Abahlali base Mjondolo and the missionaries from the academy.
Heinrich Böhmke, 21 October 2010 Africa Report

Don’t talk about us talking about the poor

barbwire2When the ANC came to power it was on a mandate to implement policies to bring about a “better life for all”. The social inequalities bequeathed by apartheid meant that the new government would have to take dramatic steps to uplift the masses of the Black poor from desperate conditions. The ANC marked its arrival in the Union Buildings in Pretoria with the promise, on a mass scale, to build houses, provide water and electricity and to develop new infrastructure.

However, for reasons that will keep historians busy, the reconstruction and development of the new South Africa was conducted within the confines of a conservative macro-economic framework. At city-governance level, this translated into an insistence on cost-recovery for services and, when the poor did not pay, evictions and cut-offs followed. There seemed to be more continuity than caesura between apartheid and democratic-era urban planning and policy.

Protests arose five years into ANC rule when the honeymoon lapsed and affected communities started reacting to the squeeze. They were a tiny, almost heretical, minority complaining about a still massively popular government. Community organisations rose outside parliamentary politics and made demands in support of narrow and local interests, such as ending water cut-offs in their own area.

Enter the helpers

From the outset, fledgling movements attracted a coterie of middle-class, left-leaning activists and academics, some newcomers and some remnants of earlier disaffection with the ‘revolution betrayed’. There was an urgent need for a new radical subject, especially as it appeared that the industrial working class had so tamely been sutured into the national project. In a still very understudied process, these mainly white, middle-class intellectuals rushed to the scene of the battles against evictions and service cut-offs taking place in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg between 1999 and 2002.

The outside-activist set enthusiastically wrote up and explained these protests. Our writing was in one breath triumphal and plaintive. It saw only the best and most radical in the subjectivity of the poor. We took as our main task the fortification of the new struggles and were happy to generate tolerable, affectionate absurdities about the size, nature, ideology and popular support of community organizations. We weren’t being presumptive, we told ourselves, just prefiguring what was bound to manifest soon. In the meantime these organizations needed confidence and publicity. The talking-up of militant organisations went hand in hand with a critique of the South African state. This buzz created solidarities between protesters in distant townships and it reactivated old networks of legal and financial support for them.

Loose national alliances emerged. Local struggles in different cities were said to stem from a new politics, post-colonial in content and occasionally anti-globalisation in form. 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 of participants from provinces afar. We labeled these disparate protests and acts of resistance against neo-liberal municipal policies in South Africa, with the hopeful concept, ‘new social movements’.

The first wave of social movements such as the Concerned Citizens’ Forum, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the Landless People’s Movement rose and fell. New ones picked up the baton. By far the most celebrated existing social movement now is Abahlali base Mjondolo, operating out of Durban. Its fate provides a lens through which to see some uncomfortable features of the social-movement project, particularly the dominating role outsiders play in crafting the image of movements displayed to the world. There are lessons for the continent in general.

Creative branding exercise

Abahlali rose in 2005 in response to the Durban municipality’s neglect (except at election time) of those living in shack-settlements and their persistent attempts to eradicate shack settlements within middle-class neighbourhoods. A protest, a road blockade and gradually an organisation sprang up championing the cause, literally, of abaHlali basemjondolo (residents of shacks).

What is remarkable about Abahlali is the complex and creative branding exercise carried out by intellectuals on its behalf with little reference to actual practices and thinking within shack settlements. A ‘sympathetic network’ of mainly white University-based academics swarmed into Kennedy Road, enthusiastically writing-up, cross-referencing and publicising this organisation, its leaders and every action. Abahlali has variously been described as reminiscent of the Paris Commune, the Zapatistas and the true heir to the politics of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon.

The democratic, non-professionalised, radically-humanist, gender-balanced, day-to-day practices of its alleged 30,000 members (‘the largest social movement in Africa’) were celebrated in world-historic terms, mentioned in the same breath as Mexico’s Zapatismo and India’s National Alliance of Peoples Movements. A key element in Abahlali‘s portrayal is how supposedly different it is to the old, authoritarian, vanguard Left who were ‘in control’ of the social movements that just preceded it.

If only. The truth is that the claims made about Abahlali have not survived scrutiny by that unforgiving critic: time. Before considering what time has revealed, we must understand the interests behind the industry that talks about social movements such as Abahlali.

Academics, lawyers and gatekeepers

There are broadly three intersecting groups of academics who dominate the way Abahlali is shown to the world. The first and loudest are left-leaning social-scientists for whom Abahlali has become the goose laying the golden footnote. For them Abahlali are primarily a research subject proving the viability of their own breathless political fantasies.

Thus, visiting anarchists find non-hierarchy in the movement, liberation theologists find Jesus among the downtrodden, philosophers find the latest French fads, young academics keen to make a name in the cluttered world of urban studies find a refutation of Mike Davis or David Harvey, and itinerant North American M.A. students find a case study in post-colonial, neo-liberal, underdevelopment.

But the social scientists do not only write about Abahlali, they also get the T-shirt. It is rare to find a text that does not situate the writer herself in the heat of battle or the depths of despair. This is not only an opportunity for self-promotion. A real and very personal sense of meaning and relevance is generated when witnessing events. The idea that merely “being there” at moments of crisis produces a consonance between an individual activist’s self-gratification and his/her capacity to produce actual, meaningful change for others is what Carl Schmitt has magnificently critiqued as ‘political romanticisation’. It is a powerful phenomenon and explains, in part, the devotion activist-intellectuals give to social movements. The Abahlali experience is, in so many ways, a formative one for them too.

