Heinrich Böhmke, April 2010


 For a few years, controversy has been bubbling beneath the surface among activists involved with social movements in South Africa about how these movements are represented in the academic and activist literature.  In short, questions are being raised whether the claims made about or on behalf of some of the movements are substantially accurate.  This controversy about knowledge production has been sharpened recently with the added critique that the movements’ politics, strategies and tactics have waned to a point where many of the best-known organisations are a spent force; more liberal NGO than radical movement[1].  When the historical propensity to exaggeratedly praise social movements faces their recent, marked decline as a radical political force in society, the gap between fact and mythology becomes problematically large.  This paper argues that the intellectual and media support given by a range of academics and activists to movements in South Africa has slipped into branding.  The branding is not only misleading, it has recklessly exposed movements to attack and prevented and even silenced sober assessments of the nature, strength and direction of social movements.  A range of authors skirted around the issue until the recent publication of an article that seized the bull by the horns.

Luke Sinwell (2010) of the Research Unit for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg weighs in against the romanticisation in activist and academic writing of social movements in South Africa[2].  Focusing specifically on Abahlali baseMjondolo (Abahlali), he makes a case for “soberly uncover[ing] the politics of Abahlali and other movements”.  He goes on to suggest that, stripped of its recent victimization by the state, “Abahlali actually appears quite conservative in its politics”(39). This is a striking point that may take aback many who have been reading about South African struggles.  Abahlali are widely lauded in the academic and activist literature, on wikipedia and on their own website as the pre-eminent South African social movement.  They are portrayed as subjects who are resolutely militant and possessed of unusual clarity and courage.  Their existence has broken all sorts of new ground: ethical, epistemological, legal and strategic.  When Abahlali cast their demands in terms of seeking an overarching “dignity” and “respect” from the government and society, this constitutes a critique of traditional social movement theory that usually simply ends with the achievement of immediate political and economic goods[3].  Perhaps unique among movements is the depth of reach of Abahlali into communities where they operate.  According to Richard Pithouse (2006), this has come close to self-government and is ensured by their avowed vibrant autonomous democratic culture, that sees a good number of gender-balanced, sub-committees meeting every day to chart the way forward[4].

Sinwell has evidently read these claims about the movement.  However, he warns: “We must also confront the desire among the Left to depict the weak and vulnerable, the poor and shack dwellers, as those who have all the answers, as pure subjects” (Sinwell: 39).  He calls for a re-evaluation of the role of those sympathetic academics who support social movements by supposedly “amplifying their voice”.  In particular he questions the prevalent practice of sympathetic academics running and updating websites that depict the struggles of social movements “on their behalf” (39). This does little to build movements on the ground.  This is especially the case if the knowledge disseminated about the movement by its sympathizers is heavy on romance and light on candour.

Sinwell is in a good position to recognize the implicit dangers of this assignment.  He tells us that he was himself involved in updating websites on behalf of another prominent social movement, the Landless Peoples’ Movement.  He says,

I have learnt that while websites do much to publicize movements to a group of left-leaning South African and international activists and scholars, they do little to actually mobilize and strengthen movements.  Merely amplifying the voices of the poor and assuming that those participating from below embody the truth does not enable us to understand the potential and limitations of movements to challenge neo-liberalism. (39)

Returning to Abahlali, Sinwell says that the role of academics “has been to show struggles on websites, but never to critically engage with them or to share our own ideological direction” (39).  In so doing, outside activists and academics have fairly uncritically aligned themselves with social movements and, by so doing, have abdicated important responsibilities.

Sinwell’s thoughtful article is short.  With more space at his disposal, he might have addressed not only the romanticisation of movements but also considered the reasons behind this practice.  To understand the romanticisation of movements, we must briefly consider the conditions under which social movements arose.  This will help us decide whether the time has not come to relate to movements in a different, less servile, and more overtly political register in significantly different times.

A Brief History of Social Movements and their Academic Treatment

Social movements first made an appearance a mere five years after the fall of apartheid, during a honeymoon period in which a popular ANC government was still extended considerable trust to deliver on their election promises by much of the population.  They arose in response to the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies that seemed to give the lie to those promises.  However, the struggle scene in South Africa is vastly different to what it was ten years ago.  Movements like the Concerned Citizens Forum, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless Peoples’ Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum were launched at the height of Pres. Mbeki’s highly authoritarian but also still generally popular regime in 1999-2001.  Although major ‘service delivery’ protests began around 1997 in Gauteng townships and moved to the Eastern Cape and other impoverished sites, there was very little sustained urban protest, since the SA National Civic Organisation had been coopted and corrupted. It was unheard of for communities to rise as a coherent leftist force against ANC councilors, policies and democratic rule. There were similarly few inhibitions in using state institutions to deal with dissent. The pioneer organized protests against service cut-offs and evictions took place in Chatsworth, Soweto and Tafelsig were miniscule, sporadic, localised, invisible to media and prone to being dismissed as lacking legitimacy.  Even though it may have looked neo-liberal, the government said it had a homegrown plan for growth and redistribution, and was furiously busy delivering the very things these impatient, unpatriotic, ultra-left organisations were demanding.   It is difficult to recall how deep its foundations lay at this moment but, in 1999, critics of ANC rule ran into a great wall of skepsis when complaining that the liberation movement, whose highest seat the saintly Nelson Mandela had just vacated, had abandoned the poor to their fate.

Enter the helpers.  From the outset, all fledgling movements attracted a coterie of middle-class, left-leaning activists and academics, some newcomers and some remnants of earlier disaffections with the ‘revolution betrayed’, searching for a new radical social agent.  There was an urgent need for a new revolutionary subject, (for some it was a set of revolutionary ‘events’), especially as it appeared that the communist intelligentsia and black working class had so tamely been sutured or cowed into the national project.  A number of minor battles and maneuvers against evictions and water cut-offs took place in Durban, Cape Town and Jo’burg between 1999 and 2001.  These were enthusiastically written up and explained by the academic and activist set, among them, me.  This writing was in one breath triumphal and plaintive.  It took as its main task the fortification of these struggles and was happy to generate myths about the size, nature, ideology, scope and reach of organizations.  Our writing largely saw only the best and most radical in the subjectivity of the poor and largely only the worst and most oppressive in the state or government’s response.  At a moment when they were very weak and isolated and when the very idea of social protest against an ANC government was cloaked in the discourse of treason, counter-revolution and gross irresponsibility, the explanation and amplification of the views of these marginal groups in journals, newspapers and in cyberspace was useful to them.  This work did not end repression but sometimes helped insulate movements from further attack.  The critique of the South African state also created certain solidarities and a sense of self-reference and confidence and it reactivated old networks of legal and financial support.  The enthusiasm, romance and hyberbole of real but tenuous new struggles succeeded in the pneumatics of hammering out a space of legitimacy for a mass politics in South Africa beyond the Alliance.  That was a significant development and it was trumpeted far and wide.

