Friday, April 30, 2010

III. 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.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Nigel Gibson (2006), one of the most generous of myth makers[7], 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.[8]

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."[9]

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.[10]

Third, as Ashwin Desai owned up to so well in his 2006 Wolpe lecture[11], 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.[12] There are academics 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 a 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."[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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), Birkinshaw 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.[16] 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.

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"[17] 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".[18] 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)[19] 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.[20] 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 "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.[21] 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.

[1] 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)

[2]Ekine, S. (2009) Abahlali baseMjondolo: Reclaiming our Dignity and Voices. Interview with Mnikelo Ndabankulu, Zodwa Nsibande and David Ntseng. Pambazuka News. Issue 449.

[3] Shannon Walsh’s insightful genealogy of how the preoccupation with gaining voice and recognition came to supplant Abahlali’s earlier and formative direct action related politics is essential 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 entrĂ©e 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., (2008) Uncomfortable collaborations: Contesting Constructions of the Poor in South Africa, Review of African Political Economy, 35:2; 255 – 279.

[4] Brant, 2008:55.

[5] 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.

[6] Desai, A., (2006) Vans, Kombi's and Autos, The Drivers of Social Movements, Wolpe Lecture.

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

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

[9] Bryant, 2008: 53.

[10] 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.

[11] 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:

[12] See, for example, Lewis R. Gordon's very interesting paper "The market Colonization of Intellectuals", in truthout, April 2010, Available online:

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

[14] Ibid. pp 28.

[15] Birkinshaw, M. (2009) Abahlali baseMjondolo: 'A homemade politics', Online:"-homemade-politics"

[16] 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.

[17] Trewhela, P. (2009) Pogrom murders in the Durban area. PoliticsWeb.1 October 2009, Available online:

[18]Patel. R. (2009) Durban’s bedtime stories: Abahlali baseMjondolo's struggle continues, 16 December 2009, Pambazuka News. 462:

[19] Setshedi, V. (2006) [Debate]: SA social movement crisis? Available Online:

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

[21] Desai, A. (2009) "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.

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