• Eugene Puryear

South Africa: Women Commune Leaders Arrested Amid Wider Repression of Shack Dwellers

Photographer: Rajesh Jantilal

The following is a lightly edited transcription from The Punch Out with Eugene Puryear, a daily news podcast that comes out Monday through Friday, 5pm ET. Subscribe here.

The Shack Dwellers Movement, known as Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM) organizes tens of thousands of poor South Africans to fight for the right to decent housing and a decent standard of living. As the government often fails to respond to their housing demands, the organization takes matters into its own hands with occupations on unused land that then build settlements and communes for people to live.

For all of 2021, the movement has faced nonstop repression of its leaders, especially at the eKhenana commune in the city of Durban.

Three commune leaders, arrested on a range of charges, were held without bail for six months before finally being released in recent weeks, and three others recently had their charges dropped. “Both cases were proven to be trumped up,” ABM proclaimed, “and the arrests and imprisonment to have been based on lies by the state witnesses.”

But the movement’s celebration was short-lived; as it reported: “On Friday last week three women - Nokuthula Mabaso, Thozama Mazwi and Sindiswa Ngcobo - were arrested by the notorious Cato Manor police station. All three have made huge contributions to the building of the eKhenana Commune, and played a very important role in keeping the Commune going while other leaders were in prison… The three were charged with assault with the intention to commit grievous bodily harm in relation to an incident in June last year. At that time a woman associated with the local ANC attacked a migrant worker with boiling water. The three intervened.”


ABM membership is over 100,000 strong. Their settlements raised on these occupied lands consist of makeshift shacks built with the labor of its own members and connected to supply lines for water and electricity, without any assistance, or permission, from the government. Many of them are complete with communal poultries, creches, churches and political schools where left ideological training is imparted.

The movement’s activities, decades after the end of formal apartheid, are a huge embarrassment domestically and internationally to the ANC-led government. They reveal its ongoing failure to fulfill its proclaimed social justice mission to tens of millions of South Africans they claim to be their base. Local elections are coming up next month in South Africa and the ANC is going out of its way to emphasize that it is fighting against poverty.

This is the context for the serious police and court harassment of the eKhenana commune run by the movement. In addition to the ANC government, various capitalist interests allied with the government are known to hire thugs to intimidate their opponents.

The struggles of the shack dwellers are being watched the world over because they have become something of an avatar for post-Apartheid South Africa — about which direction the government will go, towards inclusiveness and equality, or the deepening of brutal disparities that have dogged the nation since 1994.