Over time, local struggles in different cities were seen by some academics as stemming from a new politics, post-colonial in content and occasionally anti-globalisation in form.  A loose alliance emerged between activist-academics and the movements they were involved with.  Despite unique structural and ideological shapes, these movements worked together in campaigns. Emblematic moments were the marches against the Durban World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and against the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, drawing many thousands participants.  To describe these disparate protests and acts of resistance in South Africa, the hopeful concept ‘new social movements’ took root.

The support of social movements by outside activists and academics involved more than just rah-rah writings.  We imposed ourselves, however apologetically.  Where the locally conceived issues might have been water disconnections here and landlessness there, we tried to join the dots.  We drew a picture of opposition to the Washington Consensus on the placards, T-Shirts, and banners (some of which we funded) and graffiti (some of which we painted).  In our propaganda, we retro-fitted a far-from-homogenous poor with the qualities we expected them to have from our readings of Fanon, Negri, Badiou, Biko, Engels or whichever other theorist we favoured. Our assistance went beyond representing movements to the outside world.  It had an inward dimension too, representing movements to themselves and each other.  Our voices carried disproportionate weight in discussions about the strategic direction in which movements should take, which allies they would have and to which other activists they would be open.  And there was no reason to doubt our advice.  After all, was it not we who, at crucial, formative times in the lives of these movements, were able to win reprieves and avert defeats by pleading their case with authorities or in newspapers, the internet and Court[5]?

Two influential social movement writers, Ashwin Desai and Richard Pithouse (2004), owned up to the accusation by Rebecca Pointer that an article they had penned on the now largely defunct Mandela Park Anti-Eviction Campaign was romantic.

Pointer’s critique begins with a general questioning of a register in our work that she calls romantic. We make no apologies on this score. We would like to point out that to discern courage and hope in the peculiar intensity that accompanies a collective break with the passivity that feeds oppression is to valourize a particular event–a concrete universal in Hegel’s terms–and not a set of individuals or a particular struggle, organization or place.[6]

The Dangers of Romance

The mythopoesis of social movement events may well have served a purpose.  Over a decade since they were born social movements have attracted hundreds of commentators, researchers, visitors, donors, volunteers and dinner party admirers.  Much of the commentary has been favourable.  While the strength of individual organizations has waxed and waned in what sometimes seems like a classical rise-and-fall cycle lasting a couple of years, the sense that social movements are legitimate, necessary and desirable organs is secure. Ten years later, however, the case for writing about them in the romantic register is far less secure.  Certain morbid symptoms have set in that an entirely laudatory relationship to movements only aggravates.  In the first instance, movements such as Abahlali are now celebrated as institutions regardless of the substance of the “concrete universal” events in which they participate.  So reified has Abahlali and the essentialized category of “shack-dwellers” become in the hands of its most zealous supporters that the mere fact that it is an Abahlali event, such as a court challenge, is enough to cloak that event in courage and hope thus giving it an “intensity that signals a collective break with passivity” (Desai and Pithouse, 2004:301). As Sinwell notes, the poor themselves have become a celebrated ‘pure agent’; downplaying the singular things (poor) people in a particular movement may do.

picture 1 for branding-med

Second, the romanticisations have proven dangerous and reckless.  By allied academics constantly evoking the imagery of Abahlali in their Kennedy Road citadel, seceded, militant, besieged by murderous ANC mobs and corrupt cops but preparing to go on the offensive throughout the slums of South Africa, they have taunted beasts they could not hope to subdue.  They have flown the Abahlali flag in newspaper articles and cyberspace as representing an explicitly anti-ANC politics when Abahlali members are consistently quoted, inter alia, in their own research as feeling considerable loyalty to the organization[7].  The myths about Abahlali “speaking for themselves” and rejecting the tutelage of the Left have survived their inspiration only to become alienating, sectarian and enabling of the very thing they reviled more than the “authoritarian Left”; that is, Abahlali’s transformation into a liberal NGO with a caste of permanent leaders and dubious allies.  In the case of Abahlali and a few of their small allied organizations, the myths have claimed that their colony of struggle is the only truly righteous one that exists in this country.  And yet at this very moment they have little relevance or connection to the tectonic social forces that enliven South African society such as race, ethnicity, capital accumulation and service delivery riots.  The unmediated folksy pronouncements from leaders about their struggle being more moral than political and about seeking due process, consultation and inclusion from government, and reveling in recognition, dignity and a vindication of their humanity (amongst other places from a judge) is pretty wooly stuff.[8]  The talk of Abahlali seeking “dignity” and “voice” is posed as an ethical, political and strategic advance in social movement praxis when it is arguable that the opposite is the case[9].  If one examines the context in which Abahlali speakers request “dignity” and “voice” it is always through the machinery of consultative democracy.  Says S’bu Zikode in 2005:

We are not aiming at opposing the Government…but aiming at providing a real platform of togetherness – business, the Government, and the poor.  We are not expecting the Government to feed us like children, we are willing to contribute whatever we can, but we need to demand that platform[10].

The demand simply to be included in decision-making, to be afforded these elementary and easy to simulate courtesies drives much of the complaint ordinary social movement members throughout the country have against government.  And if there is something particularly the ANC government is good at, should it put its mind to it, it is substituting these procedural niceties for substantive delivery.  The myth-makers of contemporary Abahlali seek to interpret and pawn off an ideology like this, as well as drawn-out court cases and a set-piece march here and there as the stuff of history.  Form cannot, however, substitute for substance in the long run.  Nor can radical words on paper substitute for radical acts “on the streets”.  Indeed, the myth that the words of contemporary Abahlali are practiced on the streets have disappointed and discouraged many who came in search of the struggle El Dorado only to find plain-vanilla.

