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by Richard Pithouse

This is a longer version of an article first published in Voices of Resistance from Occupied London

Since 2004 South African cities have been convulsed by a series of municipal revolts organised from shack settlements. They have most often taken the form of blockading roads with burning barricades and have generally targeted municipal party councillors. Across the country many of the more militant settlements have refused electoral politics and declared ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’. Despite rapidly increasing repression resulting in regular arrests and police violence, a violence that has occasionally been fatal, these protests continue to gather intensity.

Shack settlements began to be built in South African cities after colonial conquest and the rapid enclosure of land and forcing of people into waged work via taxation. Material conditions in the settlements were often dire but the settlements, via the popular appropriation of land and the development of, in some instances, considerable political autonomy did go some way towards creating a new urban commons in which all kinds of cultural and political innovation flourished. But in the 1950s the apartheid state, at the height of its power, began to forcibly remove black shack dwellers to bleak formal modern townships on the peripheries of the cities. White shack dwellers were moved to central flats. There was often militant resistance to this process, much of it led by women, but in the end the armed power of the state prevailed.

By the late 1970s the apartheid state was beginning to loose its grip on society and people were again able to occupy land and to found new settlements. This process gathered momentum through the 1980s as the popular revolt against apartheid turned into the biggest mass mobilisation of its time. Some of the settlements founded during this mass insurrection were built on an explicit commitment to popular democracy. In other instances this was later achieved through struggle. Sometimes popular democracy was sustained through severe repression but there were also cases where settlement politics hardened into an authoritarianism and brutality to match that of apartheid and its allies.

One of the promises made by the ANC when they came to power in 1994 was for mass housing for the poor and thirteen years later South Africa has one of the largest state housing programmes in the world. More than a million houses have been built in the last decade. The houses are usually one roomed and are much smaller than those built by apartheid. They are widely referred to as ‘dog kennels’ or ‘chicken coups’. They would have been declared ‘uninhabitable slums’ under the 1934 Slums Act that required a family home to have at least three rooms. In those days people removed from ‘slums’ were taken to four roomed houses. If we decide to accept the dogma that development is indeed movement forward we’ll have to ask the question: “Progress for whom?”.

It is clear that in many instances the housing projects, while presented as ‘delivery’ to the poor, are in fact aimed at delivering the poor both out of the city (as one expels a tumour from a body) and out of potentially autonomous spaces into regulated and commodified contemporary versions of the apartheid township – a space separate in every way from the fantasy of world class cities but far enough out of town for this fact to be tolerable. An often politically innovative urban proletariat which appropriated urban land and often (although not always) turned it into a commons organised with a considerable degree of autonomy from the state power is being recomposed into an individualized set of consumers safely warehoused on the urban periphery.

The post-apartheid housing model was developed from local capital’s engagement with World Bank models, a process that began in anxious response to the 1976 Soweto uprising. The World Bank developed its model from the housing policy designed at the University of Chicago for Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. It is based on the allocation of a fixed government housing subsidy per household to be awarded to private contractors who must take their profit from building within the subsidy limit. For this reason it inevitably results in cheap land being used to build housing for the poor and, therefore, banishment to isolated peripheral ghettoes.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, exclusion from the city often results in a dramatic decline in economic wellbeing, access to education and health care and public spaces like libraries, parks, sport fields and so on. The sweetener in the relocation deal is that life saving basic services – toilets, electricity and adequate water in particular – are withheld from the shack settlements but provided (on a commodified basis) in the relocation settlements. The justification for withholding services that would free people from constant diarrhoea and fires is that it has been announced that the shack settlements are ‘temporary’. The date on which the last shack will be taken down was first set at 2010, then moved to 2011 and now stands at 2014. This is rank denialism. The state’s own research shows that the number of people living in shacks is growing. But the denialist fantasy works very well to justify withholding and sometimes even removing life saving services from settlements and to pathologise all protest as (1) unjustified and therefore part of some sinister conspiracy and (2) a threat to The Plan and therefore to society. The Plan is always discussed in a neo-liberal developmental jargon as impenetrable as it is meaningless that offers the apparent authority of (pseudo) science to a millennial fantasy in which the real desire is clearly to eradicate the poor rather than poverty. The fantasy about the imminent ‘eradication of shacks’ is about as empirically grounded as the various Soviet declarations of the imminent arrival of communism or Jehovah’s Witness declarations of the imminent arrival of judgment day.

