Category Archives: civil society

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.


The Politics of the Governed

The Politics of the Governed

by Partha Chatterjee, 2004

In this brilliant set of essays, Partha Chatterjee develops an original thesis about what used to be called the Third World. Contrary to accepted wisdom, he argues that the growth of democracy there does not depend primarily on the strengthening of "civil society" (where modern citizens exercise their rights in relation to one another and to the state) but on something else: the increasing entry of the rural and urban poor into "political society." This is the space of governmentality, in which marginal population groups are able to compel the post-colonial state to negotiate their entitlements — often in illegal ways. The Politics of the Governed is a deeply thought-provoking book, skillfully combining rich ethnographic detail with important theoretical insights. It moves effortlessly from describing the political struggles of shanty-town dwellers in India to analyzing the contradictory effects of global capitalism and discussing the moves of American imperial power around the world. No one who is seriously concerned with understanding the political predicament of the contemporary world can afford to miss this humane and illuminating work.

– Talal Asad, distinguished professor of anthropology, City University of New York

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SACSIS: The Enduring Rationality of Revolt

The Enduring Rationality of Revolt

In recent weeks the centre of the unstable and diverse social ferment that has been bubbling and boiling at the base of South African society since at least 2004 has shifted to Cape Town. People have often remarked that the conflict on the slopes of the Sentinel in Hout Bay, in which four people lost their eyes to rubber bullets fired by the police, has evoked the past.

But our cities are the most unequal in the world and many of our people are holding firmly to the promise of inclusion in a time of escalating social exclusion, which is often driven by the market and backed by state violence. There is every chance that the clash in Hout Bay is just as likely to speak to our future as to our past.

It’s frequently argued, by both the state and civil society, that now that we have constitutional democracy, forms of protest like the road blockade, the riot, land occupations and self organised water and electricity connections are illegitimate and anti-social.

In many cases it is asserted, in wilful ignorance of the history of the riot across space and time, that the destruction of property is automatically anti-social and even violent. But the riot is not inevitably anti-social and has often been, precisely, the collective defence of the integrity of the social. A riot can only be properly understood in its full context.

There’s no doubt that popular revolt can take anti-social forms and that it is essential to be attentive to this. But if we understand democracy as the equal opportunity for the expression of political agency then it becomes clear that the parameters within which official discourse aims to contain dissent are often, in practice if not in principle, limitations on democracy rather than a defence of its full and final institutionalisation.

Our elite public sphere, again in practice if not in principle, generally assumes that its protagonists will be bourgeois and is largely unwelcoming to the collective agency of people who must make their lives in mud, shit and fire without easy or independent access to donor funding, lawyers, lobbyists, conference venues and the media.

And, the social reality beneath the elite public sphere is often governed by a very different logic in which political containment is a deliberate and routinely unlawful process. There is a growing authoritarianism on the part of both the party and the state that, via police and party violence, as well as the systemic distortion of development and social welfare by party political interests, actively denies substantive access to democratic freedoms to the people that need them the most.

The academic literature on poor people’s movements is clear that while professional civil society activists are good at generating fantastical ideas about how the oppressed should respond to their oppression, in reality, opportunities for popular dissent are rare and insurgency is usually short lived. Moreover, the forms that it can take are invariably limited by material and structural factors and rarely, if ever, conform to middle class organisers’ prescriptions of the form and content that popular mobilisation should take.

It is also recognised that there is, across space and time, a pronounced tendency for structural and state violence to be normalised, sometimes to the point of invisibility, and for popular insurgency to be automatically cast as violent and anti-social even when it is quite clearly not.

In their classic study on popular politics in the United States, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Frances Piven and Richard Cloward conclude that professional organisers tend to be driven to the symbolic and material support that elites can provide with the result that they have usually “not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilise.”

The mode of social change backed by professional civil society has won some important victories in post-apartheid South Africa, with the movement in support of equal access to medical treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS being, clearly, the most successful project. But professional civil society has not stopped material inequality from worsening, it has failed to make any meaningful contribution to the resolution of the housing crisis and it has not stopped the escalating and often violent exclusion of many people at the bottom of our society from real access to democracy.