Internally, the myths have allowed abuses of power to take hold.  For instance, the whole affected community or movement has been excluded from handling the myths and re-fashioning them.  A small, specialized group of academics has assigned itself the role to “manipulate metaphors and evoke myths” and are the de facto public relations officials of the movement.[11]  Instead of including and inspiring the movement, the mythology of Abahlali is technicized to comply with the theoretical preferences of their myth-makers.  Abahlali leaders, who are said to have been influenced by Alain Badiou, for example, actually know nothing about his work.[12]

Nigel Gibson (2006), one of the most generous of myth makers[13], praises yet another one, Richard Pithouse’s, work with Abahlali in the following terms:

Having worked with and written about social movements in post-apartheid South Africa, Pithouse brought a practical knowledge of the kind of movements that had been successful and those which had not.  Turning the anthropological gaze on its head he became an informant on how to engage with the state, how to express opposition and how to navigate the donor / NGO terrain. … His actions exemplify those of Fanon’s committed intellectual, who uses knowledge snatched from the elite university to help the “wretched’s” self-government.[14]

Of the academic supporters of Abahlali, Jacob Bryant (2008) says:

These people who have brought advice and skills, (including media-savvy), have made strategic interventions and have connected the movement to networks of resources that have helped it grow. … Asked how these relationships had benefited the struggle, people usually began with mention of support with accessing t-shirts and sound equipment, and knowledge of “how to do toyi-toying in the right way [without getting people arrested]”.  Mondli Mbiko went on to say “they’re good people.  They’re teaching us about leadership.”[15]

To me statements like this do not demonstrate the positive role played by academics.  Rather it reveals on what thoroughly unequal terms academic and community meet, how politically undeveloped parts of the membership of Abahlali are (one cannot imagine even a novice trade unionist accepting struggle and leadership training from young, middle-class white and foreign academics on these terms).  It may well be the case that a few partisan academics, notably Richard Pithouse and Raj Patel, have played an explanatory and guiding role but the content of their intellectual shepherding of Abahlali was then full of predictable mistakes and has proven immensely inadequate[16].

Third, as Ashwin Desai owned up to so well in his 2006 Wolpe lecture[17], we have seen how romanticising movements serves these movements far less well than it serves the romanticisers themselves.  While the original impulses to help may have been noble, there has been a solidification of very real interests behind the way movements such as Abahlali are represented.   This is the angle that Sinwell did not explore.  What interests are served by the admitted romantic knowledge production of movements such as Abahlali even after they are up and running?

I would venture a material interest.  There are academics, operating in caucus, far and wide who seek and earn research money to study the footnote-industry that social movements have become.  It does not stop there.  They fly to conferences, spawn publications generously referencing and flattering each other and generally increase their relatively junior academic standing, income and employability through their reputationally productive association with fashionable “Third World” research subjects.  However, as it becomes increasingly improbable that the spectacular claims made about movements will be fulfilled, those who sponsor these movements move from benign and hopeful mythology to flat-out misrepresentation.

They need to.  It may be presented as an ideological battle between principled servants of the poor on the one hand and vanguardist, authoritarian Leftists on the other but, in a sense, the contestation about Abahlali is far more desperate than that.  The professional, political and academic investment in Abahlali is a sort of intellectual Ponzi scheme.  We want to believe in it.  We are greedy for an example of a successful poor peoples’ movement to use as a counterpoint, sound-bite or justification that ruling class hegemony is not as secure as it looks and that the ANC is losing its grip on the national political imagination.  But it works only so long as no uncomfortable, pointed questions about returns are asked.  Unfortunately, the bubble is bound to burst at some point.  This is at the point when fighting words have left the flickering webpage and do not measure up to stark reality.  Like any bubble, the longer it persists the more people are duped.

This brings me to a fourth reason against romancing movements; the cumulative weight of the claims made about the radicalism of social movements, set-off against a backdrop of embellished prose, has become too great to bear serious scrutiny or, for that matter, to persuade any but the most naive.  This is why, I suspect, so few African intellectuals from working class backgrounds have participated in the myth-making.  It has the ring of a schmaltzy Third World relief advertisement.  They know social movement writing is a gross simplification of township life and stay away out of embarrassment.  Consider this description of an Abahlali meeting produced by Pithouse (2006) for a Centre for Civil Society research report:

Looking over Springfield Park and through the valley cut by the Umgeni river, you could see the sea sparkling in the sun. Hadedas took wing at dusk and when night fell an isicathimiya group sung with abundantly delicate grace, from the Urban Foundation hall, now with broken windows and peeling paint, “We are going to heaven, all of us we are going to heaven.”[18]


Editorialising on the thoughts of community members during a riot, the same author surmises:

They revolted not because they had believed and done everything asked of them and they were still poor. They revolted because the moment when they asked that their faith not be spurned is the moment their aspirations for dignity became criminal. On the day of the road blockade they entered the tunnel of the discovery of their betrayal.[19]

This stuff is overblown and homogenising and thus undermines the sort of sober assessment Sinwell calls for.  What is really known about the diverse attitudes, motives, aims and direction of social movement members who fight for change?  What sort of change do they seek?  The answers to these questions are unknown.  Rather, what we repeatedly see is academics fixing upon the vaguest enunciations made by their shack-dweller informants and, in the spirit of romanticisation, doing a whole lot of interpretive work to have it mean something that, within their world-view, is profound.  For instance, Matt Birkinshaw, a self-professed London anarchist who researched Abahlali, provides the following quote from Abahlali president, S’bu Zikode, in a section of his paper where he praises the movement’s commitment to rotation of leadership positions:

In S’bu Zikode’s 2008 post-annual general meeting speech (in which he accepted the post for the third year running despite attempting twice to stand down) illustrates the links between the ideas of equality, humanity and direct democracy in Abahlali’s thinking:

Our movement is founded on the politic of equality. We start from the recognition that we are all equal. We do not struggle to achieve equality. We struggle for the recognition of the equality that already exists. Our Movement therefore demands that we face and confront any element that seeks to undermine our humanity as ordinary citizens. Today I wish to remind comrades that we are also all equal and deserve equal treatment with in our Movement regardless of our positions and tasks. This is the Movement of the poor. It is not an NGO. The movement is not here to save you. You are the movement.[20]

I suspect that if anyone other than a poor, African shackdweller had spoken these words, say a politician like Jesse Jackson (this is vintage Jackson), Birkenshaw would have seen it as waffle at best or manipulation at worst.  Is it not patronizing when backs are slapped for fairly ordinary things?  This is not to suggest that Abahlali leaders are incapable of wisdom.  They are.  This is a good save: the “reluctant” but indispensable leader humbly taking the wreath of office once again.  It is a decent, self-deprecating acceptance speech. It is certainly not evidence of anarchist leanings in Abahlali.  And it is saying nothing at all out of the ordinary about the links between equality, democracy and humanity. Unless, of course, one is surprised that poor Black people might make these utterly obvious connections.

Reporting on Abahlali by academics and northern activists is replete with these moments of surprise at ordinary things said or done by poor people, scribbled down, neatly edited, and reproduced as philosophy.[21]  It is either a specious philosophy or else reveals the racially problematic assumption that a person who is poor and Black would really have strained their minds to deduce these things or behave in this way: such as to make a link between equality, humanity and direct democracy, or run a mass meeting properly.

A man before a microphone 
With shades upon his head, 
Took a breath, got ‘in the zone’ 
And "Amandla", he then said. 

A scribe beneath, flipped a page 
To record this elocution, 
His piece would be all the rage, 
"The poor cry ‘revolution’".

Where the true wisdom of many social movement participants can be found, I suspect, is in the way they beautifully and implicitly understand how, while pursuing a reformist agenda, they might still relate to people like Birkenshaw and take advantage of the networks people like him open up. But I simply do not know this.  I have no knowledge of the poor outside the aesthetic frame of middle-class (white) academics who, like me, mostly only speculate on the subjectivity of the poor.

There is an associated problem.  Postcolonial theorists give a lot of attention to the politics of representation, particularly of the subaltern.  The concern is that these voices are, effectively, lost to history. What we have in the romantic version of the poor however is something almost as lamentable as loss.  We have middle-class, mainly white writers lovingly giving us the voice of the poor but it has had its bass and treble so altered by them that the audio we are left with is almost more unreliable than absence.  In amplifying voices they have been fundamentally distorted.

The poetic license taken with the narration of events in Kennedy Road in particular has reached an extreme in which even an event as irrevocable as the death of 2 – 5 people in September 2009 has been massaged to suit a version of Abahlali’s absolute purity, set off against a “fascistic and xenophobic” ANC involved in “organised political assassination and terror”[22] I fully expect to be roundly denounced for adding my voice to the few that are asking whether the (changing and contradictory) versions of Abahlali’s routing from Kennedy Road (that had so many academics and activists signing petitions of outrage) is accurate.  Or how an alliance was then suddenly made with the local police chief, who terrorized Abahlali all these years as revealed in Raj Patel’s  recent article with an unwittingly revealing title: “Durban’s Bedtime Stories – Abahlali base Mjondolos Struggle Continues”.[23]  Persisting with these and other explanations for Abahlali’s plight tends to obscure an uncomfortable reality.  Yes, there are rival political formations out to get them and they have obviously attracted some level of repression.  But, as Sinwell (2010) has noted, Abahlali are increasingly captive of a liberal, even conservative, political logic.  Their championing of in situ upgrading of slums allows government off the hook in brick and mortar delivery and is sly World Bank orthodoxy dressed up as heeding the voice of the poor.  Their high-profile presentation as pristine litigants submitting to the constraints of liberal constitutionalism and patiently seeking incremental gains in this manner implicitly pits them against a range of social forces who have identified the constitutional arrangement itself as the guarantor of inequality.   Stripped of their victimization, what do we have in this organization recently that justifies the radical hype?

Other writers such as Virginia Setshedi (2006)[24] have gone further to note that Abahlali are quite capable themselves of unleashing a problematic and conservative “tsotsi-politics” on rival formations and she describes being bumped aside by Abahlali President S’bu Zikode’s bodyguards during an Abahlali disruption of a meeting of other progressive community organisations.  Prishani Naidoo laments the “tragic manner in which the Abahlali has become a pawn of “academic activists” and refusing to engage in debate with other social movements.[25]  The myths about Abahlali’s bottom-up democracy and “speak for themselves” principle prevents a proper understanding of how and why they have got into some of the scrapes they have.  Setshedi and Naidoo were referring to an event in 2006 when Abahlali leaders were content to participate in highly sectarian disruption of a national gathering of other social movements on the grounds that three of their academic allies had employment disputes at UKZN where the meeting happened to take place.  In response, so began the great hue and cry about the “authoritarian Left” trying to speak for Abahlali, and, this would have been a laudable complaint but for the fact that Abahlali already had people firmly in that saddle tilting against their academic rivals.

Another feature of Abahlali that is constantly written up in glowing terms is their radical and direct democratic practice.  But this may well be, when the veil of legend is lifted, what Abahlali are really bad at.  Their academic coterie has rounded on anyone who has pointed out that they effectively have a president for life, are only a little less woeful than any other South African organization at the level of gender politics and have an unelected, unaccountable committee of outside academics representing them to the world on paper.  Some of the distaste the organisation has attracted comes down to the fact that their publicists hold Abahlali out to be such an independent, vibrantly democratic and autonomous unit, when they are obviously not.  Their academics have aggressively, tauntingly and “on behalf of” Abahlali picked fights with all and sundry and there is little doubt that Abahlali has caught some of the resulting flak.

Stripped of their deplorable victimization in Kennedy Road in 2009 (which demands in-depth analysis and de-mystification of its own), Abahlali of late is not unlike any other state-facing, constitution-thumping pressure group. They are, in their being and constitution, as prone to economism, reformism and chauvinism as any trade union and no amount of dressing up of their politics as a quest for “recognition”, “voice”, “dignity” and “humanity” can hide that.  In a paper presented at the University of Johannesburg in 2009, Ashwin Desai, comprehensively critiqued the limitations of Abahlali’s “turn to law” and the problems with their “no-land, no-house, no-vote” position[26].  Sinwell alludes to the same problems in his piece (Sinwell, 2010: 38).  In fact, there is reason to fear the spread of Abahlali’s well-funded style of institutional protest and plea, via the courts, press and, increasingly, prayer. While the days when they stood for the sort of social antagonism that can deliver victories are long past, the incessant, implausible mythopoesis delays recognition and correction of this fact.  The purple language prevents, as Sinwell has suggested, a coming to grips with the stark problems of these movements.