This denialism is not a fantasy unique to South Africa elites. In the 1970s the military dictatorship in Brazil also declared a succession of dates by which the ‘favelas would be eradicated.’ Forty years later Mugabe had terrorized Zimbabwe enough to be able to actually announce and realise his desire to eradicate shacks within a few month. In contemporary South Africa the denial of the reality that under current policies shacks will remain the best housing option for an increasingly number of people is accompanied by a manic frenzy to invest state resources in themeparks, casinos, 5 star hotels, stadia, international sports events and all the other scattered material consequences of the fantasy of striding into a global modernity by becoming a ‘world class city’. Ngugi wa’Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is the best available diagnosis. The popular militancy that keeps getting in the way of the fantasy of an ascent to heaven via razor wire encircled monumental kitsch is the return of the repressed.

The state calls its Plan for the poor ‘service delivery’ and has declared it a stellar success. At times it has even been described as ‘revolutionary’. But this hubris is starting to look a little desperate in the face of the incontrovertible fact that the ANC has a sustained and popular urban revolt on its hands. Some would argue that because this national urban revolt has largely taken the form of independently organised actions that, although inspired by each other, have no overarching, or even linking organisational structure, they do not constitute a real movement. Others, less enamoured of dogmatic Lennist ideas about organisation, see some virtue in a hydrachical movement that is firmly under popular control in thousands of different locations and is without a head for the state to arrest and beat into obedience or for the state/NGO complex to co-opt.

Official discourse, from the state, media, academics and NGOs, including most left NGOs, uniformly describes these protests as ‘service delivery protests’ with the implication often being that there is a popular demand for the perfection of top down ‘service delivery’. It is often argued that the targeting of local councillors indicates an inability to ‘understand democracy’ because the councillors ‘do not drive the housing roll-out’. These judgements are most often delivered without any attempt at all to speak to the people actually organising and undertaking these protests.

Having been at some of the these protests, and in many meetings where such protests have been planned and then reflected on in Durban, and a few meetings in Cape Town, I can confidently assert that the economistic elite consensus that they are ‘service delivery protests’ is just wrong in these instances.

Protest organisers have often clearly and emphatically and publicly stated what their protests are about. But these kinds of interventions only leave scattered traces at the margins of elite publics – a 2 second glimpse of a placard on the TV news, or a truncated soundbyte in a newspaper. The organisers of these protests are very rarely able to appear in the elite sphere as people with ideas. Thirteen years into our parliamentary democracy it remains unthinkable to actually have an organiser of a ‘service delivery’ protest on a television panel speculating about their origins and so the elite discourse rolls on relentlessly and blindly as academic or NGO ‘experts’ are called upon to explain the ‘mysterious’ politics of the poor.

Sadly its not uncommon for left NGOs to replicate this exclusion of popular intellectuality. This can either take the form of assuming that their role is to pronounce on the meaning of popular politics or to seek to workshop and/or co-opt it into the form and direction that they assume it should be taking. Co-option often takes place via commodified relations with individuals who can ‘deliver’ actually existing movements or, as plan B, the appearance of movements – outright political fraud in the form of ‘movements’ with less than a handful of members, ‘movements’ that have long expired, or individuals entirely detached from the movements that the NGOs claim they ‘represent’ is not uncommon. It is not unusual for these responses to occur without any attempt to engage with, or to seek to understand let alone to learn from popular political action. Frequently the effort is not even made to translate the attempt to produce a top down transmission of ideas into the languages that people inhabit with confidence. There is very little openness to the idea that ordinary people could have important historical and contemporary knowledge about the lived experience of oppression and resistance let alone that there could be important contemporary political innovation from below. In some instances there is a conscious and overt rejection of this possibility as a point of ideological principle. In one network authoritarian Marxist ideas about lumpens retain enough currency to produce a response to even the most polite and carefully reasoned autonomous subaltern speech riven sufficiently paranoiac to rival that of the state. In his meditation on the madness of Joseph Jacotot, who argued that intellectual emancipation is something to be announced rather than taught, Jacques Ranciere observes that “progressives have no power other than that ignorance, that incapacity of the people on which their priesthood is based. How, without opening up an abyss under their own feet, can they say to working people that they don’t need them in order to be free men (sic), in order to be educated in everything suitable to their dignity as men?”[1]