When a social system is not working, people have the right to challenge it directly and outside of the rules that it sets for engagement. Until and unless we reach a point where the actions of the state are beginning to turn the tide against economic and political exclusion, the state’s legal right to declare popular forms of revolt illegitimate has no moral standing.

And until and unless we reach a point where the actions of civil society are beginning to turn the tide against economic and political exclusion, civil society has no right to automatically declare popular revolt illegitimate when it operates outside the logic of civil society.

Around the world, the road blockade, the strike of the unemployed, has emerged as a key social weapon of the unemployed or the precariously employed who cannot exercise pressure on society by withdrawing their labour. Here in South Africa, it is, around the country, the key tactic in the municipal revolts that have raged across the country since 2004.

The road blockade has the enormous merit of being a weapon that is firmly in the hands of ordinary people. You don’t need donor funding, professional activists and easy access to lawyers and lobbyists to organise a decent road blockade. It can be used, immediately, by ordinary people to disrupt business as usual. Disruption is a tactic and not a positive programme for social change, but, as studies like that of Priven and Cloward have shown, poor people have often won more from the production of the material and symbolic challenge of what they call social turbulence than from the development of a social wish list which is not, in itself, any kind of real threat to the powerful.

Like any weapon that can produce an immediate affect, the intoxication of the immediacy of the road blockade risks encouraging a degree of hubris and localism along with what Frantz Fanon called a mistrust of subtlety. Like any weapon, it can be misused and any particular use of it must be assessed on its particular merits. Like any weapon, if its use is not subordinated to a process of open and democratic deliberation, it risks degenerating into a counter brutality.

But, in principle, the right to disrupt business as usual and to do so outside of the rules of engagement set up by the state and civil society, must be affirmed for as long as the state and civil society continue to fail to realise the legitimate aspirations and urgent needs of ordinary people.

If blockading roads with burning tyres can go some way towards turning the hidden crisis of poverty, often experienced as an endless, private and shameful disaster by the poor, into a public and urgent crisis for elites that calls their right to rule as they do into question, then we must recognise the road blockade as a potentially social action and the automatic defence of business as usual as inherently anti-social.

The Underside of South African Democracy

The Underside of South African Democracy

Date posted: 13 October 2009
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Richard Pithouse

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a shackdwellers’ movement. It was formed by and for shack dwellers in Durban in 2005. Since then the movement has extended to cities like Pietermartizburg and Cape Town. It now has members in 54 settlements.

The movement has campaigned, with considerable success, against unlawful evictions by the state and private landowners. It has also campaigned, with significant although limited success, for access to basic services and for the upgrade of settlements where people live rather than forced removal to houses or ‘transit camps’ in peripheral ghettoes far from work, schools and health care.

The movement has also organised to ensure that poor children can access good schools and that poor people get fair access to policing services. As well as making demands on the state, it has built and run a number of crèches, developed vegetable gardens and set up various education projects and a well-stocked library.

All of this is easily understood in civil society through the languages of ‘service delivery’, ‘popular participation in development’ and ‘self-help’ or, even, ‘social entrepreneurship’. But these achievements are grounded in the sometimes dangerous political work of the movement and this fact has been much more difficult for civil society to grasp.

The movement’s political work is not to compete for electoral office. It specifically refuses electoral politics and aims, instead, to build the power of the poor against that of local elites in and out of the state. This is often dangerous work because in many places in our country democracy remains an aspiration rather than a reality. It is not unusual for poor people to live under the control of local elites who do not allow basic political freedoms.