The honeymoon is over.  The national scene is such that the legitimacy of protest, even illegal protest, is not widely and deeply at issue in society.  No case has to be made that the ANC and its market-orientated policies have failed to meet expectations of a better life for all, either. The streets are full of protests, larger in scale and number than any thing traditional social movements ever managed outside the 2001 and 2002 Durban and Johannesburg United Nations march spectacles and even these lacked “the collective break with passivity” we have seen in recent township delivery riots.  The recent riots themselves have severe limitations but the point is that there have been such a cacophony of voices of the poor that, rather than uncritically amplifying these, the present task is to discuss what the content of those voices are, in which direction do they lead us, and how do we relate to those forces that might bring about real social change.  We cannot avoid subjecting instances of militancy to political scrutiny, not as some sort of elite, but as subjects in society in our own right who may wish to join – or even seek to thwart – impulses that come from collectives on the move, including the poor.  It is partly a testament to the historic, pneumatic mission of social movements in South Africa that we no longer have to relate to class struggles as protectors, benevolent legitimators and amplifiers.  Indeed, the task of seeking legal protection and legitimacy for people seriously intent on changing their situation is redundant and patronising.  The kind of support we used to provide to nascent social movements will, probably, represent a step backwards as far as the struggle-geist in our land is concerned at the moment.

The Silencing of Debate on Abahlali

However, when any of these issues are raised, there is a veritable barrage of bawling, some of it anonymous, from Abahlali-aligned activists and academics.  He is by no means the only one, but a recent example of what I am talking about is Jared Sacks.  Sacks (2010) is making a nasty habit of trying to silence debate about Abahlali.  He admonished Ashwin Desai for daring to agree with comments (made by yet another activist) that Abahlali’s politics have suffered as a result of their connection to white, middle-class, academic types.  Desai was further chastised for suggesting that traditionally incorporated and campaigning social movements such as Abahlali were largely a “spent force”.   Sacks told Desai to keep quiet since Desai had not been in recent contact with Abahlali and was not part of its “rank and file”.[27]

Sacks had a go at me too.  During a fairly technical discussion in 2009 about the efficacy of Abahlali’s turn to law and the quality of the legal “victories” this had brought, Sacks was similarly defensive.  It is not true that their politics stood to be hollowed out by all this talk of rights and due process.  Abahlali was “the strongest and most radical movement in the country.”  He ended with a singular piece of vicarious belligerence, “When the people of Kennedy Road physically remove the ANC committee that has been violently installed there, that will be proof enough of the strength of the movement”.[28]  I remember thinking at the time it was quite a taunt to be issued from the safety of Cape Town where Sacks resides.

These statements may not be particularly edifying but there is something to be said about the basis upon which Sacks opposes Desai’s critique of Abahlali.  Sacks says Desai has his “own agenda as a privileged (not rank and file) activist”.  Although he is out of his league as far as claims to rank and file activity are concerned, in saying this, Sacks is inching closer to seeing what the problem in social movements is.  It does indeed have to do with the behaviour of privileged people with an agenda.  However he is pointing his gun in the wrong direction.  Instead of making the anti-intellectual move of trying to silence critics of social movements simply because they may be privileged or are not “rank and file”, he should instead pay attention to those privileged rank and file supporters of movements who represent them in ways that suit their own purposes and in line with their own agendas.  As people like Setshedi (2006), Naidoo (2006), Desai (2006), and Walsh (2008) [29] have shown, Abahlali has over time been a victim of its rank and file yet privileged supporters to a far greater extent than its outside critics.

The Branding of Movements

These days many people make a distinction between ‘Brand Abahlali’ and ‘Abahlali-Actual’. In the hands of the group of mainly white academics who have attached themselves to the movement, Abahlali alternate between being all-conquering heroes opening up new frontiers of legal precedent, political philosophy and mass struggle and, on the other hand, being victims of mass-murder co-ordinated at high levels of state. Their work is way beyond romanticisation.  It enters the realm of fantasy. To be fair, the branding of movements is part of a broader problem predating Abahlali, only taken to extremes by the unusually dedicated and gifted practitioners of spin able to run their website, write journal articles and contribute to mailing lists.   The brand representation of Abahlali is of an organization with strong anarchist tendencies; it is resolutely democratic, militant, massive, vibrant and radically autonomous of the state.  It is an organization with chic aesthetic affinities, theoretical inclinations towards Badiou, Fanon and Engels, it resolutely opposes NGO’s, it speaks for itself and is a serious political rival to the ANC wherever it gets a new foothold. (This profile of Abahlali is drawn from many examples but London anarchist, Matt Birkinshaw’s, article is exemplary).[30]  What’s more, Abahlali holds really big marches.  Amongst all of this, the Abahlali website has repeatedly been used by one of its academic supporters (who also runs the site for them) to launch personal attacks on his professional adversaries, with these attacks passed off as official Abahlali positions.