But what Ranciere calls the primitive passion for inequality does not fully explain the refusal to accept equality as a founding axiom for praxis rather than as a goal over the horizon of an unattainable revolution. Racism, as Sartre noted in The Anti-Semite and the Jew, is also a passion. It has not been unusual for all of this to take on an overtly racialised nature and to conform to the old ideas that Africans have experiences which other people theorise and that African suffering requires white salvation. More than 200 hundred years after the Haitian revolution and almost 75 years after Moses Kotane’s letter to the Communist Party of South Africa this poses an ‘internationalism’ in which the political work of the white left is driven by two primary tasks – to instruct the poor in the theories and practices of the white Northern left and to offer the appearance of a global credibility to that left.

I can only speculate as to whether or not the radical disjuncture that I have observed very closely in Durban (and much less closely in Cape Town) between what the people organising these municipal revolts think about them and how elites, on the left and right, describe them applies more generally. It is clear that in some parts of the country the relentless description of these revolts as ‘service delivery protests’ by elites has been taken on by some of the spokespeople people from within the organisations that have organised the protests. But, from what one can understand watching it all from within just one city in ferment, and with only the scattered media traces of the thinking that drives the protests elsewhere to go on, it seems that this is merely the language of professionalized politics – a sound bite that is used because the media know how to consume it and because it gives some cover. It does, after all, imply that one is confining one’s demands to the effective ‘delivery’ of what one has been promised. And in a society where the very poor routinely confront the armed force of the police, or the much more dangerous and omnipresent force of local party enforcers if they challenge the party outright, it is often tactically essential to, especially in the initial stages of mobilisation, frame opposition as loyal.

But even in these instances the language driving the actual planning and implementation of these protests, present in meetings, and occasionally glimpsed in the mass media in slogans and songs and, every now and then, a direct comment from a protester, seems quite different and most often speaks to notions of the dignity of personhood, the vritue of honesty and the idea that the disrespect shown towards people and their political intelligence and innovations by the state has now become intolerable. Certainly this disrespect has a lot to do with an absence of toilets, intolerable water queues, candles burning dangerously close to flammable walls in cramped cardboard and plastic shacks not to mention forced removals to the rural peripheries of the cities. But it also has a lot to do with the pervasive sense that the state disrespects people by lying to people during elections and by failing to listen to them at other times. Again and again people assert that the poor are excluded from decision making about their own lives and therefore from citizenship and that, in an enduring and pervasive trope, they remain foreigners in their own land. It is clear that citizenship is widely understood to refer to the material benefits of full social inclusion in the material and spatial senses as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations. To put it differently there is a clear demand for popular democracy against both technocratic authoritarianism (of bureaucracies) and the politics of clientelism and patronage (of parties).

This line of critique often takes the form of a very practical demand which is for the local state to negotiate directly with popular community organisations rather than with party councillors. The logic of this demand is clear: party councillors most often function as a means of top down social control aiming to subordinate popular politics to the party and, thereby, society to the state. This is invariably undertaken with networks of patronage and has often extended to councillors or their associates deploying armed force against their constituents. At their best, when they are well organised and democratic, popular community organisations enable a bottom up politics that can, in slow, grinding battles with occasional flashes, steadily subordinate the local state to society. The acute material crisis resulting from the withholding of services in shacks and the exclusion from the cities that follows relocation is driving the return to a mass politics. But it is very clear that the demand of that politics is for a democratic rather than bureaucratic resolution of the crisis.

It seems that the state prefers to tell itself that it is being confronted by militant ‘service delivery protests’ because this implies that people are only demanding ‘delivery’ which can be safely understood as a demand for a more effective technocracy, for a more totalising subordination to bureaucratic power. In other words it enables the assumption that people are only demanding the extension and perfection of the current system. The response of the state, when not entirely and ludicrously paranoid and authoritarian, is either to recommend ‘stakeholder management’ (co-option, teaching obedience) or to promise more efficiency from the state machinery. Some times this takes the form of recommending that consultation, environmental assessments and so on be cut back as they ‘slow down delivery’. It seems likely that much of the middle class academic and NGO left is comfortable with the reduction of this national upsurge in popular and militant political action to a demand for ‘service delivery’ for a similar reason – they often see themselves as a more enlightened rival technocratic elite and this understanding allows them to read and present the protests as a vote of popular support for their power point presentations over those of the state’s consultants. When they do engage with some of the actual people organising the actual protests they usually do so, like the state, via workshops in which they presume to tell people what they should be struggling for and how they should be doing it. It is not unusual for this to go so far as to include an assumption of an absolute right to exercise a patently despotic and sometimes oddly petty authority over the democratic processes developed in popular organisations.

