Category Archives: Pedro Tabensky

Daily Dispatch: Rebellion against hopelessness

Rebellion against hopelessness

No other option for those in South African grassroots uprisings, says Pedro

AS I was sitting at ease at the Settlers Monument in Grahamstown, listening
to Tariq Ali – one of the great public intellectuals in the English speaking
world – eloquently denounce the horrific state of global politics and its
blind allegiance to capital, only a few blocks away local township residents
were protesting against the denigrating bucket system in front of the Makana
municipal buildings.

As is increasingly the case, the police illegally and forcefully intervened
on behalf of the municipality, attempting to stop disciplined protestors
from carrying buckets of human faeces to the doors of the municipality in
protest against the fact that in today’s South Africa they cannot even shit
with dignity.

In his talk, Tariq Ali emphasised the emancipatory role social movements
need to play in helping bring about social justice.

People around the globe are increasingly suspicious of the State and of the
system of electoral democracy that maintains the illusion of genuine
democracy. And they are organising themselves to stop State abuse.

Increasingly in South Africa grassroots movements are rising up to oppose
the seemingly endless greed of the State (and of those whose interests the
State represents). And it is worth mentioning that the police brutality
meted out against grassroots movements around the country is evidence that
the State is nervous; that it knows it is vulnerable to the wrath of the

Recent events involving police brutality in Ficksburg, Rietfontein and
Zandspruit attest to the State’s nervousness about grassroots
democratically-motivated rebellions.

The reason for Tariq Ali’s visit was to receive an honorary doctorate as
part of Rhodes University’s graduation ceremony.

At it one could see the joyful hope in our students’ eyes. They had made it
through university and could look to the future with optimism. But this sort
of optimistic hope is not altogether free of discontent, for hope
presupposes a level of dissatisfaction with the present and some level of
anxiety about the future. A condition for hoping is uncertainty and the
anxiety that comes with it. This anxiety fuels the creative urges that
typify the human spirit. We are fundamentally creators of tomorrows and we
can only be these if we are not entirely happy with our present condition.
This is as true of graduates as it is of grassroots activists.

Without hope we could not live proper lives. Its total loss leads to

Indeed, the broken lives that are the result of hopelessness are richly
present among the poor today. Millions of South Africans live in conditions
in which it is extremely difficult to have faith in the future.

If one loses all hope in hopeless circumstances, suicide is a clear way out.
If one largely replaces faith in the future with wishful thinking, with
fantasy formations founded on anxiety-avoiding protective fictions, then one
is on the way to madness. And if one chooses to stop reflecting altogether
about one’s condition and comes to live for the sake of raw survival alone,
one’s life becomes almost indistinguishable from those of beasts.

These three alternatives to hope are strikingly present among the poor

But there are those who are able to maintain the flame of hope to some
extent, despite their hopeless predicament. Some of these will do pretty
much whatever it takes, probably with the help of convenient fantasies or
rationalisations, to get out of the hole of desperation. These individuals
are particularly vulnerable to being co-opted by the State, and to do
whatever the State requires of them in the hope – well founded in South
Africa – that the State will recompense them for blind allegiance. These
individuals tend to deeply compromise their moral integrity for the sake of
personal upliftment.

Others will live in hope of quasi-divine deliverance, fuelled by President
Jacob Zuma’s deeply cynical campaign to portray himself and his party as
emissaries of God and all opposition, party political or otherwise, as spawn
of Satan.

Those who believe his ridiculous story are those who have been reduced to
servility by apartheid and who are now being manipulated cruelly by the
ruling party.

Those thousands accepting food parcels in exchange for votes fall within
this category.

Finally, there are those who are neither apathetic, meek nor morally
bankrupt. They are brave and honest enough, and hence healthy, to be able
properly to reflect on their predicament and realise that alone they can do
nothing. These sorts of individuals find the moral price of co-option is far
too high. They notice that the only way they can get out of their
predicament without compromising their souls is to join forces with others
who are, with good reason, no longer waiting for the State to deliver. These
are the typical leaders of social movements responsible for the rebellion of
the poor in our country, which started to gain momentum in 2004.

As these movements gain traction the levels of hopeful optimism among its
members are steadily rising. And this confidence is contagious, encouraging
others to join their ranks. A chain reaction has been set in motion – and
the State knows these forces are a threat.

Social rebellion is fuelled by a special kind of hope – a collective hope
for a better tomorrow that can only be brought about by the concerted action
of those who today are forced to shitt in buckets, forced to rot in shacks,
forced to live in permanent hunger and forced to remain ignorant and

Today’s rebellion of the poor is probably the only healthy option for those
living under conditions in which only the uniquely strong can hope. Those
joining the poor are fighting so that they too may have the joyful hope I
witnessed at the graduation ceremony at Rhodes University.

