Friday, April 30, 2010

IV. 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".[1]

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".[2] 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) [3] 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.

[1] Sacks, J. (2010) "Abahlali baseMjondolo are no ‘spent force’", Pambazuka News, Issue 475, March 2010:

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

[3] Walsh, S. (2008). "Uncomfortable Collaborations": Contesting Constructions of the Poor in South Africa Review of African Political Economy, 35(116) 255 – 279.

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