06/12/2012 08:44 GMT | Updated 03/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Talk to Us, Not About Us

This week saw the opening of the 6th Africities Summit in Dakar, Senegal with the aspiration of contributing "to the emergence of Africa of the people". Yet it is the people themselves who are all too often absent from such gatherings of the great and the good, which proclaim their commitment to poor people, but then end by maintaining profits before people. To stop this silencing of the poor a contingent of social movements from across the continent, including War on Want's South African partner Abahlali baseMjondolo (people who live in shacks), are participating in the summit.

Nearly 5,000 people from across the African continent, including government ministers , mayors, local authorities representatives, civil society organisations and trade unions, have banded together at the summit to debate the challenges local governments face in the midst of urbanisation and decentralisation across the continent. Such groupings all too often lead to situations where for example, policies dealing with shack settlements are discussed by those whose experience of shacks is based on statistics, with no one present who has ever really been to a shack settlement, let alone lived in one.

For this very reason two of Abahlali's founding slogans are "Talk to us, not about us" and "Nothing for us, without us". They are at the summit to give this alternative voice and promote the right to the city for all, meaning that everyone should be allowed to live in the city, have access to the city including its services and be a part of shaping and changing the city.

Silencing and sidelining of local government's constituents can be even more insidious than denying people the right to be consulted and to participate in decisions affecting their lives. Other common means of silencing people include not giving them the means to live a life of dignity, evictions, and the marginalisation and criminalisation of associations of residents which are fighting for their rights.

In South Africa, where Abahlali is from, nearly one in three households are slum households. In Cape Town alone, up to 70% of these households do not have basic sanitation. Such settlements form a feature across African landscapes with nearly two-thirds of city dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa living in slums. Millions lack access to basic services and local authorities often refuse outright to extend services to these areas, putting people at risk of fires from illegal electricity connections and disease from lack of water and sanitation. Without a proper home, toilet and clean running water, it is a daily struggle for many across sub-Saharan Africa to lead a life of dignity.

Throughout the continent countless evictions take place on a daily basis and with the financial crisis and commodification of land, this trend has only been growing. In South Africa thousands were evicted in the run up to the World Cup and moved to so-called temporary relocation areas that are colloquially known as 'the tins' as they are made from tin containers. With the vast majority of those evicted to such areas left languishing there indefinitely miles from possibilities of work, healthcare and education, the naming of the settlements as temporary have proved to be a misnomer. Again South Africa is not unique. In Zimbabwe, 700,000 were left homeless in a programme of forced mass evictions under the guise of cleaning up the cities. Since 2000 more than 2 million Nigerians have been forcibly evicted from their homes with no adequate consultation, notice, compensation or provision of alternative accommodation. In Kenya, the millions who live in informal settlements have no security of tenure and face the daily risk of forced evictions from their homes. And this is just to mention a few instances.

To fight for a voice, demand a life of dignity and prevent evictions, residents' associations come together in a number of forms, from social movements of shack dwellers to tenants' associations. Too often such groups are marginalised and criminalised. Abahlali leaders and members have faced death threats, physical assaults and arrests. Their right to protest has frequently been denied, although they have continued to organise pickets and protest in defiance of tear gas and rubber bullets. In less extreme circumstances, groups which have come together precisely to lobby for their rights are ignored and excluded from being involved in decisions intimately affecting their everyday lives.

The International Alliance of Inhabitants and about ten organisations and movements including Abahlali representing poor residents across the continent are participating in Africities to lobby precisely for the rights of residents' associations and such collectives to be the primary actors in urban process. This needs to be done through participatory and inclusive planning policies and the recognition and empowerment of resident associations. Only through speaking for themselves can residents of cities start to have a right to the city, and be able to live, shape and change the cities they inhabit.