A second group comprises the lawyers. Abahlali has generated a high-profile opportunity to test constitutional issues. In late 2009, Abahlali successfully had parts of a provincial law on housing evictions struck down, thus keeping alive the useful myth that progressive constitutionalism will  deliver socio-economic rights to the masses. There are also the endless conference papers about how many eviction notices one may find on the head of a ‘reasonable’ needle.

The help the lawyers provide is not innocent. In their hands and on their advice, the sign ‘Abahlali’ no longer stands for and legitimises the incipient revolt of the homeless poor. Rather Abahlali is now a disciplined, interest-group making supplications to the state and seeking remedies from the courts as rights-bearing citizens. The movement is celebrated in the liberal press for having channeled grievances and militancy through their lawyers, investing hope in a justice system that ordinarily crushes South Africa’s poor.

The last category are the gatekeepers, the elite among the activists, who besides commenting upon the organisation as academics by day, run Abahlali’s spectacular website by night, or draft many of their press statements, maintain their contested reputation on Wikipedia, raise funds and supervise overseas trips. This small group is the provider of first-hand knowledge about the movement, ennobled, like Donald Woods, the South African journalist and friend of Steven Biko, by being conspicuously accepted by authentic black subjects in distress.

It is they who over time have given cover to the most vulnerable part of the Abahlali narrative. This has been the double-desire for ‘voice’ (into the maelstrom of loud-mouthed, banal, mainstream ‘thought-leaders’) and ‘inclusion’ (into the existing structures of economy, urban space and power systems). This has degenerated at times into support for the most sleazy political projects (‘Bush, give us your millions,’ said an Abahlali leader, about the Bisasar Road carbon-credit scheme or ‘criminals you will shit,’ when running a police-supervised vigilante group). The parts of Abahlali‘s politics veering towards ‘neoliberal populism’ have been intellectualised as the deeply subtle intelligence of the shack-dwelling poor. For the embedded academics, whatever the poor get up to, they are the embodiment of the truth.

Accusations of vigilantism

The truth on the ground is a lot less attractive or admirable than the brand manufacturers would have us believe. For example, in September 2009, 13 Abahlali members were arrested for the murder of two community members during a night of violence in their Kennedy Road headquarters. For months, Abahlali and its intellectuals maintained that their members were (among) the dead, that they were “assassinated” in a pogrom by the ANC. Hundreds of sympathetic followers signed petitions and protests were held on Abahlali‘s behalf in many sites, local and global.

It turned out that the only people who died were non-Abahlali members. Far from being beloved by the shack-dwelling poor, eyewitnesses to the violence implicated the movement in straight-out vigilantism. This is but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s reputation. Three years before, the branded romantic image of Abahlali had departed so far from what was true or plausible that Durban-based intellectuals such as Dr Ashwin Desai were already calling these representations out as “diseased”. Abahlali was simply not viable as a carrier of a radical ‘living politics’, advanced especially by Nigel Gibson and Michael Neocosmos, two senior intellectuals, who had parachuted in to pronounce on the new revolution.

Moreover, Abahlali was becoming distinctly mainstream over time. In the hands of their lawyers, Abahlali have become the legitimators of naïve, incremental legal strategies in the courts, doomed at best to win procedural relief. In the hands of their social scientists, they are the poster-boys for “voice” without ideology, boldly asserting a right to the city that consists of remaining in the shacklands with the horizon of victory reduced to in situ upgrading.

The M.A. students, of course, have come and gone but, for the gatekeepers, an enormous amount is still at stake.Abahlali represent their ticket to conferences, promotion and, above all, the sort of vicarious authenticity upon which academic reputation is built. However, since its true believers are prepared to relate only to a mythologised, sanctified movement which, in their hands, is massively influential, wondrously democratic and the leading opposition to the South African state, they continue to generate hype that in no way corresponds to the more modest and complex reality of shack-dweller life.

Barricades to boardrooms

The problem with this over-the-top branding, is that there is no space for an internal critique of why Abahlali in Durban has moved so rapidly into decline. Of how a movement born at the barricades moved into the boardrooms of foreign funders and lawyers. Of how a movement that sought to build layers and layers of leadership became identified with one leader given near mythical qualities. Is it a coincidence that these developments coincided with the arrival of the missionaries from the academy?

Rebuttals to this auto-critique – for I was one of the helpers, too – have not been satisfactory. Abahlali’s gatekeepers explain that criticisms come only from a hostile state and the authoritarian Left – but cannot address the strategies and tactics of the movement itself, or the problem of branding that gives a false sense of power, militancy and effectiveness. When the movement is really tested in combat, they are then found wanting. At the same time those asking pointed questions are labeled as jealous, deluded and right-wing.

Speak to us, not about us

Abahlali in Durban have, like social movements tend to do, risen and fallen. In the last two years in Durban they were quiet, living off the reputation of past oppressions built by their branders and then, lately, perpetrating some of their own. The political discussions and alliances that might have made a difference were warded off by aggressive gate-keeping, romantic exaggeration and a pernicious and divisive shack-ism that served the interests only of the elite academics dominating the knowledge produced about Abahlali. It is ironic how an organisation with a slogan, “Talk to us, not about us” has found itself in this position; where the ‘repertoires of contention’ that constitute a social movement, are defined largely by their hangers-on.

One can only hope that Abahlali’s younger, autonomous off-shoot in the Western Cape fares better and that movements elsewhere on the continent beware academics, no matter how well-meaning, bearing brands. However, early indications in the Western Cape are that the branders are already there, as usual from afar, writing up the present and on-going struggles of Abahlali without pause to consider past folly. Their class and race location and professional pursuits, whether raising funds for NGOs or moving up the ranks of the academy, mean that their writings are likely to have more to do with defending their own interests (and theses) in the Abahlali industry than advancing a strategic understanding of shack-dweller struggles.

This article first appeared inThe Africa Report.