No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way. Pambazuka Press, 2011.
Reviewed by: Michael Neocosmos, University of South Africa (UNISA), South Africa, and Monash University, Australia
In today’s world, in which markets supposedly think and reason but people are not supposed to, this book presents extraordinary and crucially important pieces of democratic writing. This is an extraordinary book because it shows how ordinary people are capable of extraordinary feats under certain conditions and how they are forced to constantly struggle in order to affirm their humanity under the rule of a state while that supposed democratic state actively denies their humanity. The books is also very important because it is not only a testimony to those feats, but because it sketches the various dimensions of the thinking involved in a process of subjectivation, whereby a collective subject of politics is produced through people’s ability to commit to principles and to discuss collectively how to overcome their difficulties in order to begin to exercise a modicum of control over the socio-political world which surrounds them. It is absolutely clear from these writings that poor people in particular are not provided with freedom by a democratic state but, on the contrary, have to constantly assert their dignity in conditions in which the state constantly undermines their freedom.
This text details very precisely, and in people’s own words (including linguistic idiosyncrasies, colourful slang, etc.), how a small community survived for almost two years in pavement shacks in Delft, a township of Cape Town, after having been evicted by the police from partly-completed unoccupied houses which they had been more than encouraged to occupy by the (illegal as it turned out) opportunistic actions of an unscrupulous politician.
Having been evicted from these houses, hundreds of people decided to occupy the pavements on both sides of a nearby street in protest at the state’s failure to provide them with decent housing. Around 500 families joined the initial occupation and 136 held out until the end against police intimidation, promises of food, electricity and, for some, eventual access to houses, if they agreed to move to a horrific concentration camp-like site built six months into their occupation. This camp, known as a ‘Temporary Relocation Area (TRA)’ by the state and, as ‘Blikkiesdorp’ [tin can town] by its inhabitants, has since become an internationally recognized scandal.
The ‘housing question’ is evidently a major political issue in South Africa where the state – particularly in its local manifestation – insists on avoiding discussion with poor people’s own organizations and continues to ignore them and, when they insist on being heard, to treat them like an enemy, much as they had been under apartheid. The complete inability of this state to involve people themselves in the construction and allocation of housing along with its insistence on authoritarian bureaucratic practices (e.g. dumping people in crime-ridden TRAs which end up being permanent rather than temporary) and public–private partnerships (where the construction business makes large profits at the expense of the taxpayer and corruption is rife) has had grave socio-economic and political consequences throughout the country. Socially it has contributed to the rise in poverty levels, whereas politically it has led to widespread protests. While these protests have been termed ‘service delivery protests’ by the press, they must be understood as concerning more political questions such as the systemic ways in which the state ignores people and treats them with bureaucratic contempt rather than merely being about technical issues of provisioning.
The book then recounts, in people’s own words and through their children’s brilliant photographic ‘eyes’ (some of the photos in the book were taken by the children), how they survived on the Symphony Way pavement for just under two years (2008–2009) and how they developed a ‘sense of community’, exposed state corruption and organized themselves collectively against attempts to remove them. Of course, the looming football World Cup meant that state municipal power wanted to ensure that unseemly ‘informal’ structures were tidied out of sight even though this required systematically smashing popular collective power rather than negotiating a common solution to the housing crisis. By July 2011, what was left of the (now forcibly removed) ‘Symphony Way Anti-Eviction Campaign’ wrote an open letter to the Cape Town municipal authorities telling them that, in the morning of 28 July, Blikkiesdorp exploded into a full-scale drug war and that they had warned the authorities of the likelihood of this occurrence. In fact, this had been one of the reasons why they had resisted their eviction in the first place. The shacks they built themselves, they cried in dismay, ‘were better than the shacks that our city has built and dumped us in’. They were absolutely clear regarding the reasons for this massive insecurity in their lives: ‘We, as residents of this camp, have no control here because the City has disempowered us and stood by while drug-dealers have invaded the “temporary” relocation area’. The people then were disempowered by the democratic state and turned into victims of violence.
How are we to understand this process? In particular, how are we to think the formation of a political subject and its consequent de-politicization within democratic conditions? This book provides us with an account of one example of this commonplace process. Throughout the book it is clear that people are not only capable of thinking their own predicament and ways to organize against it themselves, but also that, in doing so, their political subjectivity develops as they confront and solve problems collectively. In other words, it may be that these people are poor, but they are also capable of thought, often beyond what middle-class leftists are capable of imagining given that they are frequently wedded to sterile vanguardist conceptions of the political that place their own agency centre stage. In many cases this kind of politics has been grossly racialized.
The core feature of this process of subjectivation was the collective forging of a tenacious solidarity which was maintained in the face of an increasingly brutal and intolerant state which insists on treating the poorest of its citizens as if they were the enemy, not people who had provided the majority of the active citizens that overthrew the apartheid regime during the 1980s. In the absence of any fundamental democratization of its structures, politics and practices, the liberal-democratic state then acts as any state, irrespective of how it may name itself and irrespective of who fills its positions. In this case the state is apparently very much operating like a colonial state simply because it chooses to see people (the majority of its population who are overwhelmingly poor) as its enemy as soon as they insist on being treated like citizens. It then becomes apparent to people that, not only is freedom not simply ‘deliverable’ by the state – either alone or in alliance with markets – but, rather, that freedom implies some ability to control individually and collectively one’s conditions of life. Of course, the possession of a home (not simply a house as such) is a sine qua non of freedom and humanity; but that home is only partly about the building and much more about the construction of community through solidarity and mutual help. That this is central to the poor’s ability to affirm their humanity has been known by the discipline of Sociology for many years, yet the individualism and commercialism which have recently become intellectually dominant has hidden it from view and even from the thought of politics. Home, then, can be on a pavement but definitely not in the tin shacks of the TRA for the simple reason that, in the former, people have a certain amount of control and in the latter none. States seem totally unable to understand this simple fact for they feel threatened by the majority being able to contest their power, which is precisely what the control over their lives unavoidably produces. In order to rule, the state must rely on orders, commands, coercion and de-politicization so as to turn people into political zombies. This is precisely how the people who had occupied Symphony Way were finally removed to Blikkiesdorp.
The fact that previously de-humanized people acquired individual and collective confidence through their subjectivation is a leit motif of the book. The pride and dignity acquired in this fashion fills all its pages. Precisely because they had been treated with contempt by power, the reacquiring of their dignity was a major achievement of the pavement-dwellers’ organization. The fact that they could stand up to state power, even at the expense of imprisonment for some, that they chose their own leaders to represent them, that they helped each other in times of need, that they overcame gender, ethnic and religious divisions in the process of constructing their political community, all prove without any doubt whatsoever that poor not-so-ordinary people are capable of extremely sophisticated forms of thought. Empowerment, then, is not something to be learnt from a non-governmental organization. It is only through the ups and downs of collective action that a political subject can be created. That this process necessarily required constant discussions and meetings, defensive actions against state forces hell-bent on its destruction (as well as against the internal undermining of that solidarity by some individuals) could be said to have the status of a general law of subjectivation. The demos only have one weapon, which is organization, so that democracy, in the real sense of the term, comes alive and acquires its full significance only under such conditions. To reduce democracy to the vote is thus to fail to understand its profound meaning.
This book must be read in order to understand what that term really implies and why the acquiring of political subjectivity is central to what it means to be human.