The revolt of South Africa’s untouchables

The revolt of South Africa’s untouchables
Pedro Alexis Tabensky
2011-03-09, Issue 520

The levels of anger are steadily rising among the poor in direct proportion to the number of empty promises made to them. Their lives are defined by violence; unemployment; poor housing; poor schooling; corruption at municipal level in addition to incompetence; and hunger. Those who have not been co-opted by the mainstream, or are not fanatically wedded to a party that offers them little; or, alternatively, who are not drifting aimlessly, lost to reason or quashing their misery with Umtshovalale, are preparing for something. And the anger fuelling the urge to prepare is of the best sort: Slow-burning and steady; optimistic yet realistic; informed ever more thoughtfully by the idea that there is no blueprint for a better tomorrow. And since things could not be much worse than they are today, the only existing alternative left to the poor, in the eyes of those who in increasing numbers are developing a fighting spirit, is to take matters into their own hands. Over and over again it has been shown to them that officialdom cannot be counted on, that the democracy that we have today is not for them, and hence is a democracy in name only.

Of course there are those among the poor who are resigned to their fate, but resignation can be found in large number in any group (even among the prisoner ranks in Auschwitz). What cannot be ignored, despite these qualifications, is that, increasingly, powerful bonds of solidarity are being forged among the marginalized—often despite fundamental ideological differences and allegiances—against the status quo and its architects.

In increasing numbers, and with increasing levels of sophistication, the poor are coming together, ganging up against the common foe responsible for their shameful predicament. These movements include: Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the Poor Peoples’ Alliance, the Landless Peoples’ Movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, Mandela Park Backyarders, Sikhula Sonke, and the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM).

And these independent movements are communicating with one another on a regular basis, having conferences such as the recent Conference of the Democratic left in Johannesburg, and using the law and its institutions to achieve their aims. As other movements in Northern Africa and the Middle East, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, which have very recently forced their despots to flee, they are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. They are learning how to use the structures of power to their own advantage. They are finding moneys here and there without strings attached, thinking about possible futures without economic injustice, rereading Biko and Fanon, and using their feet and voices. And, crucially, for much of the future of revolt will be shaped by this, they are using communication technologies to great effect. The cell phone and the internet are becoming instruments for genuine democracy outside of the stifling structures of power.

Sadly, more often than not, the voices of the dispossessed are met with police or grassroots thuggery (such as the widely reported violence met out against AbM in Durban in 2009 and the ANC Youth League sabotage of a meeting convened by the UPM to discuss the Makana Municipality water crisis in 2010). But this violence only stops them temporarily. In the medium term, it works as a catalyst. The more they are shot at and beaten in police stations and on the streets around the country, the more they become convinced that their fight is to assert their humanity; the more they are convinced that they are largely alone and that what they hope for can only be brought about by their own efforts. They are no longer waiting for a kind of secular second coming.

And their voices are starting decisively to be heard and taken seriously by the mainstream, despite countless acts of official and semi-official violence met out against them, and despite mainstream condescending portrayals of them as angry children unproductively venting out frustration or as blind automata of some mysterious third force.

This condescension is not new in our country. Biko warned the architects of apartheid that one of the worst things they can do for their nefarious cause is to assume that black people—almost all extremely poor—cannot think. This false assumption, Biko thought, helped bring the township about, an ideal place for people to share ideas, to plan and above all to mobilize. History speaks of the results.

As mentioned above, these movements are flourishing outside of official party-political structures. And the choice to remain outside of such structures speaks of a lack of trust in officialdom, of a sense that the democracy that this country requires must start on the ground and, especially, in the shacks. One key reason why this sense has become particularly relevant to our current context is that there is an increasing realization that there are no viable mainstream political parties.

The realization that democratic action can no longer be deferred is motivating grassroots movements to promote the idea that the best vote is not to vote at all. There is the standard view that one of the primary democratic tasks of all responsible citizens happens in the voting booth. But arguably voting for this party or that is only genuinely a democratic task when the available alternatives are acceptable. However, in a context where this is not the case, then the most democratic thing to do could be to make a statement of non-confidence by not voting.

And it is also not surprising that grassroots political movements are encouraging their members not to vote, for they tend to have a conception of democracy which is radically participative. They do not believe that the best citizens can do is to delegate political responsibility in the voting booth. Rather, for them, true democracy occurs when citizens take it upon themselves to be the makers and caretakers of democracy.

South Africa’s untouchables are growing restless and they are no longer waiting inside their shacks for democracy to pay them a visit.

Structural Oppression, the Future of Democracy and the Water Crisis in the Makana Municipality

Structural Oppression, the Future of Democracy and the Water Crisis in the Makana Municipality

By Professor Pedro Alexis Tabensky, Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University

I recently attended a meeting of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, which was convened with the aim of exploring the causes of the severe water crisis currently affecting thousands of residents in the poorer areas of Makana Greater Municipality. Many of those affected have been without water for over ten months. The Makana Municipality has done little to address the crisis and it is not treating it as severe humanitarian emergency. The meeting was well attended by affected residents, but it had to be cut short because a group of men who identified themselves as ANC Youth League members deliberately sabotaged the meeting with loudly and unremittingly voiced insults, accusations and threats. Things were looking like they could turn violent and the security of those in attendance could not be guaranteed. The police were called on several occasions by the organizers, but when they arrived they were turned away by one of the saboteurs before they could enter the venue where the meeting was being held.

