Some comments for the discussion on thinking politically the recent Abahlali experience

Michael Neocosmos was not able to attend the recent meeting hosted by Church Land Programme to discuss the character of South African democracy in the wake of the attacks on AbM. But this document was circulated to the meeting.

Some comments for the discussion on thinking politically the recent Abahlali experience.

Michael Neocosmos

The comments below follow from an attempt to develop new concepts for thinking the Abahlali experience of being subjected to violence in Kennedy Road and subsequent experiences of the criminal justice system. I would like to discuss these issues at length sometime but as I cannot attend the CLP meeting I would like to make a few points. These are developed at greater length in a more academic format in my paper on ‘Transition, Human Rights and Violence’ which some of you have. I am going to attempt to make these points below in a more succinct form. Further debate and explication of them is necessary.

1. I now think that we need to understand ‘civil society’ to refer not to a list of organised interest groups but to a specific set of relations between state and people (just people not ‘the people’). This set of relations can be referred to as a ‘domain of politics’. This simply means that both state agencies and people tend to think and engage in politics within this domain in particular ways which can be accurately identified and described. Within this domain of politics called ‘civil society’ relations between people and the state tend to be governed in thought and in practice by the ‘rule of law’, by human rights, by citizenship rights – in other words they characterise ‘liberal democracy’. The specific way in which the state rules in this domain (what can be called its ‘mode of rule’) is founded on the rule of law, not on arbitrariness, and violence is usually used only as a last resort.

Various organisations acting within this domain (NGOs, social movements, etc) ‘represent’ interests of various kinds (businessmen, workers, women, ethnicities, Aids sufferers etc etc) as well as the state. Politics here is thought as a process of representation. Leaders usually ‘educated’ – i.e. middle class people – take leadership positions of organisations which are centred around specific interests. They negotiate with the state around asserting their interests (more jobs, higher wages, better conditions, freedom of expression etc). Central to thinking politics here is the idea of the individual property owner (the Burger in Hegel and Marx, hence Hegel’s formulation of ‘bourgeois society’ which has been translated from the German as ‘civil society’).

Within this domain of politics the state rules (exercises its sovereignty to use the technical term) in a particular way. As noted it follows the precepts of the rule of law. Particularly this means that state arbitrariness is minimal, individuals have the right to rights, i.e. they have recourse to the law (when they can afford it), state violence is deployed ‘legitimately’ and people have the right to redress when they have been wronged. They can exercise this right to redress through the courts.

2. I can think of 2 other ‘domains of politics’ in South Africa: a domain of politics which may (for the moment) be termed ‘traditional’, and another which I choose to refer to as ‘uncivil society’. In the domain of tradition, politics – the relations between state/power and people – is conceived in terms derived from tradition (whether originally African or not). Here a discourse of rights is not central but a discourse of ‘custom’ or ‘culture’ is central. Politics is thought through categories of custom and culture. The powers of chiefs are ‘customary’, ‘a chief is a chief by his people’ etc, etc. I do not wish to spend time on this at this stage as it is not central to our current discussions.

3. I rather wish to make a few points about what I call ‘uncivil society’. The idea of ‘uncivil’ is not meant to suggest that this domain is ‘uncivilised’ but rather that here people do not have a full and uncontested right to rights. Rather the right to rights (see Arendt) has to be constantly fought for. It is not given. The organising principle of politics (both in thought and in practice) here is not rights and the rule of law but patronage (access to resources takes place through patronage and power, not rights, education etc). People within this domain cannot be considered and are not treated by the state as (full) citizens. Of course people have access to the law in theory but overwhelmingly cannot afford it unless they are backed by progressive legal practitioners who provide their expertise for free, or are paid by NGOs etc etc. As politics is not governed by rights but by patronage, force/violence is regularly deployed. Here the state does not rule only or even primarily through the law but also through the regular deployment of violence. This is often a ‘first resort’ and not a ‘last resort’.

The exercise of (or the attempt to exercise) rights (e.g. by women, foreigners, youth, etc) come regularly into conflict with patronage and power both by the state (e.g. councillors, police) and people with power (businessmen, criminals, party bosses, etc) who exercise patronage over the politically weak. Here the rule of law does not prevail (or prevails only partially). The police, party bosses etc can exercise their power if they can get away with it in illegal ways. The main restriction on such power is alternative power rather than the law as such.

4. Now even though these political domains are linked to location/space and class, they are not reducible to spatial location (rural, formal urban, informal urban) and class (poor, rich). Of course the poor and shackdwellers tend to relate to the state in uncivil society, while the middle class and rich tend to relate to the state from within civil society; but this is not always so and political relations must be thought of exclusively politically so as not to think in terms of ‘representation’. Neither are the boundaries between these domains always clear and evident. Ways of thinking and exercising politics frequently overlap the legal and illegal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, the peaceful and the violent, etc. The fact the Abahlali were able to use the law to win victories means that their politics operate both in civil and in uncivil society. But the point remains that they were subjected to illegal violence simply because they were attempting to exercise their rights within uncivil society! Their exercise of rights threatened the politics of patronage and violence. This means that within uncivil society, people are not seen as full citizens bearing rights. Xenophobic violence also becomes more easily explicable.

Of course the politics of uncivil society play a crucial role in reproducing the ANC in power both locally and nationally. It is within these relations that most ANC voters live. Hence the democratic state can be seen to be founded at least partially on undemocratic foundations. It also means that local and regional ANC structures engage in forms of politics which may differ systematically from the form they take at national level. Completely different logics may therefore be at work and the police, the media and the courts (inter alia) may be fearful of local power wielders and their exercise of violence (or the threat thereof).

5. What the above distinctions mean is that deployment of state power and reactions/ resistance to it is likely to differ in each domain. The subjective parameters within which politics is understood in each domain also differs. We cannot understand the relations between state and people as if these all take place within a unique domain of civil society and the existence of more or less rights of citizenship. This is what my friend Steven Friedman does for example. He sees the state as pushing in one direction to assert its power (which leads to more state authoritarianism) and people’s organisation as pushing in the other direction (which leads to more democracy). This assumes a common domain of politics and a common way of thinking of politics throughout society founded on citizenship rights.

6. The point must be maintained that ways of thinking politics and domains of politics differ. Otherwise I do not think that the violence unleashed against Abahlali in Kennedy road can be adequately explained. Abahlali (as they say themselves) were fundamentally subjected to violence because they threatened the system of patronage politics (among other reasons of course); in other words they threatened the politics of uncivil society. The fact that the unleashing of violence in uncivil society is seen as legitimate means that it is going to be exceedingly difficult to hold perpetrators to account by the law. No one has as yet been held accountable for the 62 murders of foreigners in May 2008 and they will not be. Why? Largely because such violence is unfortunately part of everyday life and people know it happens if you cross the powerful. Moreover people often see it as legitimate even though they might not always agree with it (‘This is the way the strong behave! What can we do?’). And also because there is not always a popular organisation backed by well known figures in civil society to push politically for the rule of law within uncivil society. I am not suggesting that this will not happen in the Kennedy Road case, only that it is bound to involve politics both in uncivil and civil society if it is to have a chance of success. In order for ‘living politics’ to live it will need to be protected from ‘dead politics’, the politics of violence.

I hope these brief remarks will help towards your deliberations

Thank you very much for inviting me