However across the country the people who have organized these protests are demanding something quite different to ‘more effective delivery’. Because even services essential to basic safety are often denied to shack settlements and only made available in the out of town relocation sites people opposing forced removals to these sites are in fact opposing ‘service delivery’ as it currently exists rather than asking for it to be speeded up in the form in which it currently exists. Moreover a key demand has been for people to be able to make their own decisions about where they would like to live. Sometimes this has been generalized into a collective demand for the right to the city. In many instances protesters have demanded to be able to stay in their centrally located shacks rather than to be moved to new housing projects on the periphery of the cities showing that the question of housing is not reducible to being formally housed by the state. Where one lives can be more important than the nature of the structure in which one lives. The right to the city is not only undone by forced removals to the periphery. It is also undone by the fact that in every relocation people not on the state’s housing list (people without papers, single men, single women without children, new arrivals etc) simply have their homes (illegally) demolished and are (illegally) left homeless. And it is undone by the fact that there is a ban on developing existing shacks and on building new shacks. This is closely monitored by a mix of local informers, often reporting to the local branch executive committee of the ANC under the ward councillor, and aerial surveillance and is enforced by (generally illegal actions of) militarised land invasions units.

A second key demand has been the right to co-determine ‘development’ by subordinating the state, especially in its more local manifestations, to society. In other words there is, against the elite assumption that an electoral mandate is a mandate for 5 years of top down technocratic planning by the state/academic/donor/consultant/NGO complex, a clear demand for what the Brazilian urbanist Marcelo Lopes de Souza calls ‘grassroots urban planning'[2]. This includes both a demand to recognise grassroots urban planning that has already occurred, by, for example formally recognising past land occupations, and a demand that future planning, such as the building of houses or the provision of services, be jointly undertaken by communities and the state. The state relentlessly tries to subordinate popular politics to the party or, when that is clearly hopeless, to technocratic processes. Popular political initiatives often struggle, with an equal tenacity, to exit the control of the party and subordinate the state to society.

There is at least one academic that has a clear grasp of this very political demand that is at the centre of what is at stake, and which is entirely occluded by the routine anti-political reduction of three years of an often hydra like national rebellion to ‘service delivery protests’. Catherine Cross, an anthropologist in the employ of the state, has concluded that “the fragile civil order” is at risk from those who threaten a ‘heroic government’ by posing ‘grassroots communalism’ against the ‘state bureaucracy’. She warns that we have a situation where there is “an anti-bureaucratic system of informal institutions that competes directly with formal institutions” and that if the state can’t sustain its dominance “communal… institutions will be waiting to replace the current system of party-list councillors and ward committees.” In her expert opinion, an opinion which she does not feel the need to ground in empirical evidence, this is ‘criminality’ that is driven by ‘shack lords’. She recommends a few strategies to secure the domination of the bureaucracy over grassroots planning but her final and most vigorous suggestion is to demand the urgent deployment of the police.[5]

Tellingly the first response of a dominant section of the NGO left to a peaceful and reasoned challenge to their authority by the two largest and most active popular poor people’s movements at a 2006 meeting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal was to call security. Just like the state they followed that up with startlingly paranoid and viscious public slander alleging criminality etc.

Astonishingly some of the NGO elite even went so far as to explicitly racialise their response to this seminal moment in left politics after apartheid. A white Canadian ‘radical’ academic visiting perhaps one of the most authoritarian of the left NGOs even went so far as to diagnose (in a paper riddled with gross empirical accuracies and, surprise surprise, written without discussion, not even in English, with the people who had organised the protest against NGO authoritarianism) support for the demand by popular organisations for the recognition of the intellectuality of grassroots militants as an irrational ‘negrophilia’. This statement would clearly be what is apart from any context. But in the context of the fact that both of the movements that decided to protest against NGO authoritarianism have each achieved vastly more in terms of mounting meaningful opposition to the economic and political despotism of the neo-liberal state than all the NGOs combined, and that it has been their members that have paid the price for this opposition – in terms of arrests, beatings, jobs lost and more – the nature of the passion that animates this statement is rendered even more stark. As Frantz Fanon found in Paris after the Second World War reason “played cat and mouse; it made a fool of me. As the other put it, when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer.”[3] Ashraf Cassiem, from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, was writing against precisely this when he sent a widely circulated letter to a Cape Town NGO under the title ‘We are poor, not stupid’.

