The industrial and mining towns on the Eastern outskirts of
But even here the battle for land continues. The poor are loosing their grip on the scattered bits of land which they took in defiance of apartheid more than twenty years ago. The state is, again, sending in bulldozers and men with guns to move the poor from central shack settlements to peripheral townships. In every relocation many are simply left homeless. It is very difficult to resist the armed force of the state but people do what they can. Officials are often stoned. In principle the courts should provide relief from evictions that are not just illegal but are in fact criminal acts under South African law. There have been notable successes but it is often difficult to get pro bono legal support, legal processes are slow and the evictions continue.
In the Harry Gwala settlement the poorest women are on their hands and knees searching for bits of coal to bake into lumps of clay to keep the braziers burning. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in
Here in Harry Gwala forced removals started in 2004. That was also the year in which the Landless People’s Movement declared a boycott of the local government elections and were subject to severe repression, including the police torture of some activists. In August of the following year 700 residents marched on the Mayor demanding an end to forced removals and the immediate provision of water, electricity and toilets. Provincial Housing Minister Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the evictions "marked another milestone for housing delivery" and explained that "We are doing all this because we are a caring government and want to give you back your dignity". The Municipality’s website responded to the march by noting that "Although there was an initial reluctance on the part of the Harry Gwala residents to move, the metro and the [private housing] company met them to work through any objections and give them reasons why such a move would be worth their while." But in May 2006, when the Municipality tried to move ahead with the forced removals in earnest, it became clear that residents were determined to hold their ground. The Johannesburg Star reported that "police fired rubber bullets and bulldozed their way into the Harry Gwala informal settlement near Wattville after residents barricaded themselves in with burning tyres. Shots rang out and people scattered in all directions as metro police fired at them. Twelve people were injured and were taken to hospitals in the area."
The poor start to evict each other
In Harry Gwala the evictions are remembered as a war. Now the settlement is recovering from a different kind of eviction, a different kind of war. It is to this that the discussion soon turns. The Freedom Charter adopted in
In the second week the pogrom spread to the city centre and there were clashes at the
In the second week the pogroms also spread to
Somalis as ‘just ordinary crime’.
Some of the mobs were singing Jacob Zuma’s campaign song, Bring My Machine Gun. Some came out of shack settlements and migrant worker hostels linked to Inkatha. Some were just drunk young men. The most widely reported tests used to determine indigenity, such as seeing if people know the formal and slightly archaic Zulu word for elbow, were taken straight from the tactics that the police have used for years. The mob definition of foreigner always centred on foreign born Africans but in some instances Pakistanis and South Africans of minority ethnicities, especially
After two weeks 62 people were dead, a third of them South African citizens, and figures for the number of people displaced ranged from 80 000 to 100 000. Some had fled the country and others were sheltering in churches, at police stations and in refugee camps. Conditions in the camps are often grim. Human rights organisations have issued strenuous condemnations and there have already been threats of collective suicide, clashes with the police and demands for the United Nations to take over management of the camps from the South African state.
The end of Mbeki’s African Renaissance
Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency was, in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, animated by a vision of an African Renaissance that would finally redeem the world historical promise of the Haitian Revolution. On the first day of 2004 he resisted considerable international pressure and stood with Jean Bertrand-Aristide in
Mbeki, the argument went, was mindful of Fanon’s critique of post-colonial bourgeoisies incapable of doing much more than fronting for Western business and instead aimed to create an innovative and decisive African elite that, secured by the technocratic management of the poor at home, could assume its rightful place on the global stage.
Most of the slaves that made the Haitian Revolution were born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their revolution offered citizenship, black citizenship, to everyone who fought in it, including Polish and German mercenaries who deserted their posts to join it. Citizenship became a political question rather than a matter of indigeneity or ethnicity. But for those two weeks in May it wasn’t safe to be Congolese in many of the poor neighbourhoods in South African cities. There are still places where Aristide, whose excellent but French accented Zulu could easily mark him as Congolese or Rwandese, would be unwise to tread without security.
Contrary to much of the discussion in the media this state of affairs is not new. Indeed a month before the recent attacks 30 shacks were burnt and 100 people displaced from the Diepsloot settlement in
The extreme hostility with which the post-apartheid state has responded to African migrants is well documented in numerous human rights and academic reports. Migrants to South Africa confront a notoriously ungenerous policy regime that is compounded by a bureaucracy and police force that are both systemically corrupt and prone to extorting money from migrants, documented or not, on the threat of arrest and deportation. There are many cases where South Africans have also been arrested and deported to countries they have never previously visited because they could not speak Zulu well, didn’t have the ‘right’ inoculation marks or were ‘too black.’ If the police suspect that someone may be an ‘illegal immigrant’ and she doesn’t have papers on her she will be detained in a holding cell and then sent to a repatriation centre to await deportation. If she is documented but doesn’t have papers on her she may still end up being deported as it is people picked on suspicion of being illegal that have to prove their legal right to be in the country. There is no burden of proof on the state. There is a right to one free phone call from the police holding cells and another from the repatriation centres but that right is routinely denied. Sometimes people whose presence in
The Lindela Repatriation Centre looms with a particular malevolence in the fears of migrants. Set in an old mining compound on the outskirts of
The state has not been alone in this. On radio talk shows, in newspapers and university lecture theatres it quickly becomes clear that the fears and stereotypes that white people projected onto black people under apartheid are now often projected, unapologetically, onto the poor in general and shack dwellers and migrants in particular. Things that can no longer be publicly said about black people can still be said about the poor, with and without papers. It is not unusual for middle class black people to take this up with enthusiasm. It’s been an open season for a long time. The fear and hostility of the old order have been redirected rather than overcome in the new order.
