The rent strike is an evolving conversation about how regular people can keep themselves safe, sheltered, and fed through the coming months.
The basic premise of the strike is simple: If we can’t work, we can’t pay rent. Instead of being isolated and on your own in worrying about how to pay rent and to feed yourself, regular people can collectively support each other, and can take their lives into their own hands by keeping their rent. Because even as lockdown is lifted bit by bit over coming months, we will still have significant restrictions on movement. Life is not going back to normal any time soon, and the most vulnerable people in our most unequal country will be hit the hardest. Not that normal was good for so many of us. If you keep your rent today, you might be able to buy groceries tomorrow where you wouldn’t have. And that is one of the biggest things you can do to ensure that you will have some money for food going forward, if you had any money at all in the first place. Government is giving some money to people, but it is insufficient, unreliable, and maladministered, so we ask ourselves: What are some real practical ways that we can ensure that we are collectively safe together?
But rent strike is not a blanket prescription. Though we emphasise and highlight that the landlord-tenant relationship is inherently exploitative, we understand that many people have complicated lives, we understand that there are occasions where it could be safer for a person to pay rent if they can. We invite everyone worried about rent to get involved and to be able to make the best choices with the most information, because each person knows their own life the best. For rent strike, what is essential is that no-one should be evicted and no-one should starve. Beyond that, rent strike tries to plug into a broader anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist conversation around how all of us should have our basic needs met and have good lives. So for example, we support those who occupy land, and have begun to include occupiers in our conversations. We would love to do more but of course we are limited in capacity.
Already in April 32% of SA renters were unable to pay their full rent. Possibly hundreds of thousands of people are going to be unable to pay rent in May, and many more in June and beyond. Rent strike as a group starts with the idea that if we collectively organise around that fact, we will all be safer now and in the long term. This is not about just May. May is the beginning.
Rent Strike SA is more than just the strike at this stage, it also includes efforts to petition and lobby government to call for a rent freeze and rent cancellation for the period of the pandemic. It is also a call to banks and government to freeze bonds with no interest added for the period of the pandemic, as well as a call to government to reduce rates and taxes. As such, it is a multi-pronged approach that is intended to suit all preferences for organising. It is essential that those of you who wish to pursue these routes join up and do so, because it appears that nobody else is.
We have done various things in mobilizing towards the initial call for Rent Strike South Africa, which we have learned gave people the strong impression that we have a fixed approach that does not welcome new ideas. In reality we’ve spent a lot of time reaching out to groups trying to hear their voices and their concerns around these topics. We have also built relationships with people who have started rent strikes all around the world, and are learning with them and their concerns while still working to be sensitive to the differences in context.
These are some thing in general that we have done for the rent strike:
We have contacted different housing justice groups inviting collaboration as we believe this action will not gain momentum without the work of groups like these on the ground. We’ve engaged social justice organisations who have offered us resources and support. We’ve also engaged lawyers and individuals who advocate around housing to come on board the project. We have started multiple WhatsApp working groups, a Facebook page and a private facebook group (where people can share their concerns and have many people try to support them), an Instagram and Twitter account, and we launched our basic website recently (rentstrikesouthafrica.org). We’ve drafted multiple calls to action, and we’re regularly posting relevant content that informs people and resources around legal and other options, for paying rent or not.
We have seen from many already that many landlords are completely uninterested in being kind or considerate of the problem. Like government, we don’t believe that vulnerable people can rely on landlords to act with humanity towards tenants. Collectively keeping rent and organising in our neighbourhoods or our buildings or our tenant unions is one way to sidestep reliance on the benevolence or the capacity of the people who stand above us.
Individuals and their organisations are welcome to get on board the rent strike in whatever ways you like. As we’ve said, we embrace a multi-pronged approach, and rent strike work can be effective in putting pressure on government to bow to lobbying demands. You are more than welcome to be in touch with us about how we can facilitate your participation.
Our working groups currently include ones for community organising and outreach to NGOs and tenant unions, maintaining our social media, website coding, radio, TV and print media engagements, content production and design, and lobbying and petitioning. We are also working on building ones around bond relief and around legal aid, and have a regional rent strike group in PE.
There are many ways that organisations as a whole or individuals within it could help. We need your minds and your skills, we need your networks and your community organising, we need your care and your consultation, and dedicated and skilled people would be welcome to take forward any of the working groups they are interested in. If organisations want to join as a group and officially endorse the rent strike, that would help people. If you wish to join as individuals, we are happy to point you in the right direction.
What we ask is that you get educated about what it means to rent strike, how you personally could strike and involve others in the strike, what your legal options are, and make the best decision for yourselves, your loved ones, and your communities.