One reason why the local councillors have often been targeted in these protests is because they are supposed to be accountable downwards to their constituents and to speak upwards to the state their behalf. However they are unable to do so because in practice they are accountable upwards to their parties which determine the electoral lists and, therefore, the councillor’s future prospects. And the parties are, without exception, unable to comprehend the demand for popular urban planning as anything other than criminal illegality, social breakdown or political conspiracy (even when it is entirely legal). Moreover many of the demands that emerge from shack dwellers’ organisations are simply not comprehensible in the technocratic world into which councillors are quickly socialised via donor workshops, conferences and the like. For instance the state, and its consultants, its donors, its backers in the World Bank and USAID etc, all want to give houses (assets) to individuals. But often communities want to be developed collectively as communities and to hold land in common under democratic self management.

Another reason for the hostility to local councillors is that they usually demand that the settlements function as vote banks. The mechanisms of enforcing this demand include working with authoritarian elites in the settlements who discipline people in exchange for individual patronage, direct threats of violence from councillors and their allies in the Ward Committees, and the fact that people who challenge the councillors, or the policies of their parties, are routinely and openly excluded from the supposedly universal entitlements of the state as punishment. (For instance access to certain grants require a letter from the councillor, councillors can control access to certain kinds of employment and, also, certain kinds of state welfare such as food parcels for families living with AIDS etc, etc). The result of this tendency to demand that settlements functions as vote banks is that electoral politics produces intense local political authoritarianism.

And there is the often related fact that shack dwellers are often not the majority in their wards. When richer and more numerous middle class ratepayers’ associations want shack dwellers out councillors generally become enthusiastic advocates of evictions. The reduction of democracy to electoral politics fails to understand that shack dwellers often have particular interests that are directly opposed by the majority in their wards. For Cross the entirely rational apprehension of this by shack dwellers is diagnosed as being a cultural problem consequent to their rural origins. Her solution to this ‘cultural problem’ is, as noted, to summon the police.

In Durban it has been striking how the state relentlessly tries to canalize dissent towards the councillors using a mixture of coercion (police violence, threatened evictions, attempts to persuade private and public bosses to fire militants from their jobs) and co-option (‘delivery’, public works jobs, funded AIDS Drop-in-Centres etc will come to those who accept the authority of the councillor but be denied to those that don’t). But it has been equally striking how resolutely people have refused these attempts to canalize dissent into the councillors’ locks. On numerous occasions desperately poor people have stood up to various kinds of intimidation and refused various kinds of material benefits offered to them in exchange for giving up their political autonomy and accepting the authority of the local councillor. Money from left NGOs looking to buy the appearance of popular credibility has also been resolutely refused.

Although the planning and political elite is deracializing it continues to respond with intense anxiety to the autonomous occupation of urban space by the poor. All the old racialised stereotypes are now projected onto the poor. Elites continue to see the urban poor as a drain on cities rather than as active participants in the life of cities. They remain unwilling to confront the fact that the wealth of the cities is historically based on the enclosure of rural land and the exploitation of cheap labour and that there is, therefore, a historical debt owed to the people rendered poor by the same economy which has rendered them rich. And they prefer to ignore the fact that shack dwellers undertake most of the labour that enables middle class families to achieve a bourgeois lifestyle. Shack dwellers wash and iron their clothes, protect their property and grill their food in restaurants on wages on which survival is only possible when one lives outside the fully commodified sphere. One economy sustained by the exploitation of the poor by the rich is justified by the production of the illusion of two separate worlds inhabited by, as Fanon said 30 years ago in The Damned of the Earth, two separate species of humanity. And the idea that the black poor are incapable of thinking and acting for themselves is held to with a tenacious fanaticism. Once again it has been striking how the paranoia of the state (with its vanguardist conception of neo-liberal development that is, bizarrely, often justified in the equally vanguardist language of Leninism and Stalinism) about white agitators inciting criminals has so often been mirrored, more or less exactly, by left NGOs with vanguardist delusions of their own about their role in building and leading a new mass struggle and mediating its links it to the ‘global’ movement – i.e. the anti-globalization movement in Europe and North America.