The most important attempt to theorise xenophobia in South African is a book by Michael Neocosmos called From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The book was published by Codesria in
Neocosmos rejects fashionable attempts to explain xenophobia in terms of postmodernity and globalisation and notes that it was in 1961 that Frantz Fanon described the kind of situation where "foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked." For Neocosmos, following Fanon and the work of the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, the essence of the problem is in the structure of the post-colonial state.
Neocosmos, following Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba in the
His book gives a history of how apartheid denied South African citizenship to Africans and attempted, via the
For Neocosmos the radicalisation and democratisation of the popular struggles against apartheid in the second half of the 1980s, a process that in his analysis was forced on the leadership from below, created a new nation in struggle. He argues that the demobilisation and corporatisation of that politics, a process that began in 1989 and was more or less concluded by 1993, enabled a return to the exclusive power of the state to define citizenship.
In his view this was the worm that hid in the rose of the new democracy from the beginning. He points to the distinction in the constitution between citizens and persons and notes the consequent logic in frank statements by the ANC that it "can’t extend human rights to non-citizens." But he is not replacing economism with legalism. He also argues that a considerable part of the motivation for the immediate commitment to the idea of ‘fortress South Africa’ was driven by an assumption that ‘hordes of foreigners’ would threaten South Africa’s aspiration to build a powerful modern state that could take its ‘rightful place on the international stage’. The continuities with apartheid thinking about
He acknowledges the work done by NGOs to catalogue the rights abuses suffered by migrants at the hand of the
While he accepts the symptomatic observations of the human rights NGOs he rejects their diagnosis of the cause of those symptoms and their prescription for a remedy. In his view their extensive and detailed cataloguing of state and popular xenophobia has been undertaken in order to ensure that migrants are able to access their human rights, something which is "seen as the responsibility of the state under pressure from those same NGOs". Human rights discourse is orientated around appeals to the state, not a popular democratic politics. It therefore lacks both the capacity to issue compelling prescriptions to the state and to undertake the practical work of engendering better modes of life within communities. All it can do is to make requests. Although he does not say this, it is notable that neither the advances in this discourse, nor its institutionalisation in formal civil society, have resulted in meaningful progress from the perspective of someone picked up by the police for being ‘too black’ or speaking Shangaan or French.
For Neocosmos "xenophobia and authoritarianism" are "a continuation of apartheid oppression" that are, in the end, a "product of liberalism". He proposes, against the state centric politics of liberalism, a recovery of popular emancipatory politics. This argument certainly has much more going for it than most of the views bandied about after the May pogroms, many of which took the form of simultaneous recommendations for firmer police action, better state intelligence and more projects to educate the poor about human rights. With some modifications it may also be able to explain some aspects of the other forms of popular reaction that have been growing in intensity.
In recent months there have, in some areas, been public attacks on lesbians and women dressed in trousers or in skirts deemed too short. It is certainly the case that as poor women are expected to take over more and more of the work needed to keep families and communities going there is an implicit gendering to decisions about the price of water, the numbers of taps and toilets that are provided to shack settlements, the need for volunteers to take on cleaning work, the care of the sick and so on. But it is certainly not the case that, as with xenophobia, these kinds of attacks can credibly be said to directly follow the logic and practices of the state or to be in any way complicit with the law.
While racist arguments about culture are often still used to explain the attacks on women progressives tend to argue that they are due to a general economic disempowerment. There is certainly a systemic disempowerment consequent to the endless economic crisis that ordinary people must confront, even in boom times. But there is also a systemic disempowerment consequent to both the complimentary authoritarianism of technocratic state and NGO responses to poverty and the top down party control over most of the political spaces through which ordinary people can access the state. It is notable that these kinds of attacks on women have not occurred, and are in fact simply unthinkable, in places where grassroots movements in which women are strong have created a political space for the collective self empowerment of the excluded. The fact that these are not the only spaces in which these kinds of attacks are unthinkable does not diminish the record of democratic grassroots political projects in this regard.