The UPM is an independent grassroots movements aimed at empowering the poor. One would expect that the ANC would openheartedly support such initiatives, especially given that movements such as the UPM have no electoral ambitions. But clearly those who disrupted the event perceived it as a potential threat to the ANC. Many unsubstantiated threats were made, including incoherent allegations aimed at one of the speakers, hydrologist and Director of the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, Professor Denis Hughes, and the Chairperson of UPM, Mr Ayanda Kota. Both were accused of being DA sponsored members of the AWB. It is revealing that such incoherent and unsubstantiated accusations were levelled, as it suggests that the saboteurs find it difficult to imagine that members of a social movement could be motivated by a genuine concern for justice rather than for obtaining favours from one political organization or another. And this in turn strongly suggests that the saboteurs themselves are not motivated by justice. Revealingly, I was accused—presumably because I was one of the few middle class white faces present—of personally sponsoring Mr Kota to the tune of fifteen million rand, something I could not possibly afford to do. In any case, the saboteurs made no effort at all to substantiate these wild allegations and it is clear, from the purely disruptive style of their interventions, that they had little interest in the facts or in genuine justice.

The saboteurs had no interest, for instance, in providing evidence in support of local government against claims that it was doing far too little to address the desperate water situation. They could have done this in question time, but decided instead to sabotage the event from the moment it started, strongly suggesting that they were merely interested in blindly defending the perceived interests of the ANC, even if morally dubious. ‘This is the ANC government’ one of the saboteurs claimed ‘so the ANC will have the last say’. In other words, ‘We are in power and we do what we like’. A corollary to this claim is, ‘Don’t you mess with us’.

Local municipal officials, Mr Dabulo Njilo (Director of Technical and Infrastructural Services), Mr Mongezi Mabece (Assistant Director for Water Services), and Ms Ntombi Baart (Municipal Manager), were invited by the UPM to discuss the water crises at the meeting, but they replied that they would not attend because proper procedures had not been followed. It may be the case that they were not—according to Mr Xola Mali of UPM, experience has taught them that going through intricate official ‘accountability structures’ always leads to nothing—but the situation is so dire and the local government’s response has been so minimal that one cannot be blamed for suspecting that local officials have little interest in the plight of their constituency. Or, equally disturbingly, they are not fully aware of the scale of the problem, of what it means for thousands of human beings to live without water.

In conversation with UPM members, I was informed that this sort of sabotage, perpetrated by those stating their allegiance to the ruling party, has happened regularly during meetings convened by them. And, sadly for our democracy, this sort of oppressive behaviour in the name of the ANC seems to be part of a general trend of violence exerted against social movements.

What happened in Grahamstown is an example of what has become an all too disturbing trend across the country, affecting informal groups of concerned residents, and more established movements such as UPM, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the Landless People’s Movement as recently reported, among others, by Professor Jane Duncan of Rhodes University and Mr Niren Tolsi of the Mail & Guardian. But, given the environment of intimidation and, except for and handful of exceptions, the lack of interest by the media in systematically reporting violations against the poor, these incidents tend not to be widely discussed in public space. And, yet, the health of our young democracy depends on there being clarity regarding what sorts of undemocratic political pressures are being exerted on a large percentage of the generally voiceless electorate.

What I have said above could be thought of as evidence that the ANC leadership is coordinating things from the top, but I don’t know that it is. And there probably would be little reason for them to do this given that there are structural conditions in place that will encourage grassroots oppression to mushroom spontaneously across the country, without the need for centralized coordination. But the fact that the relevant structures are not decisively being undermined from the top should be seen as a grave failing on the part of the ruling party, and should shed doubt on their commitment to the ideals they claim dearly to uphold.

Briefly, here is a list of key structural features that are encouraging widespread grassroots oppression: first, a culture of patronage where ultra-loyalists tend to obtain favours from local government. Second, poverty, unemployment and low skill levels make it the case that for some ultra-loyalist grassroots activism in favour of the ruling party is pretty much their only viable career path. Finally, there is a deep culture of blind quasi-fanatical allegiance to the ANC, making it seem in the eyes of ultra-loyalists as if any movement outside of ANC structures deserves to be crushed. This quasi-fanatical loyalty is fuelled by a deep lack of tolerance for dissenting voices among the ANC elite, as evidenced most recently by a statement by SACP Deputy General Secretary, Mr Jeremy Cronin, where he attacks voices of dissent coming from grassroots independent social movements on the grounds that they unwittingly aid those who are opposed to social transformation.

For genuine democracy to prosper in our country, these abject structural pressures, and no doubt others as well, need vigorously to be exposed and opposed.