Municipal authorities routinely and systematically behave illegally towards shack dwellers on the implicit assumption that they are not full citizens. This is routinely accepted by the media, middle class civil society and even trade unions as business as usual. It is as if there is an unspoken consent that shack dwellers are beneath the protection of the law. There is a considerable extent to which this active state criminality is just about evicting the poor from valuable urban land in order to ‘unlock’ its value for elites. But it is not just about the market. Psychoanalysis is required as much as economics if the aetiology of the plague of evictions is to be fully diagnosed. Elites (black & white) have stigmatized shack dwellers in accordance with racist stereotype to the point where their mere presence is seen as a direct threat to national aspirations for urban modernity. This is so even when a settlement’s location means that it poses no direct threat to profit. Shack settlements and their inhabitants are often seen as an acute embarrassment that must be quickly ‘eliminated’ (often via crude, violent and illegal forms of destruction rather development).

The official discourse also claims that shack dwellers are subject to slumlords who own vast swathes of shacks and rule the settlements with an iron fist in order to extract rent and that they bully people into resistance. The apartheid state used to make exactly the same claim. But these days this discourse comes from UN Habitat which is headquartered in Nairobi where slumlordism is rampant in the Kiberia settlement. This fact is used to claim that shack dwellers everywhere therefore require the liberatory intervention of the state via new legislation criminalising all rental arrangements in shack settlements, access to ‘local democracy’ (i.e. the top down authoritarianism of the councillor system) and removal to formal state housing.

In South Africa it is quite clear that although many people do rent a shack, or a space in a shack, very few settlements are run by single landlords renting to hundreds or thousands of people (and when this has happened there is often vigorous and brave and sometimes successful internal opposition). Rental arrangements are usually made between one individual and another, or at most a few others, with all parties being poor and are often more like cost sharing arrangements than actual tenancy agreements. Most often the transaction is governed by social factors rather than the simple rule of profit. Access to settlements is often organised socially rather than via a market in a system whereby new entrants require a sponsor and period of probation. Tenancy is often a form of probation which, once complete, will allow a person to build their own shack and become a full member of the community. This entails both rights and obligations with regard to collective solidarity. (The socialisation of access to housing in shack settlements has often led neo-liberal studies to conclude that the poor do not yet ‘understand’ the market and to recommend both education and policy initiatives to force the individualisation and marketisation of housing for the poor…)

In Durban most settlements have origins in the popular democratic struggles of the 1980s and have never been governed by slumlords. The discursive and now legal criminalisation of all rental arrangements and all shack dwellers’ organisations via the general accusation of slumlordism, and the 2007 Slums Act, is in effect an attempt at a top down general criminalisation of shack dwellers and the creation of a moral panic about their political structures by the party elites.

In fact in the vast majority of the settlements that are ruled in an authoritarian manner the relations of political oppression are structured around party political representation and in particular local elites in settlements seeking to deliver shack dwellers as vote banks to party elites, or to simply secure their obedience, in exchange for insertion into (often very petty) networks of patronage. The source of local authoritarianism is most often the extraction of party political loyalty and not the extraction of rent. Naturally no attempt has been made to criminalise this practice which often includes a straight ban on non-party political activity backed up with violence.

It is impossible to vote against this mode of oppression in the state elections. The parties depend on it. While the party elites speak about constitutionalism the cadres at the bottom of their structures extract votes with guns. It is not even currently possible to vote against the expulsion of shack dwellers from the cities. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal all parties voted for the clearly unconstitutional Slums Act, that echoes similarly named colonial and apartheid laws and aims to speed up forced relocations and evictions and the general criminalization of shack dwellers. And in Durban the councillors all have to sign a commitment to reporting new land invasions or settlement expansion in their wards. If they fail to do so they can be disciplined by the Municipality. This may be part of the reason why they so often function as local spy masters using party members in the settlements as their informers. A councillor who went so far as to join a march against the City’s policies would find herself being disciplined for ‘violating the code of conduct’ and ‘bringing the Municipality into disrepute’. If you are a shack dweller in Durban you can only vote for your own repression.

