Friday, April 30, 2010

V. 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. 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. 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."[2]

In coming to grips with the notion of a social movement as a brand, it is useful to consider who Abahlali’s friends and allies are. This, though, means wading through a quite dazzling web of ideological and commercial interests. Abahlali is affiliated with the Informal Settlement Network launched in May 2009. The Informal Settlement Network (ISN) "is an alliance of settlement-level and national-level organizations of informal settlement dwellers in South Africa"[3]. The ISN is supported by the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) based in Cape Town and the transnational Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) based in the United States.

CORC is an interesting organization. It says its mission is to "create solidarity and unity in order to be able to broker deals with formal institutions especially the State".[4] It is also involved in savings and loan schemes in yet another organizational guise, the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP). CORC is big on self-help, partnering with the local state, "monetizing the social and political capital of the poor"[5] and in situ up-grading of shacks rather than longer-term brick and mortar houses.

This is not surprising. It has a technical arm, iKhayalami. We are told that

iKhayalami has developed a very affordable housing solution that is effectively an upgraded shack. In this regard iKhayalami is making technical interventions that add value to the value already created by squatter households themselves. This is in direct contra-distinction to the dominant approach that see shack dwellings as problem structures with no value at all, that need to be eradicated and replaced with formal housing. iKhayalami’s housing units are made from clip-lock zinc and their prototypes.[6]

iKhayalami’s method is to go to shack settlements after a fire with the view to selling both their vision of blocking the rebuilt site and marketing their unique shack construction products.[7]

In understanding the role of struggle in achieving the aims of the Informal Settlement Network, we see that "marches" and "demonstrations" are part of a "multi-dimensional media campaign to highlight landlessness and urban poverty" which also include sms bundles, websites, building relationships with press, etc.[8] The notion of multi-dimensional media campaigns has enriched my understanding of Abahlali’s peculiar political praxis over the last few years. I was puzzled at the contradiction between the revolutionary discourse it occasionally adopted prior to a demonstration or march only to have Abahlali put forward distinctly reformist demands for due process, consultation, "dignity" and "voice". As CORC indicates, they work with "settlements whose residents are involved in the incremental provision of land tenure, basic services and affordable housing – either through acceptable relocations or on-site upgrading" (my emphasis).[9] However, there is nothing preventing these settlements from appearing militant and uncompromising as part of a general media campaign designed to leverage incremental gains. This is an important learning.

Another important learning is derived from the CORC website designer, Brand Anchor Communications. This company is "a boutique marketing and brand activation agency who are in the business of creating, activating and managing brands". They advise their clients: "marketing is every bit of contact your company has with anyone in the outside world – that’s a lot of marketing opportunities. Drill into your mind the idea that at its core, marketing is a business. And the purpose of a Business is to Earn Profits". They end off providing clients with this general principle of marketing: "Brand Awareness equals Credibility".[10] Which is a variant of: repeat a lie often enough.

While the extent of Abahlali’s participation in the ISN is hard to gauge, the manner in which incrementalist politics may be pursued through radical direct action is reflected in the way Brand-Abahlali operates. In Abahlali we have an organization held out to stage large, militant and radical demonstrations but, in its demands, it emphasises in situ upgrading of shack settlements rather than holding government to brick and mortar promises and is preoccupied with questions of "voice", dignity and due process rather than pressing direct political demands. While there are likely to be a range of different approaches within the ISN, it is fair to say that Abahlali operate within a general milieu in which not only the writing about radical demonstrations could be branding but that the radical demonstrations may themselves be branding.

It is remarkable that none of the academics writing on Abahlali have ever traced these political affinities. This speaks either to a certain shoddiness in fully researching their subject or else a conscious decision to ignore these aspects and fully participate in the branding and spin themselves.

As an exercise is exposing spin, I wish to challenge Sacks statements about the Abahlali Human Rights Day march in March 2010. Let me start by saying that it is good that Abahlali-Actual exist. The issue is the way in which they are represented which, from the pens of their amplifiers, does not correspond in a stable, credible or principled way to their being.

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. 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".[11] 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 outrageously 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.[12]

[1] This profile of Abahlali is drawn from many examples, but London anarchist Matt Birkinshaw's article is exemplary. Available online:‘-homemade-politics’

[2] Pamela Anderson.

[3] CORC website:

[4] CORC website:

[5] ibid. :

[6] ibid. :

[7] see iKhayalami promotional material :

[8] ibid. :



[11] Sapa. (2010) Shack dwellers' CBC march restricted by court ruling. The Mercury. 22 March 2010. Available online:

[12] I cannot but 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 ( ) where, 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’ silencing of the privileged Desai for not being "rank and file" and having his own agenda creates serious problems for Sacks. 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.

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