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February 06, 2007

STRATEGY: Western Cape Anti Eviction Campaign

*Note: please read my blurb about grassroots groups, CBOs, NGOs and government to understand the context of this group. Thanks.

*Another note: in these blog entries I am sharing my experience of groups while also not writing everything I think or have seen. It’s way too complex for me to really understand (and therefore report), and I also don’t want to partake in the politics between groups…

On a warm Sunday afternoon, we went to a meeting of the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC). We were warned that while this group was once quite a large and powerful force of the grassroots, now their energy was weakened by the political dynamics among social movements and the waning focus of “the people” (the complex issues around poverty are so hard to pinpoint). The AEC is now a dozen or so people from various townships across Cape Town who meet weekly to plan actions and support communities facing all sorts of issues related to eviction, including access to basic services.

The first thing that I noticed about the meeting was the formal meeting structure used, but not necessarily effectively. They chose a meeting chair by nominating and seconding motions, and then throughout the meeting people quietly raised their hands to speak. The chairperson kept the order of the meeting intact, but didn’t facilitate in the way I’m used to, by moving the meeting along, summarizing, focusing, etc. So the meeting lasted more than five hours. But, everyone got to speak what they wanted…….

At the meeting, they planned a flyering campaign to help people respond to water cut offs; reported back from the World Social Forum (five people went); and advised our host community, Zillarain, with their upcoming court case. In each of these agenda items, I was impressed with the intention and dedication that the group had.

As I have come to hear more about the AEC from other groups, I realize that AEC tends to hold a certain role in the movement: they are agitators, always looking for something to protest, and do so in the most grassrootsy manner, quite adamantly against any structure that seems too constrictive or controlling. They had an antagonistic way of relating to many other related groups, claiming that they are kept in subordinate roles and even purposely kept out of conversations. I realize that this is a role they have often had to take due to the political situation, but sometimes it seems to be ineffective or even harmful to their greater

For example, one thing that struck me was their advice to Zillarain, the community who had a court date for the following Thursday to claim land to live on. The AEC said, “we believe that any struggle in the courts will be lost because the laws are for property owners and we are property occupiers. Therefore there must be chaos made in court.” They went on to tell the Zillarainians to just jump up and grab the mic and speak and keep speaking and tell the court what life is like for them: “It’s not about permission, it’s a space where they can manipulate, so we have to change that and occupy the space. The law is not on your side… Tell them that your children don’t have food.” Now, I agree that the laws are not necessarily on the side of the community, but I just wonder how this tactic might make things worse. But who am I to know? Really.

I did, however, think that the AEC did a good job of preparing the community for what court might be like, and they offered good advice about getting together as a community to plan their statements, and to bring as many people as possible to court (not just one representative like the lawyers wanted). The AEC advised them to bring their youth in school uniforms, and to take measurements as to how far they have to walk to get water. Good stuff.

So on the whole, I felt like the current state of the AEC is a group with a lot of experience and a strong sense of solidarity with the people in informal settlements, and they just take a more antagonistic tactic towards social change. It’s an important role in the movement as a whole, but it could be detrimental when they try to work with other groups….

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