The Genesis of the Social Movements Indaba

Mondli Hlatshwayo, Wolpe Lecture, 22 November, UKZN Centre for Civil Society

There have been attempts at the bringing together of social movements. In 2001 social movements participated in the march against the United Nations Racism Conference. In the same year the APF convened the National Exploratory Workshop. In 2002 the anti-WSSD march, which represented a more pronounced action of social movements was the landmark in the history of social movement cooperation. It would be a grave error not to mention the fact that the march was a success not because of some incomprehensible and divine intervention. It was a long process of engagements, discussions and debates, which led to a successful march, and the formation of the SMI.

The formation of the Social Movements Indaba (SMI) - one of the key actors in the 2002 anti-WSSD march - represented indisputably an important milestone in South Africa's post- apartheid history. The SMI represents the first real conscious effort, post 1994. On 31st August 2002 the map of the South African political landscape was fundamentally transformed. A new mass movement came into existence. In an historic display of mass opposition to the neo-liberal agenda of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), over 20 000 people marched from the impoverished Alexandra township to affluent Sandton. Under the banner of the Social Movements United (SMU) the largest ever post-1994 mass march was staged outside the traditional Congress-aligned Alliance. The SMU was made up of the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), Landless People's Movement (LPM), Via Campesina and many other organisations and movements.

The counter-march of the ANC/COSATU Alliance paled into insignificance in comparison to the SMU-led march. According to estimates less than 5000 people participated in the Congress Alliance march. A host of other organisations/movements joined the SMU march on the eve of the march and others literally joined on the day. These are movements like the CUT (from Brazil) and the Malawian Economic Justice Network.

It must be pointed out that this political clarification did not emerge out of nowhere. The political roots of the SMI lie in its predecessor, the Civil Society Indaba (CSI). Various social movements and nongovernmental organisations formed the CSI in order to prepare for participation in parallel events of the WSSD. In the process leading up to the WSSD, the CSI was locked in a deadly political battle with the COSATU/SANGOCO/SACC bloc over how civil society must prepare for the WSSD, and over the form of representation in the civil society global forum.

At the center of the position of the COSATU/ SANGOCO/ SACC bloc was the attempt to sideline the APF and other movements who were regarded as too critical of the ANC government. The COSATU-bloc wanted to minimize the representation of militant movements and thereby create a platform that could ensure common ground with the neo-liberal ANC government. This political battle led to the Civil Society Indaba splitting away from the global forum and forming the Social Movements Indaba. The agenda of collaborating with the ANC government played itself out in the failed march of the Alliance.

Social Movements in the Post-WSSD period
Subsequent to the anti-WSSD march the first annual meeting of the SMI was convened in Johannesburg in 2003. Attended by organizations that were part of the march, the meeting had to assesses mass mobilization during the WSSD, as well as examine the path for social movement building in the post-WSSD era. Despite some debates on the role of the SMI, there was an agreement on the importance of creating a space that brings social movements together.

The space was meant to evolve and include planning of common action and struggle. One of the principles that was adopted which must be observed all the time is the autonomy of each organisation taking part in the SMI. By this we mean that the SMI works on the principles of consensus and persuasion. No organisations should be forced to adopt a particular line of march. In other words, the SMI is an alliance of organisations that work from the grassroots but also see the importance of national cooperation with other movements.

In 2004 social movements were facing a mammoth challenge because of the national elections. Prior to the national elections some movements argued for boycotting the elections. Others left it to their affiliates members to decide what to do on the day of elections. Some argued for the spoiling of the ballot as a symbol of protest against the neoliberalism of the ANC. In that year the national meeting of the SMI reflected on struggles and the fact that the national elections were confronting the movement.

The quandary was that social movements at the national meeting were unable to craft a path, which could find common ground and action around different positions on elections. This was an indication that the post-WSSD regression was beginning to register. Perhaps the national meeting will have to provide us with some answers to our inability to craft common platforms of action during elections. In 2005 we saw a drastic reduction of social movement visibility. Some comrades began to talk about a stasis or an interregnum. One of the indicators of this interregnum was the fact that movements in Gauteng were unable to make a concrete link with the uprising in Diepsloot. In July 2004 two Johannesburg city council buildings were set alight in Diepsloot in protest against residents' removal to Brits near in the North West. The community was removed from Alexandra in Johannesburg in 2000 to Diepsloot, north-west of the city, after the Jukskei River flooded. Earlier in the day, police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The residents argue that the forced removal means that they would not have access to sanitation, electricity and water.

Thousands were also protesting against what inefficient community councillors and lack of basic services. Nearly 20 people were arrested by police. Residents then blocked off the road into their settlement with barricades of tyres and drums. A number of vehicles were set alight and government buildings were razed.

Subsequent to the uprisings in Diepsloot, at the end of August 2004 in Free State, Harrismith, hundreds of residents of Harrismith protested against service delivery. One of the activists was killed after being wounded by police. This was the beginning of what was called the "Free State" uprisings. On 16 and 17 September 2004 the Free State residents in Warden also protested against lack of service delivery and problems of accountability of councilors.

