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The Dark Continent: The Criminalization of the Poor

Abahlali baseMjondolo or the Shack Dwellers movement began almost six years ago in Durban, South Africa. Abahlali has become (according to their website) the “largest organization of the poor” in post-apartheid South Africa. The organization was solidified through their first protest. This protest was a “road blockade organized from the Kennedy Road settlement” to speak out against the sale of an area that was promised by local government to the shack dwellers for housing. Through Abahlali, which is the largest representation of the poor in South Africa, we can explore in more depth how the poor are treated in society. I will use S’bu Zikode’s article on The Third Force to detail the conditions and struggle that poor people experience in on a regular basis. With this article we can examine and determine exactly how the poor are criminalized.

S’Bu begins his article by explaining what his definition of the “Third Force” is and then highlights the social experience of poor people in South Africa. This article is in response to government officials, politicians, and intellectuals that have tried to dismiss the protests of Abahlali and label them as the “Third Force.” S’bu alludes to the class differences that prohibit these various people from understanding the reality of the poor people’s experience in South Africa.
S’bu writes, “They are too high to really feel what we feel. They always want to talk for us and about us but they must allow us to talk about our lives and our struggles.” His words emphasize the class divide. This is a divide that is no longer based on race, but is now centered around an economic context. These same groups of privilege are now directly trying to criminalize the poor, by categorizing them as the Third Force. Traditionally the concept of the Third Force has a very negative representation in South African history. The ANC used this term in the apartheid era to refer to the surge of violence against mostly poor black people who were struggling for freedom. In a Truth and Reconciliation document put out in 2003, they refer to the “Third Force” as a group of people whose actions are fomenting violence which results in gross human rights violations, including random and target killings. It is both unfortunate and ironic that black politicians were trying to associate Abahlali, a group that is fighting for equality, with the concept of the Third Force. However, S’bu very intelligently flips the idea of the Third Force and uses the inverse to highlight the conditions of the poor.

S’bu proclaims that he is the Third Force and then says that the Third Force is “all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives.” S’bu speaks for the shack dwellers movement as he goes onto highlight the social conditions of the poor and explain how “the life that we [the shack dwellers] are living makes our communities the third force.” These communities that S’bu speaks of do not have proper housing, water, electricity, or toilets. These conditions breed disease and make it impossible for people to sleep in their houses when it rains. S’bu goes into even more detail as he explains that the evening should be a time for people to relax, but how in these communities the people cannot relax because people stay awake worrying about their lives and the “rats that run across small babies in the night.” These are conditions that mold the desperation of poor people to struggle to build their own political space.

The municipality of the area promised to give them land for housing. But the local officials [specifically the director of housing and the ward councilor near Kennedy road] “lied to” the poor people in the neighborhood and started to bulldoze the shacks that they lived in. The shacks were being bulldozed to create a brick factory for white business men.

Abahlali’s response to these lies, is to protest. S’bu argues that the municipality does not “listen” to them when they speak in Zulu or English. He explains that government officials and decision makers only understand one language and that is the language of protest. S’bu goes onto to say that these groups who are in power begin to understand and results only come when “we put thousands of people on the street. It is the only tool that we have to emancipate our people.” However, there is another aspect to this protest. The backlash to this protest is the direct criminalization of the poor. S’bu contends that the shack dwellers have gotten wiser from their past experience and they now understand that the people in power are going to criminalize their actions to keep them quiet. He contends that “when you want to achieve what is legitimate by peaceful negotiations, by humbleness, by respecting those in authority your plea becomes criminal.” This criminalization is not just a theory in S’bu’s article, but we see this process acted out amongst the poor who speak out. The criminalization of the poor in South Africa occurred when the very same ward councilor told the police to “arrest these people, they are criminals.” These were the people who were trying to keep their houses, the people who struggle to stay dry when it rains, and the very same people who were lied to by the municipals of the area. Now when those people do not allow their houses to be bulldozed the police were sent to beat them, their dogs were sent to bite them, and more than a dozen people were arrested. Here we see the blatant criminalization of poor people.

I do not agree with violent protest, but I do know that protest here in South Africa is very powerful. Like nothing I have experienced in the states. There is a freshness to the power people feel when gathering together. A freshness that has unfotunately gotten stale in the States. Amandla. Ngawethu.