This is one reason why many settlements have broken with the councillor system and returned to the political mode of the 1980s where (often networked) directly democratic community structures represent settlements. While these structures do not seek electoral office they do not seek to be entirely independent of the state. On the contrary they seek to issue prescriptions to it and, thereby, to subordinate it to society. Usually the most effective way to achieve this is to generate a mass politics outside of both party politics and the official public participation processes that invariably function to demobilize and to technicize.

In Durban, a city with more than 500 shack settlements, there has been a unique development. A road was blockaded in early 2005, as roads have been blockaded around the country since 2004. But this road blockade had a unique consequence in that it gave rise to a shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, that now has members in settlements across the city and in nearby towns. Almost all of the settlements in which Abahlali draws strong support are within the central suburbs of the city formerly reserved for whites, Indians and people of mixed race and which now face forced removal to the rural periphery of the city. The same is true in Pinetown and Pietermartizburg. In other words they are settlements that in the mere fact of their being have radically undone apartheid spatial segregation and settlements that are, for that precise reason, most at risk of forced removal.

The movement is organised via elected committees in each settlement that network through an elected overarching movement secretariat that facilities connections between the settlements. In this sense the hydra has cohered but it is not directed from a head. Elected officials at settlement and movement level are elected for one year terms from which they can be recalled. Their mandate is to facilitate democratic decision making on the issues falling under their portfolio not to act as representatives for a term. All meetings are open to all (including non members) and settlement committees take important matters to open assemblies and the movement secretariat takes important matters to the settlement committees. The movement secretariat never acts unilaterally for a settlement and only intervenes in support of a settlement committee when it has requested assistance on the basis of a decision at an open assembly. So while lots of actions are decided on and taken together across the settlements many more are decided on and taken at local level via radically devolved decision making.

The movement has been able to present a sustained challenge to the municipal and, more recently, provincial authorities. It has suffered severe, often brutal and systematically illegal state repression but has, nevertheless, continued to grow and to become an articulate and compelling voice for shack dwellers outside of party and electoral politics. A number of Abahlali activists have become important public intellectuals regularly commenting in the media.

Abahlali are rigorously committed to a radically democratic mode of organising and have rejected party politics, the councillor system and NGOisation in favour of what they have called a (non-party and non-electoral) ‘politics of the poor’ and ‘a living politics’. Perhaps the most important idea in the understanding of the politics of the poor that has been developed in the movement is that shack dwellers should organise themselves and think and speak for themselves. They have, to use Emilio Quadrelli’s phrase, asserted themselves as autonomous ‘grassroots political militants’. [5] This has created a crisis for both party politics and those modes of NGOs politics that depend on a politics of representation and, as has been noted, Abahlali have experienced severe and weirdly similar authoritarianism from both quarters.

But despite this they have succeeded in building the biggest political movement outside of the ANC since the end of apartheid (although it remains very much regional and very small by comparison with the ANC). They have largely stopped evictions in all the settlements where they are strong, have built and defended new shacks, have openly undertaken and successfully defended their expansion of existing shack settlements, won access to various state services outside of party patronage, set up crèches and various mutual support projects, connected thousands of people to electricity, resisted police oppression, democratised the governance of a number of settlements, won sustained unmediated access to voice in the popular media, defended the right to dissent on the ground, contested the withholding of welfare as a punishment for dissent and fought a high profile battle for land and housing in the city.

But the declaration of Abahlali baseMjondolo as a university is a signally unique intervention into the South African political landscape where ‘left’ political education is usually something undertaken by NGOs in access controlled conferences venues in English during working hours and with an overwhelmingly economistic orientation that tends to ignore the politics of politics. The power relations in these situations are often highly racialised and gendered and are always deeply classed. But here a mass movement of the poor has decided to educate itself where its militants live and struggle in the languages that they speak via ongoing careful collective reflection on its experiences of oppression and resistance. Like Joseph Jacotot the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo is committed “not with the emancipation given by scholars, by their explications at the level of the people’s intelligence, but with the emancipation seized, even against the scholars, when one teaches oneself.”[6]