As argued above, it may be that, at one point, the creation of poetic myths about social movements was beneficial. The problem with branding of movements today however is that it is habitual, irresponsible and often self-serving.  The over-estimation of the size, power and reach into the masses of the organizations and discourses we support can also be seen as egoistic.  One sees it just as much in the Abahlali website as in the “CCS Update” (which daily collects news stories with the word “protest”) and where every stone thrown in anger in South Africa is not only hurled leftwards but is also likely to spark an IMF riot when it lands.  This links back to the problem identified so clearly by Walsh (2008) and Sinwell (2010) about the poor’s portrayal as a pure agent.  The ideological content and strategic value of their concrete political struggles, slogans or enunciations is off-limits for critique.  It is enough that these struggles, slogans and enunciations come from shackdwellers.  This is exactly how branding works, where an often ordinary product assumes extra desirability by virtue of the supposed inherent, essential qualities given to it by its source.  Over time, the brands that are created in the reporting on social movements are more important than the performance of direct democracy, resistance or struggle.  Closely considered, the branding of movements has a lot in common with branding in the entertainment industry. As one Hollywood A-lister realized, the true value was not her sterling performances in films. “I’m not an actress. I don’t think I am an actress. I think I’ve created a brand and a business.”[31]


As an exercise is exposing spin, I wish to challenge Sacks’ statements about the Abahlali Human Rights Day march in March 2010.  Sacks claims that the march was 2000 people strong, that Abahlali militantly occupied the city and that its leaders made impressively radical statements during their march.  All of this contradicts Desai’s views about Abahlali’s descent, he claims.  In reality people on the march and most reporting on it in the press and e-TV say the turnout was about 1000.  Although Brand Abahlali is far less modest than Sacks and puts the number as high as 5000, no amount of cropping of photographs on Brand Abahlali’s site can hide the fact that the march attracted nowhere near the 30000 supporters in Durban Abahlali-Actual are claimed (by Pithouse and Gibson) to have.  This is not a failure of Abahlali-Actual.  A march of 1000 people is not bad.  But such a march from an organization reputed to be 30 times larger raises questions about the credibility of the work of Brand-Abahlali.  It also creates problems if one behaves as if one has 30000 passionate supporters and there is only a fraction of that.

The statements by Abahlali-Actual leading up to and after the march were pretty meek. “Our right to protest is not negotiable”, Sacks quotes Abahlali as saying. “We will march on Jacob Zuma tomorrow irrespective of the outcome in court.”  But how do these supposedly gung-ho statements square with the statement of the march convenor:  “We have, as always, scrupulously followed the laws that govern protest.” Or Abahlali’s long-serving president, Sbu Zikode’s, statement after losing the court application to march through town, “We will abide by the law but we are not happy as we lost the interdict”[32].  I hate to say this but, all in all, Abahlali are probably now the leading proponent of, in their own words, “scrupulously following the law” when it comes to pursuing their objectives among all South African social movements.

As for occupying the city, Abahlali-Actual were diverted to Albert Park without incident.  For anyone who knows Durban, occupying the space in question is like occupying a vacant lot on the edge of town.   The fact that the march was pretentiously billed as a “march on Zuma” is pure spin and signifies nothing.  The march would not remotely even have come to Zuma’s knowledge which, I would imagine, is the least one must expect from someone being marched upon if the march is to be cast as a success.  Again this complaint is not against Abahlali-Actual.  It is commentary on the distance between reality and representation and the fact that the mythology that covers this gap prevents a proper political and strategic discussion even among its academic supporters and the movement itself from occurring.

What people unfamiliar with South African politics might not realize is that marches, protests, strikes, blockades and uproar involving hundreds of people occur every single week all over the place.  There are “collective breaks with passivity” everywhere and Abahlali in Durban are not especially prominent in this regard by having staged one march so far in 2010, indeed its first in the centre of town in four years.  If the numbers of attendees and militancy of statements is a measure of politics, then Abahlali events are rather on the meek side.  The only place where Abahlali-Actual distinguish themselves is that they care enough to ask for legal permission to march and that they have the kind of organizational structure that can engage with the state, NGOs, courts and media.


There is a more sinister element though.  Tucked away in the middle of Abahlali’s statement after the march, we find a startling attack on Ashwin Desai accusing him of wanting to ruin the movement. He is lumped together with ANC elites Mike Sutcliffe and Willies Mchunu in this endeavour.  This is unmerited.  Several names are attached to this statement, one of them being Des D’sa.  D’sa is a friend of mine.  He attended the march.  I gave him a call and he knew absolutely nothing about the statement.  He said he had no idea how his name had come to be affixed to the statement.  That statement reads a lot like the work of Brand-Abahlali and, I suspect, that particular comment was included because Desai has publicly named and criticized the work of Brand-Abahlali.   As so often in the past, Brand hides behind Actual to strike back. In reading Sacks’ interventions on behalf of Abahlali-Actual I am strongly reminded of the interventions made by some Nusas comrades in the pre-1994 order.  They had developed an unhealthy identification with the ANC, were not only uncritical of the excesses and mistakes of the movement but also behaved as silencing hacks when important debates about strategy and tactics took place.  A lot of this had to do with the sheer excitement of hanging with such impressive persons and being entrusted with so much responsibility.  It can go to the head.  If I, as a former romanticizer of social movements, may be permitted to offer Jared Sacks some advice, it is this: being in the rank and file is indeed the best place to further one’s own agenda as a privileged person.  So, consider the conduct of Brand Abahlali next time you feel the need to rush to Abahlali-Actual’s defense.[33]

Conclusion: Re-alignments

To round off, some time before Abahlali came onto the social movement scene, Desai and Pithouse (2004) had the following to say:

We are militantly against the dangerous tendency among elements of the post-apartheid left to reify certain personalities and struggles as permanently progressive and to continue to indulge in this festish long after the struggles in question have been emptied of any progressive content. The dark side of the growth and development of the post-apartheid left is that being left is now becoming a career option. In this context the most obvious dangers of the tendency towards reification include the deliberate marginalization of non-fetishized struggles and the development of relations of patronage between individuals providing political credibility and individuals providing resources in exchange for political credibility.[34]

This is a salutary warning that, ironically, now pits co-authors against each other.

Recent events in the country have shown that now is not the time to persist with spent myths, whether about national unity, the sanctity of any political subject and discourse or, for that matter, the readiness of people to wage class struggle as opposed to other mobilizations, or doing nothing at all.  Partly as a result of the former glory of social movements these old myths now seem sclerotic.  So too is the binary opposition between romantic “servants” of movements dedicated to amplifying their true voice (who are all good) and those authoritarian Leftists and other vanguards who dare to challenge, censure, engage and influence movements politically (who are all bad).  Time has shown how topsy-turvy these labels can be, with the faithful Figaro’s substantially directing the affairs of their “masters” in Abahlali better than any Leninist.  Now is the time to soberly uncover the politics, as Sinwell has urged, of all political formations that purport to want fundamental social change.  It is also a time to make whatever re-alignments are necessary, however dramatic, to ensure we live up to the responsibilities we assume.

