The following interview is published for Issue 41 of Critical Resistance’s cross-wall, bi-lingual newspaper The Abolitionist. Issue 41 – with feature articles on ecological justice and prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition – printed June 25, 2024 and mailed to thousands of imprisoned people for free in jails, detention centers and prisons across the US and some internationally. Supporters outside of cages can sign up for paid subscriptions that sponsor free subscriptions for prisoners. Print editions are limited, so subscribe today to receive your own print copy while some are still available.

Socialism is Land in the Hands of the People

By Yvonne Busisiwe Phyllis, Craig Gilmore, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore

The Gilmores sat down with Yvonne Busisiwe Phyllis in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss policing, land, and dignity. The three had just concluded facilitating political school on abolition, land use, and internationalism, thinking together with Abahlali baseMjondolo communities in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng.

The Gilmores: We’d like to talk to you about how control of land is central to struggles in South Africa today in both rural and urban contexts.

Yvonne: Yes, thank you, comrades. The control of land in South Africa is very central to both the urban and rural land struggles, because many people in the land struggle agree on at least one factor: land is life. There is a difference, in many cases, between those who control the land and those who don’t, about what the land should be used for. Those who own—and control— the land decide what the land should be for. For instance, if we think about agricultural sectors, land is there for produce, for profit, for maintaining the generational wealth of land-owners. But for people who share a life in the same environment, which is to say in the farms in South Africa, land is for them to live. When the latter claim their belonging to the land, they are using different words. They are not using “profit,” “produce,” or “generational wealth”. They are using being part of the land, or “the land is there for them to raise their children,” and the land “is their home”. There’s that contestation between the people who control the land and the kinds of decisions they are making about what the land is for.

The Gilmores: Why are people with those sorts of emotional familial connections to the land leaving for the city in such numbers?

Yvonne: Well, the rural areas can be understood in two ways: the villages and the farms. There is not much for people in either, especially for work. People leave to go and find work in the city. This reality is similar to the experiences of their forefathers, because the geography of opportunity is still structured in the same way: not much is provided. Now people still go and look for better opportunities, because otherwise either you work in the farms or what is available in the small towns, and there is not much.

The Gilmores: And who owns the farms?

Yvonne: Well, in the last outdated 2017 land audit by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, 72 percent of individual agricultural land is owned by white men. They haven’t published another since. But if they were to, I would predict the same numbers— mainly white people owning the farmlands.

The Gilmores: Is it your sense that people of your generation or maybe even a half generation younger than you are leaving the farm in greater numbers than your uncles and fathers and grandparents did? Do you have a different relationship to the farm than they did?

Yvonne: Yes, we definitely have different relationships to the farm. My father makes claims that would make him stay there regardless of the work and living situation, regardless of the exploitation and what people refer to as “paternalism”—the fact that four generations before him not only worked on the farm and lived on the farm, but are buried on the farm. That makes the farm part of him, the farm his ancestral home and his home. Even though that is part of my lineage, I understand the farm differently; even with that history, I would still choose not to stay.

The Gilmores: As people migrate to cities, they’re finding no housing available. People are living in housing they build for themselves on land that they have no legal right to be on. Can you explain how that process works and the sort of policing apparatuses that make it difficult for people to establish new homes?

Yvonne: Because of the difficulty finding opportunities in the rural areas, people then come to the city finding it’s difficult to make homes. People have been building their own homes, since housing is frequently not provided by the government, even though housing is a constitutional right. If housing is available, people must pay rent, which is very high, but people are not getting paid enough. The government is not understanding people building their own homes as creating communities, rather as “land invaders,” as “land grabbers”. Then police—including units such as the Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU), or private police companies such as the Red Ants—push people off the land. Bulelani Qolani’s story is telling: In 2020 he was dragged out of his home in Cape Town naked by the ALIU. The reality in South Africa is that when people move to the cities in search of a better life, they find other struggles, and the main struggle—still—is the land struggle—the struggle for a home, for a life. They are not secure, so they keep moving and starting over. Some people start over in the same place, some move. People get evicted, violated, assassinated—all because they’re looking for a home and therefore looking for a place to make a life.

The Gilmores: As people in urban areas are faced with the police, the ALIU, the Red Ants, or perhaps private landlords or landowners, do they face these struggles alone or do they come together to protect these communities? Even though they’re often torn down the minute they’re built, and it’s not like everyone already knew each other, people are forming communities which are forming movements to defend themselves, right?

Yvonne: Definitely. People are still coming to- gether as communities, realizing it’s going to take them working together collectively. It’s go- ing to take insisting on the idea of dignity and resisting all this repression. People are forming movements in the face of all this repression and assassinations. The Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement, for example, has created a landless people’s movement based in the ur- ban areas. The idea behind the formation of the movement is that people are coming together to fight for housing, land, and dignity,because they’re realizing the government will not come to their rescue. They’re not waiting for someone to come and rescue. People are creating, to use Ruthie’s words, this idea of “life in rehearsal”: coming together and creating for themselves, with what is available to them, ways to come to- gether to get some kind of protection by being in community.

