Friday, April 30, 2010

II. 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 that 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?[1]

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.[2]

[1] 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.

[2] 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

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