As Neocosmos has noted in a recent essay the popular movements that have rebuilt a democratic grassroots militancy were able to successfully defend and shelter people at risk in the May pogroms and, on at least one occasion, confront attackers head on. There was not one attack in any of the more than 30 settlements where the largely
‘Foreigners in our own country’
There is a sense in which crises are confrontation with the real. Certain kinds of assumptions, claims and speculations that can survive without a direct challenge melt away in the face of this kind of shock. Others emerge on a firmer footing. Neocosmos’ book has come out of the crisis with a lot more life than it had in April. But if the May crisis has appeared to offer some support to his analysis that analysis should certainly be extended. One obvious way in which the critique of the politics of liberalism should be developed would be to consider the various ways in which the South African poor are also excluded from substantive citizenship and the desperate rivalries that this can produce.
With an entrenched unemployment crisis that excludes around 40% of people from formal employment now compounded by the sudden escalation in food and transport prices there’s not much disagreement about the depth of economic exclusion. Of course people do invent new modes of solidarity and survivalist communalism to cope but a dangerous desperation is also rife. Not everyone is in a position to confront the prospect of entering their 30s without ever having had a decent job with equanimity. For people bent on plunder anyone who is vulnerable, as undocumented migrants living under a hostile state most certainly are, is at risk.
Exclusion from substantive citizenship is also a question of space. The South African state is seeking to reverse the popular desegregation of cities achieved since the 1980s. There are major projects to drive the poor out of flats in the city centres in the name of creating ‘World Class Cities’. Centrally located shack settlements are also under attack from a full fledged programme to ‘eradicate’ shacks by 2014. While most cities have one or two well funded projects to upgrade centrally located shack settlements they are the exceptions that legitimate the rule. The fact is that the state is beating the poor out of the cities in the name of ‘slum clearance’, the precise phrase used by apartheid, and before that colonialism, for the same purpose. The poor are being driven out of urban spaces over which there is sometimes a considerable degree of autonomous self management into regulated and commodified contemporary versions of the peripheral apartheid township – a space separate in every way from the fantasy of world class cities but far enough out of town for this fact to be tolerable.
An often politically innovative urban proletariat which appropriated urban land, as well as electricity and water, and often, although not always, turned it into a commons organised with a considerable degree of popular autonomy from state power is being recomposed into an individualized set of consumers safely warehoused on the urban periphery. The return to forced removals is a direct attack on people’s livelihoods, access to education and health care, desire for an urban life and identity as citizens. With regard to the latter it is worth recalling that the denial of the right to the city was a central part of the denial of citizenship to Africans under apartheid. Every successful eviction increases the already severe overcrowding in the spaces that survive and escalates competition for space that can take all sorts of forms including ethnic and racial conflict amongst South Africans.
Despite more than 3 years of vigorous protests by the grassroots left across the country against local party councillors and their ward committees the reality of political exclusion doesn’t have much elite currency. Civil society doesn’t always easily recognise that democracy isn’t only about elections and NGOs. People who appropriated or forged substantive rights to citizenship through the insurgent popular struggles of the 80s, or who were promised full social inclusion in Mandela’s image of the nation, now find that, what ever their identity documents may say, they have been excluded from a key aspect of substantive citizenship – the right to speak, to be heard and to co-determine their future. Developmental processes are overwhelmingly technocratic and expert driven and the party is, for the very poor, now a top down structure that is used more for social control than as a space for popular discussion.
In fact in many shack settlements party structures are the armed enforcers of state discipline. Many of the thousands of popular protests over the last few years (often clearly misnamed as ‘service delivery’ protests by both the NGO left and the state) were aimed at trying to subordinate local party structures and representatives to popular power. It has been very striking that in many of these protests the people organising them have declared that they have returned to struggle because they have, again, ‘been made foreigners in our own country’. This crisis in citizenship caused by a widespread exclusion from substantive citizenship has expressed itself in some remarkable mobilisations that have united people with and without legal citizenship to struggle to democratise society from below. But in the absence of democratic organisation it can also take the terrifying form of a desire to assert one’s own citizenship by turning on the ‘real’ non citizens. Keeping on keeping on
The popular democratic politics in which Neocosmos invests his theoretical hope is the practical politics that was able to defend and shelter people targeted in the May pogroms, and has previously, although covertly, offered the same protection from the state. It is a politics that moves from the bottom up and which the state and many NGOs, including those on the left, consider to be outside of professional civil society and its aspirations to manage the poor and, therefore, criminal. The police have been trying to beat it into submission since 2004.
Mbeki repressed the return of this politics and could travel to Haiti in his own jet. Aristide embraced this politics and was forced to leave Haiti in an American jet. But in Port-au-Prince and Johannesburg, against the odds, against the soldiers and the police, against the mob that have decided to become the police, against the expert and against the NGO it endures, fragile but alive.
Richard Pithouse, Durban. 16 June 2008