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Community dialogue on social transformation in Freedom Park

 

South Africa 21 June 2017

As we attempt to analyse dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world (Paulo Freire, pedagogy of the oppressed, p 68).

 

In this article, I will show how community dialogues in Freedom Park in Johannesburg South are directing collective action towards social transformation. The true words spoken by Abahlali baseFreedom Park have fuelled the current wave of community protests in Johannesburg South for land, houses, and jobs.

 

I will begin my narrative by offering some information about Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation’s (ESSET) community-driven development programme, which I lead, and, thereafter, I will reflect on the spoken word of Abahlali baseFreedom Park. And I will then present the key highlights.

 

The community-driven development programme

The strategic objective of ESSET’s community-driven development programme is to enable poor communities to sustain struggles that strengthen their social power and that lead to social transformation. The strategic indicator for the programme is an increase in community participation in local governance. To achieve the strategic objectives of the programme, ESSET supports existing social struggles and campaigns for progressive social change; builds grassroots intellectuals; and develops practical skills for organising and mobilizing the youth, women, and broader working class communities. ESSET does this through training, political education, and collective action. The training provided also focuses on political and socio-economic rights for community activists, and on laws about community protest and access to information.

 

About Freedom Park

Freedom Park was started as a land occupation by backyard dwellers from Soweto in 1994. It has been an attractive area for developers. It is close to Johannesburg and Soweto's Southgate Mall, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, and Bara taxi rank. The area also offers easy access to the N1, N12, M1, and the Golden Highway. Because of this, the developers contracted by the government initially wanted to have the people occupying the land forcibly relocated to Vlakfontein, so that they could profit from potential new housing developments in Freedom Park targetted at significantly higher income earners than the occupiers. As history would have it, the new residents instead successfully resisted the proposed relocation and were given permanent stands with toilets and running water in 2001. The township was electrified in 2003 and the government started building RDP houses in 2004.

 

However, rather than going to the people that had occupied the land and won permanent stands through struggle, the RDP houses were sold or allocated to people from outside the community who were not on the waiting list. Residents suspected corruption and that officials and contractors were allocating houses to people who had money to buy them, who were card-carrying members of the ruling ANC, and/or in exchange for political favours or support – not to those on the waiting list.

 

Reflecting on the spoken word of Abahlali base Freedom Park

On the 6th of May 2017, two days before the neighbouring communities of Freedom Park and Eldorado Park made news headlines, for the so called ‘violent’ community protests that had broken out over the lack of housing, service delivery and employment, about thirty community activists who formed a core group of organisers of Abahlali base - Freedom Park had a workshop facilitated by ESSET to critical reflect on the movement’s struggle for land and housing. The purpose of the meeting was to develop ways of sustaining the movement’s struggle. From their reflections, they observed that the state was not neutral but protected the property class against the poor, as senior citizens, women and children, people with disabilities were violently evicted from the vacant land they occupied. But they also learnt that to sustain the land struggle, they need to organize essential things such as meeting other social needs, such as food, water, sanitation and media coverage. Land occupation was to benefit of senior citizens, people with disabilities, the unemployed and all landless people fighting for the right to occupy the land. In the process of land occupation, solidarity is forged among the occupiers, the value of democracy is cultivated as decisions are made collectively, comradeship is increased. To consolidate and advance the fight for a right to occupy the land, task committees were formed to investigate the ownership of the land identified, find out who claimed the identified land between 1996 and 2008, and to research the state’s plans for the identified land. The participants also agreed that they will use whatever means to force the state to respond to their struggle. This includes blocking the high ways and freeways. They also agreed to use music, art and cultural events to promote the movement’s land struggle. Tactical alliances with student formations, worker formations and different working class organisations will also be explored.

 

The spoken word of Abahlali baseFreedom Park

The community dialogue triggered immediate collective action, as the freeway and high way were, indeed, blocked. The core group of organisers and the community camped out on a vacant plot of municipal land standing idle adjacent to the township. By the following afternoon, on the 7 May 2017, a small group of people, mostly women, could be seen peacefully constructing shelters intended to protect themselves and their families from cold winter conditions. Nearby, women and men gathered for a meeting to discuss the occupation and how to make it succeed. A few older women among those that had camped out the night before, sat by small fires outside shelters being built. It was at that meeting where a decision to block the freeway and high way on the 8 May 2017, was taken.

 

The community protest in Freedom Park spread to the working-class communities of Eldorado Park, Joe Slovo, Ennerdale, Orange Farm and a host of other townships south of Johannesburg, in the days that followed.

 

The protests have become the only effective political resource poor working class communities are using to force the government to listen and hear their pain. In Freedom Park, the community have been sent from pillar to post or their pleas have simply fallen on deaf ears. In the absence of effective government responses to the needs of the protesting communities, the communities feel their choice is between protest or accepting their socioeconomic misery, their suffering and, eventually, slow and painful death in the backyards of dusty, overcrowded townships where they have long since buried their hopes.
Finally, the leadership of Abahlali baseFreedom Park has recently agreed that the movement needs a political education programme to sustain its struggle for land, houses and employment. Consistent political education will allow the movement to continue to raise the levels of critical and analytical, leadership and organisational skills of its leaders and members. There should be a systematic and well planned political curriculum that will talk to their immediate situation and help build the necessary capacity for the organisers to radically transform the living conditions of Freedom Park residents.

 

by Thami Hukwe
Community-driven Development Programme Officer
31 May 2017

 

 

 

 

 

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community dialogue with ESSET in Freedom Park 2017