The Urban Land Question

By Richard Pithouse · 3 Apr 2014

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Picture: Heavy cross to bear - community members from the township of Gugulethu hold a march to raise awareness of the "hellish reality" of township life (courtesy Abahlali baseMjondolo/flickr).
Picture: Heavy cross to bear - community members from the township of Gugulethu hold a march to raise awareness of the "hellish reality" of township life (courtesy Abahlali baseMjondolo/flickr).

Urban land is acutely contested in contemporary South Africa. There are regular land occupations, some taking the form of quiet encroachment and some taking the form of overtly political acts. At the same time most municipalities have armed units that, often acting violently, and more or less invariably acting illegally, try to sustain the duopoly of the state and the market over the allocation and zoning of urban land. When land occupations are presented as simple acts of criminality, popular protest as about nothing but ‘service delivery’ and evictions as a simple matter of enforcing the rule of law, the curtain is drawn on this on-going drama.

With occasional exceptions, like the magnificent public space that is the new Durban beachfront, the urban order under construction by the state and the market is actively reinscribing organised forms of inequality and class segregation, both profoundly inflected by race, into the concrete materiality of our cities. In the zones of exclusion and social dishonour, usually out on the urban peripheries, we have new townships made up of rows of tiny and poorly constructed RDP houses, not to mention the even more horrific transit camps. In the zones of inclusion and social honour we have gated communities, schools and hospitals and shopping malls pass for public space. Perhaps one of the most gross examples of the spatial inequalities that characterise our cities are the gated collections of McMansions set on bright green and constantly watered golf courses on well-located land while the poor, whether housed by the state or via their own initiative, are frequently locked out on dreary wastelands where water has to be queued for and carried home in a bucket.

We are accustomed to seeing our social fractures in terms of race, class and gender. Sexuality is also taken seriously in some circles. Ethnicity is generally a more subterranean presence but it too is often acknowledged as a potential marker of division as is, of course, the division between citizens and non-citizens whether this is conceived in legal or other terms. And, largely as a result of effective campaigning, there is a slow but steadily increasing awareness in some circles of the widening split in our politics between people, mostly residents of the former bantustans, who are governed by forms of authority legitimated in the name of tradition and the rest of us, who are governed, in principle if not always in practice, by the law and forms of authority legitimated by elections.

But there are also a number of fractures running through our society that are not always adequately recognised in elite publics. For instance the urban poor, often living and working outside of a legal system that does not make adequate provision for people who do not have much money, are governed through a mixture of patronage and repression that is markedly different to the way in which people with more money are governed through the law and able to organise in support of their interests through civil society. The forms of popular politics that do emerge to contest this, or to maneuverer within it, are frequently dismissed as criminal, irrational, violent or politically insufficient because they don’t conform to the modes of politics available to elites.

Generation is another example. Generation has clearly become a line of fracture in the ANC and a number of other organisations, and popular protest is often largely organised by young people seeking to stake their claim to a presence in society. But, in and out of the ruling party, the struggles of the young are sometimes seen as a matter of ill-discipline to be contained by adult authority mobilised in the name of culture or bureaucratic processes rather than a serious attempt to take a viable place in society.

One of the lines of fracture running through our society that is often not adequately recognised is that of space. All societies across space and time tend to organise themselves in a manner that demonstrates and enforces hierarchy and vectors of inclusion and exclusion. Social relations like gender and class are frequently spatialised. Since the days of Homer women have been told that their proper place is in the home rather than the political sphere. Workers are usually expected to live, socialise and organise at a clear remove from bourgeoisie society. But space has often taken on a particular kind of political intensity in the colonial world.

From the seventeenth century, liberalism was the primary political ideology mobilised to legitimate the enslavement, genocide and colonial occupation organised from Western Europe. Its key intellectuals, figures like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, were personally involved in the colonial project and offered explicit justifications for colonialism. For Mill, who is still taught uncritically in some South African universities as a philosopher of freedom, “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”. The Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo has shown that in its early days liberalism, a philosophy of the English bourgeoisie asserting itself against the aristocracy, asserted the metropole as the sacred zone of liberty and the colony as the profane zone of barbarism where a completely different set of rules applied. In other words the legitimation of liberty for some was fundamentally linked to the legitimation of despotism for others and this was fundamentally spatialised. In its early days liberalism included people, like the Irish, who would later become white among those it countered as barbarians. But as European settlers in the America colonies started to demand their own presence in the sphere of liberty the line that separated the sacred and the profane, the civilised and the barbarian, could no longer be spatialised in the same way and was increasingly racialised.

In Frantz Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, written in France in 1952 there is a very powerful evocation of the skin as marker of exclusion that remains constant as a person moves through space. But in his last book, the Damned of the Earth, written in Tunis in 1961, Fanon, writing about his experiences in colonial Algeria, gives an equally powerful evocation of how race is spatially contained in the settler colony – ‘a world of compartments’, a ‘world cut into two’, a world fundamentally divided into ‘opposed zones’. One zone is well lit, clean, and a site of a certain kind of freedom for those authorised to inhabit it. The other is dark, dirty and a site of constant physical containment and intimidation.

Today in cities like Paris and London the places where immigrants from the colonies and their descendants live are often treated as separate zones where different rules, especially as regard to surveillance and policing, apply. The ‘world of compartments’, once imposed on a city like Algiers from Paris, is now part of Paris. And in the former colonies elites have often struggled to undo the stigmatisation of the skin while actively reinscribing the production of space constituted by fundamentally opposed zones, a division of space that reproduces both material inequality and the dangerous social fantasy that different kinds of spaces are inhabited by different kinds of people.

The ‘opposed zones’ of the postcolony are a continuation of colonial practices in so far as they are spaces of profound material, symbolic and political difference. But they have also been updated in certain respects. In the colony the perimeters of the zones of power were broad and often constructed and patrolled by the state. In the postcolony the perimeters are much more tightly drawn, and are often constructed and patrolled by private power operating with state sanction. The white suburb contracts to the gated community.

With opportunities for education, livelihoods and access to sport and some forms of culture, along with basic security as well as prospects for actualising political freedom being fundamentally spatialised where one lives is not only a matter of the aesthetic. It is also not solely a matter of social status. On the contrary where we find ourselves in the spatial economy of inequality has a profound effect on how our lives unfold.

When injustice is solely conceptualised along the lines of race the deracialisation of elite spaces can occur simultaneously with the reinscription of spaces of exclusion and subordination. When class is conceptualised largely in terms of the relation to the wage, or gender is imagined largely as a matter for professionals dealing with questions of law and policy, the spatial aspects of inequality can be masked. When the land question is reduced to a question of the countryside, or to agrarian questions, the urban land question can also be occluded. And when the urban question is reduced to the housing question, which in turn is reduced to a matter of the number of houses that have been built, without regard for where they have been built, or what form they take, the urban land question is also silenced.

Contemporary forms of segregation, including those in our cities, are fundamental to the contemporary production and maintenance of inequality. They need to be acknowledged and seriously addressed. We need to see the land question as a matter of democratisation that is as urgent in the cities as it is in the countryside.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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