The Gilmores: Could you expand upon that further? It appears to us that people are, as you said earlier, not waiting for things to happen for them. They’re making things happen. They’re creating new communal lives for themselves.

Yvonne Abahlali has various communes that bring the communities together as 135,000 members spread across dozens of branches, each a self-built community. One of the main things of course is this idea that everybody de- serves to live a life of dignity. Housing—and land—is one of the struggles towards attaining our dignity. But they also realize that even at the point when you have won that struggle for land and housing, there are other aspects of a human life which also require a fight towards dignity. The main reason why people are moving—economic opportunities, education, and realizing that idea of “life in rehearsal”—these are the things that show the people what could be made possible by coming together. Things like having a tuck shop at a commune, where the money made is kept aside for people to take a taxi to the town for an interview; having solar panels, because they understand that the environment is an integral part of the struggle for land; but also community gardens, because of the understanding that food is also another struggle in the struggle for land and dignity. All this is done by the community in community. There’s that understanding that what we want as human beings is dignity, that our struggle has to be that of land, of housing, of food, of the environment, and creating with what we have the possibilities for what we want to happen—like giving somebody an opportunity to go to an interview that could land them a job, that could make at least some possibility for themselves and for their family.

Ruthie speaking at Abahlali baseMjondolo event. Photo courtesy of the Gilmores.

“The Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement, for example, has created a landless people’s movement based in the ur- ban areas. The idea behind the formation of the movement is that people are coming together to fight for housing, land, and dignity,because they’re realizing the government will not come to their rescue. They’re not waiting for someone to come and rescue. People are creating, to use Ruthie’s words, this idea of “life in rehearsal”: coming together and creating for themselves, with what is available to them, ways to come to- gether to get some kind of protection by being in community.”

The Gilmores: Some of what you’ve been talking about seems like basic collective survival skills in a racist capitalist society. Some of it sounds like a social movement that understands the need to overthrow a system of private property and especially one that is the result of colonial appropriation. So, it sounds a lot like socialism…

Yvonne: Yes.

The Gilmores: What about the political awareness of people at different, say, stages of political development in the movement—Do people in this movement see it as transformative of South Africa as a whole?

Yvonne: Definitely. Movements are very clear that capitalism is not the system that’s going to help people get to that dignity. There’s a clear call for a life in socialism. These movements have slogans—“Socialism or death”— written on their regalia or in songs. One song, “Yin’iSocialism”, contains a call and response with the question, “What is socialism?” And everybody else responds to the song leader, “Umhlaba wonk’ezandleni zabantu”, which is to say “All the land in the people’s hands.” So, it is very clear to comrades involved in the land struggle that it is socialism—or death.

Craig: That’s fantastic. You mentioned some examples of people who, whether they fully embrace socialism yet, reflect the politics they bring into the movement in the name of the communities. Could you share some of those names?

Yvonne: It’s very interesting, because they’re naming places to reflect how they live and how they insist on creating homes in community. When families and people on farms are forced to move away, they name the places where they have come to live and build their own homes. One of the places is “Sizakhele”, which means “We have built this community ourselves”, or “We have built this community with our own hands”. Another is “Endlovini” or “Ukundlova”, which means “You stay by force” [Laughter]. Interestingly, some of the names reflect the kinds of places or homes they are forced to live in. One of the places is “Edakeni”, or “a place of mud”, because most are mud houses. You find the same with comrades in the movement. Abahlali has communities like “Sihlalangenkani”, which means “We are staying here by force”, or “Enkanini”,which means “this is a place of inkani”, of staying here forcefully and fearlessly. You find this not only in the movements, but in communities where people have come to create places and communities together.

The Gilmores: One of the things we talked about was how the settlements do turn to the state, whether it’s the municipality or another entity, for services such as water, sanitation, and so forth. But it’s not a service-seeking movement; it’s something else. These relations are important, but distinct from, say, non-governmental organizations or NGOs. Could you talk about that more?

Yvonne: The movements are very clear that what they’re fighting for is not service delivery, but dignity. The reason why certain parts of the country don’t get those services is because people living there are not afforded dignity. The movements make a very clear distinction between fighting for services and the bigger fight. Services are part of the bigger fight in that it is because people are treated without dignity that they’re not given those services. The comrades are very clear to say, “We’re not fighting for services. Our struggle is not for us to get these services, but our struggle is for dignity, and part of being afforded this dignity is to ensure that people have proper sanitation, people have clean drinking water, people have access to healthcare facilities.”

The Gilmores: Anything else about the NGOs?