This image of a group occupied with questions of responsibility, practicality and rigorous critique is also a myth mind you.  I by no means wish to link truth to mere facts.  Truth is a question of style and I acknowledge the role of art and myth in inspiring life and creating truths we live up to.  I am with Oscar Wilde who goes so far to say that Life imitates Art.  Good art though can succumb to cliché.  The art of branded social movements nowadays has all the sound and fury of resistance but, like the dances at arrival halls at airports, the shouts and twirled knobkierries are mainly ceremonial, harking back to days when social movements were different organizations not consumed by court cases, conferences and curfews.  At the centre of these displays are the imbongis, the praise-singers who use their accreditation at universities to doctor and profess. As they monopolise the field of writing so their deceptions get more outrageous.  As the movements decline so their myths grow and their anger at those who seek to expose their manufacture increases.

Today some of the imbongis are teaching courses whose content reflects only their propaganda and spin[35]. Will students ask about where this knowledge came from? What kind of research was involved? What interests were at stake?  Where these declared?  Where are the counter-voices? Or will the propagandists develop another coterie of mythomaniacs with degrees in hand?  What I do know is that a deep anti-intellectualism has been bred by the very people who supposedly make a living by a contestation of ideas.

While being the praise-singers of movements was a direction some of us took, its usefulness has passed.  As class forces previously contained within a monolithic-appearing ANC spew outwards, the gaze at community particularities seems increasingly myopic.  There is a difference between being a committed intellectual and showing brand loyalty to the social movements upon which so many intellectuals made their own names.  Nor can questions of contesting political power and ideology be ignored now that the experiment with the supposed phyletic inclinations of the (social movement) poor towards truth and revolution have led to liberalism, legalism and reform.  A new mythical framework is needed but it is not one to be foisted onto the poor.  The image of people concerned with practicality, rigour and the responsibility to fight for what is politically precious to them in their own name is the inspiration I believe should be adopted for the time being.  In my view, this is the myth of what is to be done, a critical “pushing on from outside”.  This is what is appropriate to the cycle of a very uncertain but very promising upheaval we are about to enter.

[1] See Desai, A. (2009) Obituary Fatima Meer. Pambazuka News. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/obituary/

[2] Sinwell, L. (2010) Defensive Social Movement Battles Need to Engage with Politics. South African Labour Bulletin. 34(1) March / April 2010, 37 -39

[3] Bryant, J. (2008) Towards Delivery and Dignity: Community Struggle from Kennedy Road, Journal of Asian and African Studies (43) 52.

[4] Pithouse, R. (2006) Our Struggle is Thought, on the Ground, Running, The University of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, CCS Research Report. (40) 39.

[5] Interestingly, the trend goes way back.  Urban writers in the 1980s promoted any urban struggle (e.g. Durban Housing Action Committee) as a Castellian-inspired statement of socialist potential.  This was especially true of the Jeff McCarthy group at the University of Natal or the Johannesburg equivalents of Mark Swilling et al.  Later, Patrick Bond was similarly celebratory about the work of civics starting in early 1990, through to the last hurrah in 1996 with Mzwanele Mayekiso.

[6] Desai, A. and  Pihouse, R. (2004) Sanction All Revolts, A Reply to Rebecca Pointer, Journal of Asian and African Studies. 39(4)298. pp 301

[7] According to Jacob Bryant: “Each person whom I interviewed said that he or she is a committed member of the ANC, and mentioned that most of the other people in the settlement were as well – some even expressed surprised that I would ask such a question. Some said that they had been members of the ANC, the ANC Youth League or the UDF (United Democratic Front) during the 1980s and early 1990s, and one cited the political violence then as the reason he had moved to the settlement.  Accordingly, the settlement has voted solidly ANC in all the elections before the emergence of their struggle.  Asked why they supported the ANC when their conditions had remained largely unchanged, most people emphasized that they were not protesting against the ANC or the government, but that they were protesting against the councillor and the ‘laziness’ and unresponsiveness of people in the eThekwini municipality. (Bryant, 2008:55)

[8] see Ekine, S. (2009) Abahlali baseMjondolo: Reclaiming our Dignity and Voices. Interview with Mnikelo Ndabankulu, Zodwa Nsibande and David Ntseng. Pambazuka News. Issue 449. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/58979

[9] Shannon Walsh’s genealogy of how the preoccupation with gaining voice and recognition came to supplant Abahlali’s earlier and formative direct action related politics is insightful reading (264).  She observes that early accounts of Abahlali’s mandate rarely mentioned voice.  Yet later re-fashionings of their history by their academics stress this aspect above the riotous pressing of demands for housing and land.  The changeover, which is now well established, co-incides with the entrée of academics into the movement.  Walsh notices in particular that Raj Patel, one of the key Abahlali-aligned academics, had previously worked at the World Bank on a project collating the Voices of the Poor and this slant on Abahlali’s position is noticeable in his work.  I question whether the shift to seeking “voice” and “dignity” away from immediate political and economic demands is as organic as suggested.  I also wonder whether it represents either an advance or critique of existing social movement politics.  It seems rather to be the discursive hook in terms of which initial, radical, (although narrowly focused) political desires for concrete, measurable things become attached to strategies of governability focused on form.  The switch to voice and dignity may well have enabled the paralyzing legalism and lowering of sights to demanding due process and in situ upgrading that we have seen from Abahlali.  A preoccupation with voice also creates the impression Sinwell warned against; that is that a favourable profile in cyberspace is a substitute for strength on the ground. Walsh, S., Uncomfortable collaborations: Contesting Constructions of the Poor in South Africa, Review of African Political Economy, 35:2; 255 – 279.

[10] Brant, 2008:55.

[11] The precise status of academic partisans of Abahlali has been difficult to fix.  At times they themselves claim to be members and at other times present themselves as outside commentators.  Since a key tenet of Abahlali ideology is that the only permitted subjectivity is to be a shackdweller in order to be able to speak about them, it would seem that white, middle-class academics should not assume membership.

[12] see Desai, A., (2006) Vans, Kombi’s and Autos, The Drivers of Social Movements, Wolpe Lecture, above.

[13] The U.S. based Journal of Asian and African Studies is the single biggest purveyor of Abahlali mythology.  Nigel Gibson is its editor.