A number of uprisings were also happening in other parts of the country. On 11 May 2005 residents of Valhalla Park, Vrygrond marched to the Cape Town City Council in support their demand for electricity.

On 25 May 2005 in Khayelitsha 200 people gathered outside Khayelitsha Magistrates Court in Steve Biko Road, Khayelitsha demanding the release of comrades who were arrested while protesting for service delivery in Town 2 (Lansdowne Road) on Monday.

On 15 September 2005 the Abahlali Shackdwellers Movement of Durban lead a march of close to 5 000 people from the Kennedy Road informal settlement to the offices of eThekwini councillor Yakoob Baig in Sydenham demanding services. The protesters called for Baig's resignation because of a "lack of housing and service delivery" in Sydenham and surrounding areas.

On 15 February 2006 in Gauteng, Khutsong residents took to the streets calling for Parliamentary intervention in the dispute over the transfer of their municipality from Gauteng to the North West. They also called for the removal of two councillors for their alleged involvement in shooting spree during a protest. The residents argued that the incorporation of the township into North West would undermine the provisions of services such as water and electricity.

As part of a border dispute and a generalized lack of delivery, Khutsong became one of the important sites of struggle which challenged the ANC hegemony in this country. The community did not take part in the local government elections in 2006. The Independent Electoral figures showed that only 232 out of 29 540-registered voters voted in Khutsong.

During these uprisings, what was happening to the movement of the WSSD and the organizations that operated under the banner of the SMI? This is an important question that requires answers that are brutally honest. What we can say is that the movement of the WSSD was facing serious political and organizational tribulations.

The "hype" that was generated by the WCAR and the WSSD, and the availability of resources from NGOs led to the manufacturing of national structures. The collapse of these NGOs also led to the fracturing of these national structures in the post WSSD period.

Some organizations were caught up in their domestic organizational problems. One is not arguing that the internal functioning of organisations is not important but we have to say that it is the art of organizational politics that enables organizations to confront their internal challenges without neglecting general struggle. Therefore the mere fact that we were unable to grasp this art is an indication of our weakness. In other words, the WSSD movement was unable to weave the links with the "spontaneous" uprisings in Khutsong, Free State and other parts of the country.

How did the annual national meeting of the SMI in 2005 deal with the asymmetry that existed between the "WSSD" movements and the new uprisings? The concept paper, which introduces the challenges facing the national meeting, points out that the movements that were part of the WSSD were weak. It then suggested that the bringing in of the new organisations could be one of the solutions for addressing the weaknesses and broadening the movement.

The report of the 2005 also accepts that social movements that were part of the WSSD protests were facing political and organizational challenges:

We also have to bemoan the fact that some of the social movements that were part of the formation of the SMI in 2002 face serious political challenges. Some of these were not able to attend the meeting because of internal problems. Some are riddled with internal struggles around issues of resources and leadership. We hope that the new energies, new struggles and new forms of imagination will flog some of our movements.

The report of the SMI national meeting of 2005 argues for a need for the SMI to link up with the spontaneous uprisings:

Over the past few months, spontaneous struggles emerged as a result of government's failure to deliver to the working class. The spontaneous struggles in Free State, KwaZulu Natal, in Khutsong, Eastern Cape and many other parts of the country are important in the process of building the SMI and solidarity in general. For example, the mere presence of Abahlali from KwaZulu Natal and other new organisations from Free State and Western Cape brought a new dynamic in the last national meeting of the SMI. These organisations brought energy and positive spirit to the national meeting.

Based on a need to link up the WSSD movement and the new uprisings, organisations such as Abahlali were part of the 2005 annual meeting. In a context of local government elections, the meeting also resolved to take up local government and social service delivery as a concrete step for cementing the links between movements.

It was reported at the national meeting that movements were taking different positions on local government elections. Some movement decided to boycott the local elections. Some fielded their candidates. We all know that despite a decrease in voter participation, the ANC won the majority of local government seats.

As part of the SMI national plan of action around the local government elections, on 27 February 2006, Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the shack dwellers' movement, celebrated a victory over the eThekwini City Management when it obtained a court interdict preventing police from stopping its march to the Durban City Hall. The movement marched to the city hall demanding housing, water and electricity. The SMI Western Cape had a protest action on the same day. On a different day the APF also had its local government protest march. There were legitimate concerns about the coordination of the national day of action. Lack of resources and the generalized weaknesses of social movements were responsible for limited visibility of action. We shall return to these important questions later on in this report.

Since the national meeting of 2005 there has been concrete evidence demonstrating the fact that social movements in the Western Cape, KZN, and Gauteng have attempted to work closely with the movements that emerged in the post-WSSD period. Of course, there are many challenges that must still be confronted. The movements that emerged in the post WSSD period emerged as a result of concrete local struggles. Some of them may not have clear-cut positions on national and international politics.

On the other hand, the WSSD movements have formed political opinions on many national and international questions as expressed in the SMI platform, which was adopted during the WSSD. These movements will have to be patient and engage the new organisations in a manner that recognizes different evolutionary processes.

The fourth national meeting will be a continuation of an engagement between the established (WSSD movements) and the post-WSSD organisations. We hope that the meeting will come out with resolutions, which will help in deepening struggles and resistance against neoliberalism.

