South Africa's homeless have become cyber-warriors

Thomas L Blair

There's an uncompromising website paving the way for the militant poor to lead a grass-roots internet revolution in South Africa. Led by cyber activist S'bu Zikode, the online voice of the Abahlali based Mjondolo Zulu movement has declared a radical challenge. It opposes bureaucrats and land speculators planning to evict thousands of shackdwellers to beautify the city in advance of next year's soccer World Cup.

Cyber-militants took to the Internet with a full-throated cry - Umhlaba! Izindlu! Land! Housing!   Winning viewers with a rich diet of people's voices, photographs and stories, they affirm,  "Shack settlements are communities to be developed and not slums to be bull-dozed".

In the process, they forged a template for small group and grass-roots cyber action. First aired nearly two years ago, Zikode sensed a desperate need to broadcast the shackdwellers's case. He condemned the Zulu-Natal Slums Act of 2007 as the forerunner of mass evictions and disenfranchisement.

Traditional legal housing rights of shackdwellers, more than half of Durban's African population, were in danger. The Act enforced a heavy penalty.  "No Land; No house; No Vote!" said the cyberactivist.

Then Zikode and his comrades used their online journalism skills to  "help people gain control of the forces that affect their lives". They trumpeted the success of community leaders, mass meetings and informal schools and health facilities.   

Then came the time for action to reform or repeal the threatening Act. With the power of the web in their hands, Zikode and the shackdwellers carried the protest to the highest constitutional courts.

However, the KwaZulu judicial authorities denied this troublesome plea in 14 May 2009. Too reminiscent, many say, of Verwoerd's apartheid doctrine of the 1950s:  "If the native is being taught that he will live his adult life under a policy of equal rights, he is making a big mistake".

This set back has not stopped the cyberactivity of the proud heirs of Chief Shaka Zulu, the revered political and military leader of the anti-colonial wars. It emboldens them. Cyber-community organisers rallied the shantytown people left out of the political system. Many live on the edge of poverty or are as badly off as their rural relatives earning less than two dollars a day.

Soon, the Abahlali baseMjondolo web site linked a network of  "Internetworks" of the militant poor. One cluster of popular protests is the Landless People's Movement (Gauteng). Another is the Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal). In addition, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign adds its online voice.   Together, Zikode and his comrades form the Poor People's Alliance,  "a national network of democratic membership based poor people's movements".

Furthermore, publishing their  "fight-back" mood in major languages - English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and isiXhosa - has attracted South Africa's politically influential net-generation to the shackdwellers cause.   These include online progressive political and language groups, urban planners, housing experts and lawyers. In addition, anti-poverty campaigners, civil rights groups and grassroots organisations are pledging their aid.     

The audacity of the Zulu cyber-warriors has merit; that   should be increasingly accepted. Online shackdwellers push us towards greater awareness of the social uses of the Internet. Will this new class in the making forge new, more just policies for affordable housing, living wages and secure futures for their children? Will they be able to build strategic unity with the workers' and trade union movements?   

Will students and the net-generation take up the cause of the shack dwellers? Moreover, will  "going digital" prompt action from diverse political forces, for example the Pan African Congress and the Communist Party?   What will the powerful African National Congress do? Will ANC leader Jacob Zuma, a Zulu himself, and South Africa's fourth president, intervene?

Answers to these questions will determine the democratic future of South Africa and influence Internet campaigns for people's empowerment in many other countries.

* Thomas L Blair publishes the Chronicleworld http://www. Discover the Internet facts and common visions of the Black world in the author's just published E-book The Audacity of Cyberspace: The struggle for Internet power by Thomas L Blair (Order from