Bandile Mdlalose

For Bandile Mdlalose and over 12-million people living in shacks, the struggle is far from over. With forced evictions, zero service delivery and removals to out-of-sight “transit” camps, they are still not free. Courageous, eloquent, compassionate, 26-year-old Mdlalose is a bona fide freedom fighter.

After enduring political, then criminal violence in townships like KwaMashu, living in dark, inescapable poverty left her feeling powerless. She joined Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the shack- dwellers’ movement, in 2009, to use her voice as her vote.

AbM arose in Kennedy Road in 2005 and, with 75 branches and tens of thousands of supporters, is building the power of the poor from the ground up. In fighting to protect, promote and advance the dignity of the poor, AbM took the government to court in 2009 — and won when the KZN Slums Act was declared unconstitutional. The victory put ironclad muscle behind their fight against forced evictions and against transit camps that are unacceptable alternatives to shacks. Taking action despite repeated repression, AbM is ensuring the government recognises not only their rights and place in society, but also that being poor does not mean being poor in mind.

As secretary general of AbM, Mdlalose is its backbone. Despite leadership qualities, including humility, she deems her greatest to be her participation in the “living movement of the struggle”, which has shaped who she is today. Drawing power from knowing her rights and the unity of AbM, she believes that the struggle can be won; that real freedom can be achieved. In her ideal South Africa, “everyone is respected, safe and can flourish freely”. It is a place where everyone has a voice, is entitled to dignity and democracy is not defined solely by using your X.

— Lu Larche