Category Archives: Anna Selmeczi

CLP: Anna Selmeczi “Haunted by the Rebellion of the Poor” : Thursday 17 March

Padkos and the Paulo Freire Institute, are very pleased to welcome Anna Selmeczi back to Maritzburg. Join us at 4:30 to hear the talk and share some drinks and snacks together.

We last met Anna when she did such a great job as our guest speaker at the launch of our second “Padkos Digest” volume in 2014. Anna currently holds the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI): Social Change, at the University of Fort Hare and has been a consistent partner in our journey to uncover paths towards emancipatory praxis in our South African context. Continue reading

Haunted by the Rebellion of the Poor: Civil Society and the Racialized Problem of the (Non-)economic Subject

by Anna Selmeczi, Foucault Studies

Intrigued by the so-called “rebellion of the poor,” this paper traces back the current South African concern with popular protest to its reconfiguration during the last years of the apartheid order. Focusing on the discourse around grassroots resistance in the mid- to late-1980s, I begin by showing how, in juxtaposition to an ideal notion of civil society, popular mobilization had been largely delegitimized and the emancipatory politics of ungovernability recast as antidemocratic by the first few years of the post-apartheid regime. In deploying particular notions of violence and culture, this discursive shift, I suggest, fed into reconstructing the ungovernable subject as the racial other of the new South Africa’s citizenry. The second part of the paper mobilizes Foucault’s genealogy of liberalism to draw parallels between this process and the liberal effort to resolve the potentially conflicting principles of governing the economic subject and the subject of rights within the realm of civil society. Finally, via the postcolonial critique of liberal notions of civility and their rootedness in racial thinking, I suggest that civil society secures the governability of the population through rendering the potentially disruptive freedom of the people as the excess freedom of the racialized other.


Dis/placing political illiteracy: the politics of intellectual equality in a South African shack-dwellers’ movement

Anna Selmeczi, Interface

This paper starts out with the claim that the contemporary spatio-political order of the South African “world class” city is conditional upon constructing many lives as superfluous and disposable. This construction partly rests on the inherited topography of apartheid displacement which continues to push the poor black majority into zones of invisibility and inaudibility. Beyond this physical distancing, the production and abandonment of surplus people also depends on rendering them as improper political subjects. In the prevailing political discourse, poor people’s struggles are deemed less than political through notions such as the idea that all protest is related to the pace of “service delivery” or accusations of violence, as well as often explicit characterizations of dissenting people as ignorant. Such discursive moves imply and reinforce a conception of the poor black majority as unable to think and practice their own politics; that is, as a politically illiterate group of people.

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Abahlali’s Vocal Politics of Proximity: Speaking, Suffering and Political Subjectivization

Abahlali’s Vocal Politics of Proximity: Speaking, Suffering and Political Subjectivization

by Anna Selmeczi

Using as its point of departure the claim that today the urban is the main site for the abandonment of superfluous people, this article explores the emancipatory politics of the South African shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Based on a notion of political subjectivization as the appropriation of excess freedom, I argue that Abahlali disrupt the order of the ‘world-class city’ when they expose the contradiction between the democratic inscriptions of equality and the lethal segmentation of the urban order. In articulating their living conditions as the unjustified breach of the promise of ‘a better life’, the
shack-dwellers prove their equality and thus emerge as political subjects. As the article argues, at the centre of this process is a political practice of speaking and listening that is driven by the imperative to reverse the distancing and delaying practices of an order that abandons them by remaining physically, experientially and cognitively proximate to the experiences of life in the shantytown.

“We are the people who do not count”: Thinking the disruption of the biopolitics of abandonment

“We are the people who do not count”: Thinking the disruption of the biopolitics of abandonment

PhD Thesis by Anna Selmeczi, April 2012

Starting from the observation that today the urban emerges as the main site for the production and abandonment of surplus life – a life whose capacities cannot be rendered useful and is therefore not to be fostered – in this thesis I offer a re-politicized reading of abandonment by drawing on my field-research with the largest South African shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Grounding this re-politicized reading in the problem of excess freedom that emerges on the horizon of governmental rationality between the political inclusion of the surplus population and their obstructive uselessness, I begin the inquiry by asking how the current order of neoliberal urbanism contains the surplus population when the establishment of the educative trusteeship of development is no longer pertinent.

Focusing on where the neoliberal urban order is contested, I approach practices of abandonment – the splintering of infrastructure and forced relocation – as coinciding with governmental technologies that render the poor unequal as political and/or economic subjects. Locating, to start, the epistemological conditions of abandonment in Michel Foucault’s rendering of liberalism as the framework of biopolitics, followed by a discussion of the spatial and juridical technologies of government that materialize the power to disallow life alongside discourses that distance the surplus population from the fostered (bio)political community, the first part of the thesis concentrates on the processes of rendering unequal. Turning, then, to the disruption of this order, I present Abahlali’s politics as a three-fold politics of proximity. I argue that in constructing their politics as 1) a space of speaking and listening, 2) a form of knowledge that maintains the shack-dweller as the subject and the knower of politics, and 3) a legal struggle to claim their place in the city, Abahlali disrupts the biopower that lets die.

Based on the resonance of Abahlali’s political practice with Jacques Rancière’s conception of politics, I offer an account of the disruption of the biopower to let die in terms of the appropriation of excess freedom as the equal capacity of everyone to expose the contingency of the order of rule to which s/he is subjected. Building on the centrality of the shack-dwellers’ assertion of equality as thinking and speaking beings, as well as rights-bearing citizens, I juxtapose this account of political subjectification against the notion of everyday resistance as it is deployed in the poststructuralist literature on poor people’s politics. Whereas this approach relegates struggles of marginal populations to a sub-political realm where the equality of all, as inscribed in the rights of the political community, do not apply and where, due to their precarious and abject position, the poor cannot aspire to openly challenge their unequal allotment, as the second part of the thesis shows, poor people’s politics materializes in the transgression of the spatial and discursive boundaries within which their “everyday” struggles are supposed to remain; the crux of Abahlali’s struggle for a place in the city is to say, do and think what surplus people are not supposed to. When, where, and in what terms they find the freedom to do so might give hints for thinking the political subject that challenges biopolitics.

Click here to download this thesis in pdf.