Abahlali Base Mjondolo, the Zulu name for shack dwellers, is the largest group to emerge from South Africa's "informal settlements", the sprawling slums of wood, corrugated steel and cardboard shacks that have mushroomed near cities.

Its leader, 30-year-old gas attendant S'bu Zikode, gained national prominence last month when newspapers published a letter he wrote poignantly describing the lives of South Africa's poorest of the poor.

"There is no holiday in the shacks," wrote Zikode.

"When the evening comes, it is always a challenge. The night is supposed to be for relaxing and getting rest.

"But not in the jondolos (shacks). People stay awake worrying about their lives. You must see how big the rats are that run across the babies."

Feelings of betrayal

A soft-spoken father of four who has been living in a shack for the past 10 years, Zikode says he feels betrayed by the African National Congress government that came to power at the end of apartheid in 1994 on a platform to help the poor. 
 

S'bu Zikode: The ANC must use
the power that we gave them

"The ANC must use the power that we gave them to deliver," said Zikode.

Since the squatters from 14 settlements formed their movement nine months ago, there have been five marches drawing several thousand protesters, a meeting with the mayor and a televised debate between Zikode and Sydney Mufumadi, the minister for local government.

Richard Pithouse, a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: "Right now, Abahlali is the biggest movement in the country that originates from, is organised by and is sustained by very poor people. They get no donor funding."
 
But Zikode declares all of these actions a failure, saying that people continue to live in squalor and promises of housing or upgrades have not materialised.

Basics wanted

The group is however drawing attention as a voice for the estimated 2.4 million South African households that live in shacks.

Shack dwellers say they want the
basics: water, sanitation, housing  

"What do we want? The basics," said Zikode holding out his hand and ticking off demands on his fingers: "Water, electricity, sanitation, land and housing."

Zikode's message is resonating among fellow shack dwellers including Wandile Ndanda, 23, who took part in the protests organised by Abahlali because he felt the ANC government was taking too long to deliver on its promises.

"We put these people in power and now they don't want to give us homes," said Ndanda.

Hugging a hillside in southern Durban, about 1000 shacks in the Foreman road settlement are home to the downtrodden, where dozens of children can be seen playing in narrow, muddied pathways, littered with garbage.
 
Health and safety

Hlengiwe Sosiba, sitting next to her two children age two and four, points to the holes in the corrugated steel roof of her shack, where flattened milk cartons cover the walls and floors.

About 1000 shacks make up this
settlement in southern Durban

"When it rains, the water comes inside. The babies catch flu and all these things," she said.

Most of the squatters said fire is their biggest worry in the shacks where paraffin stoves are used for cooking and candles for light.

Pinkie Mxinwa said she lost everything in a recent fire but her two children, aged one and five, escaped with their lives, unlike one-year-old Mhlengi Khumalo who died in a shack fire last month.

Protesters have taken to the streets in townships and settlements in Cape Town and Johannesburg over recent months to demand better housing and services, often braving rubber bullets and teargas fired by police.

With the approach of municipal elections on 1 March that will measure the ANC's support at the grassroots level, the voice of the shack dwellers is expected to grow louder, said Zikode, wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned No Land, No Home, No Vote.