Dear Mandela: From Durban to Detroit, the Struggle for Land and House

This is the life of the poor; this is the perpetual cry I hear.

— Khalil Gibran, Spirits Rebellious

“A house is not just a roof over somebody. It must have all the necessities that a human being needs. Because even this beautiful museum, if there is no water, no light, this is not a museum. It’s a slum,” Mnikelo Ndabankulu said this past Sunday afternoon inside the Charles H. Wright Museum, where Dear Mandela, a Sundance grant-funded film about the South African shack dwellers movement, was being screened. “For us, a house, a structure in the middle of nowhere is not a house. It’s a shelter. But it becomes a house when there are clinics, schools, shops—infrastructure—around” — the words of Zodwa Nsibande, a fellow member of the shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, visiting Detroit from South Africa.

They were being hosted for the weekend by Welfare Rights, a long-running grassroots organization in Detroit. The activists touched briefly, while their film screened inside the museum’s theater, on a recurring scene in their travels. Through their 8-city nationwide visit, Detroit being the 7th, they had noticed an invariably older crowd. This is, of course, not the norm worldwide, where the young tend to be active socio-politically. Imagine, Zodwa said, a young South African saying: “Because my fathers and mothers fought for liberation I don’t have to fight for it.” This would suggest struggle is a project with an end date, rather than an endless process of resistance to any and all forms of oppression.

In Durban, their oppression is multi-layered, but central to it Land.

Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed in 2005 as a response to rising attacks on informal settlements, using education of the law as the main weapon. We see in Dear Mandela an emphasized knowledge of the constitution to resist the illegal evictions and rebuild what is destroyed.

“We don’t have resources,” Mnikelo said. “We only have masses and political ideology. So we have to force the government to do what the constitution says.”

The notion seems almost foreign in this land where apathy clouds the day and people have “ceased to ask anymore” of government than that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, it “show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.” And yet, justice takes a different orientation in a land with 3.5 million homeless people and 18.5 million vacant homes, a land with acres upon acres of rich soil waiting for builders with axes and hammers. From country to country, the contrast is sharp.

“In South Africa, we’re fighting for land,” Mnikelo said, envisioning a much-different scenario in Durban. “When we build these shacks, the government doesn’t always say, Yes. Government says, No; we say, Yes. … [Here in Detroit], if people want those empty buildings to be theirs, they would take them over.”

Unity is key for any meaningful victory, Zodwa said. There would have to be coalitions of homeless people to begin organizing and occupying. But organizing should have a strategic definition, contextual and conscious of its surrounding. “Everything that we do is determined by the time and space that we’re living in,” she said, speaking of Abahlali, which actively represents 25,000 dwellers from 64 settlements. “In our movement, we’ve got two kinds of people. People who are good with negotiating.” This group is put into the boardrooms to lobby municipality officials for housing needs and upgrades. “And there are people who don’t care about negotiating, who only want resistance—so you put them in the streets.”

We get a glimpse of these streets in the chaotic opening scenes of Dear Mandela as a crowd of protesters scream and flee from rubber bullets fired upon them by police officers. They are nonviolent, poor activists fighting for a human right: housing. But they are also fighting for their community; each settlement is held tight together by family values: sharing, participation, support, solidarity. “You don’t pass by when people are building a house” we hear early on in the film.

In one scene, government goons called Red Ants have descended upon a settlement. Cloaked in jail jumpsuit red, they are contracted to chop down shacks, usually while the resident students or workers are out for the day. “They don’t talk, they just do the chopping.” Flanked around them are soldiers with rifles drawn, ready to fire. And yet, as is mentioned, “people build anyway because they don’t have nowhere else to go.” They are simply disobeying an immoral law, an act of self-determination.

They are also asking some salient questions, such as: what is a slum? what is a house? What is a settlement? As Zodwa mentioned, there’s been a shift recently to move semantically beyond “House” to “Human Settlement” because “Human Settlement comprises of all elements that make a human being.”

Dear Mandela plays on the screen touching moments of simple, everyday humanity forged by deep social bonds. It also tells the complex story of South African life. Close-up shots of shacks are offered against a lavish wine-filled gala at “Emperor’s Palace” thrown by the Department of Housing to congratulate itself in curbing the shack problem and restoring order to society. Like life, Dear Mandela is a journey of tragedy and triumph. A light moment is grained against the ever-present looming fears of random, brutal eviction; and yet, victory does come through struggle. The title evokes the central narrative of the so-called New South Africa, of a post-Mandela generation fighting for freedoms promised but never realized; as Mnikelo notes in one scene, “I do not like the fact that what he has been jailed for has never been achieved.”

The film was shot between 2007 and 2012, capturing the heart of the movement’s struggle before and after the devastating Slums Act of 2007. South African-born filmmaker Dara Kell was present and talked of “people telling their own story in their own way, and coming in with an attitude of respect, rather than trying to be a director and having a vision and making a film that fits into your vision.” Especially when covering a life-and-death struggle. “I mean, it is creating a process because you decide what to focus on,” she continued. “You are building a certain narrative.”

Kell and her co-filmmaker ultimately “wanted to create a cinematic experience, a beautiful film to watch.” And yet it’s a haunting experience, evoking strong emotions because we see the raw brutality of Power in its inability to concede anything—even basic human rights guaranteed to all—without fierce, prolonged, often blood-dashing demand.

The film begins with helicopter shots flying over Durban panning large swaths of land checkered by informal settlements. It’s a humbling moment, for if one were to skim over Detroit, it would be a different scene. It would be of a three story brick structure decorated with bright fall flowers and manicured lawns next to a series of ecological ruins, of weeds, roof-high, swallowing unoccupied, decomposing houses.

Following the screening, during a discussion with the activists, Marian Kramer, co-president of the National Welfare Rights Union, drew the parallels between the land and home struggles from Durban to Detroit. “This struggle going on in South Africa: we’re not there yet, as far as people building their houses, but we’re getting there,” she said. “When you don’t have your own bed to live in and you have to stay on somebody’s couch, you’re homeless. These houses are out here that people should be occupying, and people are looking at us like we’re the criminals [for trying to move families in].”

She spoke of the gentrifying of many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, historically Black—the shocking scope of a people abandoned, left to fend for themselves and do-or-die in the age of collateral damage; lives are disposable, entire neighborhoods are allowed to return to nature in real time, sprawled out against land that once held communities.

A stand has to be taken against injustice, she said. “If we don’t start implementing that housing is a human right, then we become a part of the same people taking the homes away from [those in South Africa]. We cannot let folks live in this country without the right to a house. It is not right for people to have two when others can’t get one.”

“Why are we sitting back and letting these banks, the mortgage companies—HUD, Fannie, Freddie Mae, and all of them—get away with it?”

“Cause we’re scared!” Maureen Taylor, state chair of Michigan Welfare Rights, answered. “No backbone!”

“That’s right,” Marian Kramer agreed. “Everybody’s scared. [But] when you get scared you split it into two: there’s scared that pushes you forward to do something and there’s scared that makes you go hide in your house. We want that fear that’s going to push you forward for the future.”

From city to city, country to country, the struggle continues.

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Tolu.