalized communities’ resistance to government’s attempts to cut off their water and electricity supply and to evict residents.

These contemporary social struggles may be understood as a shift of oppression from the apartheid system to that of capitalist neoliberalism where only a small percentage of black equality has been achieved for the few black elite (mainly senior managers, entrepreneurs, and certain skilled workers). In other words, this has symbolized a shift of oppression based on race to oppression based on intersections of race and class.

World Cup 2010 and the Evictions of Shack Dwellers Evictions

With preparations underway for the World Cup to be hosted in South Africa in 2010, evictions have been carried out with more on the way. The South African government, instead of protecting the tenure rights of its citizens, is investing in development projects which are the reasons for these mass evictions. The state intends to clear slums in time for the World Cup and is looking into setting up a paramilitary force to control the revolts made by shack dwellers, like those who make up the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement.

For these reasons, the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement is countering the state’s pressures to evict them from their homes, and is demanding that the state provide electricity to all shacks with the same urgency and speed with which they built the stadiums for the World Cup. Further, they demand that their settlements must be upgraded through democratic development methods which are inclusive of their needs in the planning process. Lastly, they call for a moratorium on the sale of private development of all urban land until the shack dwellers are housed in adequate housing.

The Abahlali baseMjondolo movement and the Right to the City

In addition to fighting for adequate housing and against mass evictions from their shack settlements, the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement is fighting for the right to the city. As stated in a press statement made on 3 November 2008, “Across the country the government is chasing the poor people out of the cities. Across the country we are mobilizing to defend our right to the cities”. In effect, these shack dwellers need not only a roof over their heads, but the right to remain where they are living in the city because with this right comes the ability to fulfill their rights to work, education, and healthcare. They reject the governments’ proposal of their re-ruralisation – the expulsion of their communities to rural areas where they would be isolated from services and sources of livelihood which they have access to within the city. As they articulate “poor people must be allowed to remain in the city”. That is why they are fighting by manifestation violently repressed by the police. They are not only demanding adequate housing, but for the implementation of the government’s “Breaking New Ground Policy”: a progressive housing policy that stresses participatory housing upgrades, which unfortunately has never been implemented. They recognize, as a goal for their own efforts, the achievements made by the Brazilian social movements that pressured the Brazilian government to pass the City Statue in 2001 after years of struggle by poor people’s movements.

The right to the city is a collective right for all people who live in, access, and use the city and it entails not only the right to use what already exists in urban spaces, but also the right to create and define what should exist in order to meet our needs to live a decent life in urban environments (Harvey, 2003). In brief, it includes the right to use the city and to participate in the creation or re-creation of the city. The realization of the right to the city has been carried out through collaborative processes between civil society groups and organizations, governments, and international agencies. This role of civil society groups and organizations is particularly crucial to realize this collective right to the city, as it is their experiences that inform the adequate and inadequate structures in which they live.

The Abahlali baseMjondolo movement exemplifies the core components of the right to the city, which is a useful tool for their struggle which continues with protests being undertaken throughout the country.


  • Abahlali baseMjondolo website:

  • Ballard et. al. Globalization, Marginalization and Contemporary Social Movements in South Africa. Oxford University Press. 2005.

  • Harvey, David. “Debates and Developments: The Right to the City” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 939-941. December 2003.

  • Saul, John S. “Cry for the beloved country: The post-apartheid denouement” in Review of African Political Economy, no. 89, pp. 429-460. 2001.