Having outlined the genesis of the SMI and some of its challenges, we shall now examine possibilities for strengthening and building the SMI as avenue of national resistance.

What should our platform of unity and action be?
The questions of platform and plan of action for the SMI compels us to revisit the existing platform of the SMI. Again, the platform of the SMI did not emerge in some obscure laboratory but it came out of concrete experiences of struggle and ideological contestation between the SMI and those who wanted to collaborate with the ANC government during the WSSD. The platform was written in the streets of Johannesburg and its surrounding townships.

A number of community meetings, workshops, demonstrations, and seminars were held as a build-up for the mobilization against the WSSD. Besides the educational work that happened in these spaces, people began to examine issues that can act as a glue that could bind social movements. The orientation at that time was to use the WSSD platform for unmasking the shameful role played by the ANC led government in South Africa and the African continent. The SMI platform launched an obdurate attack on NEPAD, a programme that seeks to serve the interests of South African capital, WTO, World Bank, IMF and governments of the North. It also noted that the conditions of the working classes and the poor were getting worse. The lack of service delivery, the prevalence of HIV AIDS, wars and environmental degradation were cited as problems facing ordinary people. The platform noted that mass mobilization and people's action is the only road to resolving these problems.

In the 2005 national meeting comrades reaffirmed the platform but argued that there were issues that needed to be added to it, namely housing, the oppression in Zimbabwe and wars in Africa. Since then the platform has been updated and all the issues are captured succinctly. We all know that platforms are not hermetically sealed. New conditions may bring up new issues. In other words, the national meeting can suggest new issues that can be added to the platform.

The question that the SMI and its component parts must answer is a crisp one, - how do we ensure that the platform becomes hegemonic? Of course, the question is not about ensuring that people are able to regurgitate the platform word for word or full stop for full stop. The answer to the question lies in mobilization. The biggest task for the annual meeting is to examine strategies and methods that can help in ensuring that sustained struggles around issues that are captured by the platform are generalized.

What are the strategic tasks facing our movements?
We understand that the strategic tasks cannot be resolved in the immediate future. But they are important as part of ideological clarification in the movement building process. It is the multifaceted combination of our struggles around our platform, on-going political work, our recognition and understanding of our struggle heritage, the current debates and engagements around the political direction of social movements that can help us in answering these strategic tasks.

1. We have to understand the manner in which the ruling class rules. It is not enough to say that the working class and the poor are under attack. We need have a concrete understanding of how the capitalist class reproduces itself ideologically and politically. How are the capitalist class and the state manufacture consent as part of its hegemonic project? We also have to understand and appreciate the fact that ruling class hegemony also expresses itself within some section of the working class. In other words, we also have devise strategies for confronting the ideology of the ruling class even within our movement as broadly defined.
2. We also have to understand the character of the state. It has never been enough to argue that the state is an instrument of class domination. As people who are confronting the state on daily basis, we have to take a clear attitude towards the state. Some social movements think that the state is not a problem but the issue is a particular minister. Some think that we can work with the state in ensuring that there is delivery. Is that an attitude we should take? The question of participation in elections and state institution is another question that require answers from the movements.
3. Another important strategic task is the question of transforming ourselves from a movement of grievances to a movement of power. Our understanding of the ruling class and its relationship to the state is one of the important steps in dealing with this question. Marx referred to this as the progress of the proletariat from being a class "in itself" (a position in the social structure) to being one "for itself" (an active and conscious force that could change the world). How do we transform and generalise our movements form a movement of protests to a force that could change the world?

The immediate tasks for social movements

The immediate tasks are the challenges that need to be confronted in the short-term period. These are the tasks that help us in answering the long-term strategic questions.

1. We have to use the platform of the SMI as a tool for coordinating and building resistance. We have to pay attention to struggles because they provide us with new energy and forces that can confront the neoliberal project. Our structures and operations should facilitate the coordination and the support of struggles.
2. Our lack of a generalised appraoch to elections undermined our ability to maximise moblisation during the elections period. While we might hold different positions on issues such as elections but we have to find a common denominator which can allow us to work together on a common platform of struggle and action.
3. It has been stated a number of times that women have not been given a space to play a meaningful role in leading and directing social movements. This is one of the questions that require an immediate attention.
4. Some of our movements have experienced divisions and splits. The big challenge is the creation of a culture of competing platforms and general tolerance within our organisations. We have inherited a very a political culture of intolerance. Some comrades think that it is utopian to have declared factions operating in one organisation. Of course, the easiest route is to split. We have to master the culture of competing platforms if we want to let diverse schools of thought to contend in our movements.
5. We also have to engage and debate national politics and the general developments in COSATU and other formations that have a working class base. This would also help us in clarifying our long term strategic questions, namely the character of the ANC, the state of working class formations, the meaning of building a new movement under the current conditions and so on.
6. We also have to resolve the structure and the functioning of the SMI. This must not be an administrative dictatorship. The structure has to facilitate struggles, as well as the carry out of the immediate and long term tasks.

By e-mail

3421 words