That process of self education does draw on some of the same resources as the NGO left (such as academic work, NGO reports etc) but invests most of its time drawing on a wide variety of other streams of militant intellectuality such as the memory of struggles reaching back from the urban rebellion of the UDF in the 1980s (including the popular democratic initiatives developed in shack settlements), to the shack dwellers’ struggles of the 1950s and 1930s to the 1906 Bhambatha rebellion and including trade union struggles, ideas about communal access to land usually dismissed as ‘rural’ or ‘premodern’ and the social technologies and theological innovation developed in various forms of popular religion. This should not be misunderstood to mean that this politics is romantic. It is not. On the contrary it fully embraces the city and the popular cosmopolitanism of the settlements. It is just that it is not assumed that good ideas and practices are necessarily something that nice white people get from the anti-globalization movement in North American and Europe and come to teach you in English at NGO workshops on the other side of the razor wire.

Like other movements in the country its conclusions are anti-capitalist. This is particularly so with regard to the commodification of land. From the beginning Abahlali has demanded the expropriation of land owned by the city’s largest landowner, Moreland, a corporate with its roots in the colonial sugar plantations but now known for building colonial themed gated communities for the rich. But Abahlali’s conclusions are also profoundly democratic. The former sits well with various types of non-democratic vanguardisms but the latter does not. It has amounted to a declaration of intellectual autonomy from the state/academic/NGO/donor/consultant complex. But while the movement has developed clear anti-capitalist commitments its central normative commitments are not to ‘socialism’ but rather to an immediate commitment to the absolute dignity and equality of all as founding axioms. This has produced a praxis notable, above all, for its gentleness. It has also produced the slogan “Talk to us, not about us” directed at both the state and some NGOs.

Autonomy from the state/party was first declared on 19 March 2005 with the road blockade organised by the Kennedy Road settlement. Autonomy from the NGO form of vangaurdism was declared at the protest against NGO authoritarianism undertaken together with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign on 4 December 2006 which was briefly referred to above. This commitment to a politics of the poor, a politics of grassroots democracy and grassroots counter-power, has the potential to mark a new moment in popular struggle. Some left elites have recognised it as an event that requires a fundamental rethinking of praxis and have undertaken this openly and sincerely with important results. Fidelity to that event has already created an intellectual commons to go with its defence of bits and pieces of land held in common, electricity appropriated into a commons and various community projects developed and sustained in common. And the analysis that is developing in this University poses the exclusion of the poor from decision making as a fundamental problem.

For the first time in post-apartheid South Africa the political form as well as the economic content of neo-liberalism is facing an uncompromising popular challenge. How long this largely unfunded (and entirely unprofessionalised) movement will endure while it has to confront relentless state repression (with which, it should be repeated for the last time, people in some left NGOs have been discursively complicit), repression that drains time, energy and what little money is available, only time will tell. It’s not easy when paying bail usually requires entering into debt and when every meeting requires phone calls, taxi fares and spending the night away from home because the last taxi left hours ago. But it is almost three years down the line and while some settlements and branches have lost heart and only participate in times of crises as a movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is bigger and stronger than it has ever been. There has been no ossification of hierarchy and decision making remains under the control of open meetings that are tender, very serious and radically democratic.

Abahlali may well be unique in terms of their organisational strength and the sustained connections that this enables between settlements. But they are not alone in terms of the militant insertion of a popular politics of the poor into the reality of national life. And the very slowly but increasingly networked struggles elsewhere in the country continue to assert a refusal of both technocratic decision making and its consequences. Politics is, again, political. At a time when “heroes hop around like toads” this is, very clearly, a very good thing.

[1] Jacques Ranciere The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation Stanford University Press, Standford: 1991, p. 129.
[2 Marcelo Lopes de Souza ‘Together with the state, despite the state, against the state’, in City, 2006
[3] Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, New York: 1967, pp. 188-119.
[4] Catherine Cross ‘Local Governance and Social Conflict’ in Marie Huchzermeyer and Aly Karam (editors) Informal Settlements: A perpetual challenge? University of Cape Town Press, Cape Town: 2006, pp.250-273.
[5 Emilio Quadrelli ‘Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics’, in Mute Magazine, 2007
[6] Joseph Jacatot cited in Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p.99
[7] Pablo Neruda ‘Right Comrade it’s the Hour of the Garden’ The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, City Lights, San Francisco, 2004, pp. 189-190.


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