[14] Gibson, N. (2007) Zabalaza: Unfinished struggles against apartheid: the shackdwellers movement in Durban. Socialism and Democracy, (21:3). pp 93.

[15] Bryant, 2008: 53.

[16] Before the events at Kennedy Road in September 2009, the “sympathetic network” of academics supporting Abahlali had grown to include town-planners, up-and-coming constitutional lawyers and priests.  These people preferred engagements with the state, both the local municipality and the courts, that they have described as “progressive incrementalism”.  During the last few years in Durban it has been remarkable how the “biggest and most radical” social movement in South Africa resolutely cast their housing demands within both the commodity form and the liberal constitution.  From around 2007 there was a definite turn to law, which seemed to juridify Abahlali’s public pronouncements.  Their branding was reformulated to emphasise their being law-abiding, long-suffering protectors of the constitution.  Their mission to achieve “dignity” and “voice” came to be calibrated in terms of due process rights the state owed them.  The content of their demands and their methods of achieving them were cast within the boundaries of the law.  Becoming primarily a national, rights-bearing subject also affected their organizational form.  In Durban, it hardened, narrowed and professionalized. Their great claim to fame in this mode was their defeat of the KZN Slums Act in the Constitutional Court.  While it is unfortunately questionable whether the advances claimed on this terrain are as significant as suggested, this is part of another debate.  It is fair to say is that after their turn to law the quality of social antagonism that initially made Abahlali what they were, was far less evident in their tactics.  Its presence was, in the main, left lingering on their website.

[17] Desai, A. (2006). “Van, Autos and Kombis and the Drivers of Social Movements”. Paper presented at Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series, International Convention Centre, Durban. 28 July 2006. Available online: http://www.wolpetrust.org.za/dialogue2006/DN072006desai_paper.pdf

[18] Pithouse, R. (2006) Our Struggle is Thought, on the Ground, Running, The University of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, CCS Research Report, (40) 25. pp 25.

[19] Ibid. pp 28.

[20] Birkenshaw, M., Abahlali baseMjondolo: ‘A homemade politics’, Online: http://libcom.org/library/abahlali-basemjondolo-“-homemade-politics

[21] A particularly embarrassing example of this is Jacob Bryant’s banal paean to South African, (which he supposes is Abahlali-specific) meeting procedures, in particular, “points of order”.

Meetings were formal, and people were often told – usually jokingly – that they were “out of order” if they spoke of something not being addressed or they spoke over someone else. Here too, while the chair and deputy chair spoke often, usually giving updates and summarizing what others had said, everyone was given the chance to speak. (52)

Only someone a little star-struck and utterly unfamiliar with South African political culture would ascribe any inherent value to meetings unfolding in this way.  Body corporate, trade union, taxi association, stokvel, ANC, Inkatha, burial society, student association and many other meetings all share this mode of operating.  It was something that impressed foreigners during apartheid no end too and they also surmised that it guaranteed wise, progressive and principled outcomes from those meetings.  Alas, it does not.

[22] See Trewhela, P., Pogrom murders in the Durban area: 1 October 2009, http://www.abahlali.org/node/5833

[23]Patel. R., Durban’s bedtime stories: Abahlali baseMjondolo’s struggle continues, 16 December 2009, Pambazuka News, Issue 462: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/61058

[25] Naidoo, P., Journalism 101 User’s Manual: Don’t be fooled by the spectacle.  Check your sources! Mail & Guardian. 8 December 2006.

[26] Desai, A.”The Limitations of Social Movements as a counter Hegemonic Force in South Africa”, A paper presented at the Workshop on Protest and Civil Society, University of Johannesburg, 30 October 2009.

[27] Sacks, J., “Abahlali baseMjondolo are no ‘spent force’”, Pambazuka News, Issue 475, March 2010: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/letters/63285

[28] CCS (Centre for Civil Society) e-mail debating forum, 16 October 2009

[29] Walsh, Shannon. (2008). “Uncomfortable Collaborations”: Contesting Constructions of the Poor in South Africa Review of African Political Economy, 35, (116) June 2008. pp255 – 279

[31] Pamela Anderson

[33] I note in this regard that Jared Sacks describes himself as the Executive Director of an NGO called Children of South Africa.  The declared purpose of the NGO is to raise funds for poor orphans through “local action, self-empowerment, and peer-to-peer networking as essential strategies for community-owned development”.  Chosa has a Board of Directors suffering from one of the worst cases of a lack of diversity one can still hope to find in South Africa (Jonathan Goldin, Jennifer Goldin, Jared Sacks, Ellen Rosenberg, Jonathan Lurie, Nathalia Jaramillo) especially for an organization working among the black poor.  Their South African management team is no better (Jared Sacks, Robert Rosenbaum and Taryn Haley). Chosa and Sacks’ own credentials as being in touch with the poor are, however, quickly established elsewhere on Chosa’s website ( http://www.chosa.co.za/ ). Just to the left of the dominating “Donate Now” button on the homepage, one can follow links to the Chosa blog.  Here, among photographs and reports of their work among the poor, Chosa and Sacks are shown to be heavily involved in Abahlali’s headquarters, Kennedy Road.  Sacks makes no bones about his support of Abahlali. This being the case, Sacks’ criticism of the ‘privileged’ Desai for not being ‘rank and file’ and having his own agenda is revealed as hypocrisy.  If Desai’s supposed privilege is an interest that should stop him criticizing Abahlali, then, given the uses to which Sacks puts Abahlali in establishing the credentials of the enterprise where he makes a living, surely Mr Sacks must, concomitantly, stop praising Abahlali so loudly.

[34] “Sanction All Revolts, A Reply to Rebecca Pointer”, Journal of Asian and African Studies, (2004), Vol. 39, No. 4, 298.

[35] Richard Pithouse who works in the Politics and International Relations Department at Rhodes University teaches a postgraduate course entitled, “The Mind of the Oppressed.” The seminar dedicated to dealing with “Emancipatory Theory in Contemporary South Africa” has, as compulsory readings, articles by Nigel Gibson called “Upright and Free: Fanon in South Africa from Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo” and another by Raj Patel titled, “A Short Course in Politics at the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo“.