The Underside of South African Democracy

By Richard Pithouse · 14 Oct 2009

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Picture: Locace
Picture: Locace

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 assassination 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.

** Richard Pithouse is closely associated with Abahlali baseMjondolo but writes in his personal capacity.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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