Yvonne: NGOs don’t genuinely seek to serve the political cause of the social movements. I find that they have resources available, which social movements and unions could use to serve a particular cause of their struggle. For instance, Comrade Craig asked a question earlier about whether or not I’m finding that movements across the cities, and in the rural and urban areas, are working together, and my answer to that was “not nearly enough”, because of the lack of financial resources. NGOs sometimes do the work of enabling connections, of making these conferences available where activists can come together. It’s very clear that for the NGOs it’s a “tick-the-box” exercise for the next funding cycle. But to me, the conferences are also an opportunity for movements, unions, activists, wherever they find a home, to make something of that moment—even with the knowledge that the conferences are not there to serve the greater purpose of their struggle, but that of the NGO. Still, there is an opportunity to use that for their gains in the struggle.

The Gilmores: Fantastic. You’ve talked about the role of public policing, of private security, of landlord or farm-owner violence or threat of violence in terms of disciplining workers who are reclaiming the land. To what extent are we seeing that the movement of the landless to control land is either coming together with, or developing its own critique of, policing and state violence as something that has to be dealt with as part of the struggle to control land?

Abahlali baseMjondolo at UnFreedom Day in Cape Town, 2013. Photo courtesy of Rio on Watch.

Yvonne: The government uses, as you say, violence to keep people off land, and they use the police to keep people off land, and they use private security to keep people off land, and they use surveillance to keep people surveilled— their movement—and so to control the movement. In Bulelani Qolani’s case, and many other cases during COVID when police were very visible on the street—people understood that dramatic police presence and violence are manifestations of something that has always been there, and that is how the government and private property keep people off the land: by using police and private security. Comrades understand that part of the struggle for land is also realizing how these units work to interrupt their work and to make it impossible. Comrades are strategizing about how to make this fact an integral part of the struggle. There was a statement with the Qolani case where comrades including Abahlali came on board and supported the South African Human Rights Commission when it took the ALIU to court. Across struggles they understand that some of the factors that make the work difficult, that interrupt the work, and sometimes make it impossible, and sometimes take comrades away from them—and I mean killing comrades—is done through the hands of the police and the hands of these Anti-Land Invasion Units, Red Ants, etc. They are very clear that their struggle is also against all these other forces. There are moments when you see comrades coming together, like when people re- leased a statement about the Qolani case, which made it very clear that people understand that this has always been the case and something must be done about it.

The Gilmores: Perfect. Is there anything you want to add?

Yvonne: In 30 years since the end of apartheid, land redistribution hasn’t happened in South Africa. It is very clear that the government is going to have to be pressured to do this, to redistribute the land in ways that work for people. We still have a situation of landlessness, of land injustice—that 72 percent of the farm- land is owned by white men. What the government has done repeatedly is ignore people, to the point where, what Comrade Craig said, the government can no longer ignore the people. I don’t think that we should leave it up to the movements alone, because the movements are doing the work: organizing communities to struggle against landlessness, applying pressure on the government to take land redistribution seriously, occupying land as form of political contestation against the privatization and commodification of land. I think that different groups in the struggle have to come together and bring together what is available to them: the resources, the skills, whatever they can bring. I think there’s [special] value [here], because we’ve seen the gains of this.

There’s value, for instance, when lawyers meet movements where they are. I don’t think “lawyers need to come and rescue the movement”, but lawyers should meet movements where they are, interpret the law, and change it to serve the people where they are. Farm workers are very clear in saying, “Redistribute the land amongst us in a way that works for us as well.” Movements in urban areas are very clear that people are in desperate need of homes. Lawyers need to come on board, and other comrades with knowledge, numbers, and skills. There must be a clear policy for land redistribution, because “land reform” is very vague, and movements and farm workers have said that over and over again.

We’ve seen great collaboration in the domestic workers’ Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, where domestic worker unions worked together with lawyers and brought a case up to the Constitutional Court, so that in 2019 it was ruled that domestic workers can now be included to claim for compensation when injured at work, or the children or fam- ily of the deceased can claim for compensation after the person has passed on. That was work that was done in community, where lawyers interpreted the law and turned it upside down, such that it served the concerns and aspirations of the people, and met people where they were, taking seriously the work done by the domestic worker unions. I think the same is possible for the land struggle. It will take all of us, me included, to make all of that possible.

The Gilmores: What is socialism?

All: It’s land in the hands of the people. (Laughter)

More about the Authors:

Yvonne Busisiwe Phyllis is co-Director of The Forge in Johannesburg, South Africa, a space for progressive culture and thinking together that works closely with a wide range of left organizations, including community groups, social movements, and trade unions. An organizer and writer, her research and advocacy focuses on agrarian questions, land and labor.

The Gilmores: Craig Gilmore was among the founders of California Prison Moratorium Project and co-edited Prison Focus. He is one of CR’s Community Advisors. Ruthie Wilson Gilmore teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center where she is Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics. A longtime organizer and co-founder of many grassroots organizations including Critical Resistance, she is author of Abolition Geography and also Golden Gulag.