These authoritarian local elites can be white famers, traditional leaders, gangsters (sometimes masquerading as ‘businessmen’) or party political elites. These various forms of local despotism are often able to exercise a significant degree of control over the local state and its development initiatives and in some cases they can brazenly direct the police as if they were a private militia rather than a public service.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has struggled against all of these modes of local despotism. In many cases the first struggle that the movement has taken up in an area has had to be for the simple right to exist. Although the movement has had important success in these struggles there are a number of areas in which the attempt to create a politics of the poor independent from control by local elites has been effectively contained from the outset or quickly defeated. When the right to an independent politics has been achieved it has often been a fragile opening.

When civil society does recognise that there are spaces of exception where basic democratic rights are not available to all it is often assumed that these spaces will be steadily drawn into the democratic mainstream as ‘democracy is consolidated’. But local forms of despotism are not always a fading hangover from the past. They are often essential and constitutive features of the present.

For instance there are shack settlements in Durban in which there is a long-standing and complete ban on non-ANC activity backed up with armed force. In these settlements any independent political activity is met with credible threats of violence and sometimes also expulsion via the demolition of one’s home. The ANC does not oppose this. On the contrary it relies on it to deliver votes, to contain dissent and to engineer the appearance of consent for highly unpopular ‘development’ strategies such as forced removals to the urban periphery. This reality compels us to recognise that the endemic political despotism at the bottom of society is not a temporary lag from the rest of society but part of its foundation.

Since 2005, the local Development Committee in Kennedy Road, an elected structure, has affiliated itself to Abahlali baseMjondolo and the movement built its office and library there. In recent days the movement has been under sustained attack in the Kennedy Road settlement. It started with an armed assault and the refusal of the police to come to the aid of people under attack. It was followed up by the patently political arrest of some of the local leadership on criminal charges and the hounding of the rest of the local leadership out of the settlement via death threats and the systematic demolition of their homes. After this, local ANC leaders from other settlements seized control of the settlement. The police have made no intervention, despite repeated requests, to defend the elected leadership in the settlement from a violent coup or to stop the ongoing purge of Abahlali baseMjondolo activists from the settlement.

In some respects what has happened in Kennedy Road is a restoration of the status quo rather than a new exception to it. For instance, Lindela Figlan, who was the elected chair of the Kennedy Road Development Committee and is now a political refugee, had to leave the Burnwood settlement in 2007 under threat of having his home demolished. His ‘crime’ was the same then as now – supporting an independent poor people’s movement in a settlement where a ban had been imposed on any political activity outside of the ANC.

Some of the local ANC leaders from nearby settlements that seized control of Kennedy Road in the first days after the attack have a long history of using threats of violence in the settlements that they control to prevent political activity independent of the ANC. One of these leaders has, in her own settlement, openly denied access to temporary housing provided after a fire to people who cannot produce ANC cards.

But there are two ways in which the coup and then the purge that followed it have been exceptional. The first is that, after many years of self-organisation, local activists have developed excellent networks outside of the settlement and so recent events have received considerable national and international attention. The silence that usually accompanies this sort of attack on independent grassroots politics has been decisively broken.

The second is that in the past the ANC has not acknowledged the local level despotisms on which it relies. When pushed, as in the case of an unrelated series of assassinations that followed an attempt to run an independent candidate against the ANC in Umlazi in the 2006 local government elections, it has dismissed that violence as criminal rather than political. But in this case there has been enthusiastic support for both the coup and the consequent and ongoing political purge in the settlement from senior ANC leaders in the eThekwini Municipality and the province. This is a clear attempt to normalise a long-standing reality of our democracy that has previously been repressed from open public discussion.

The open support for the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo has often taken the form of declaring the movement, directly or by implication, to be ‘criminal’. The word ‘criminal’ risks becoming as dangerous in our society as the word ‘communist’ was in the hands of apartheid or the word ‘terrorist’ is in the hands of the American state. When the enthusiasm with which some people in the ANC have sought to criminalise popular politics outside of its control is linked, as it should be, to recent calls by ANC leaders for a ‘people’s war against crime’, a right for the police to ‘shoot to kill’ and the centralisation of intelligence and policing, not to mention the outright militarisation of the latter, it is clear that we have just cause for grave concern about the future of democracy in South Africa.