Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Political Meaning of the Attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo

Michael Neocosmos, Interactivist

The background and consequences of the recent violent destruction of the Kennedy Road organisation of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) movement of shack dwellers by a combination of gangs recruited for the purpose, police action and local and regional ANC structures needs to be analysed at some depth. The reason is that this event and the actions surrounding it by various state apparatuses have major consequences for the democracy and citizenship rights which have been painfully fought for and constructed through popular struggle in this country over many years, but particularly during the popular upsurge of the 1980s. At this stage, AbM is trying to reconstitute itself in response to the ongoing attacks on its key militants but it is not yet clear how the attacks will change the movement.

I want to attempt to make sense of how the South African state – which calls itself a democracy – could come to a situation where it could largely condone (there has been no official condemnation of the events of September-October 2009 at Kennedy Road by any state official, so we can only conclude that these actions are condoned by the state and the state party) the state deployment of violence and murder on an organisation of the poor which has systematically engaged in peaceful protests and advocated peaceful alternatives to the dominant form of politics in Durban and elsewhere.[1] This is particularly significant because the AbM have organised in the tradition of the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s by stressing an all-inclusive conception of citizenship and the nation, precisely along the lines of the Freedom Charter, which has been said to be at the core of ANC thinking on the transformation of South African society and the state.

I will do this by identifying a number of historical political sequences of nationalist politics in South Africa (SA) since the 1990s and will suggest that at the root of the problem of the state reaction to AbM has been not simply a failure of democracy, but a systematic failure of citizenship and of the nation. The sequences are defined in terms of the dominant political subjectivities/discourses at the level of the state, they do not correspond to the period in office of particular presidents although, given the power of presidents to determine the character of state discourse, it is clear that the specific presidential incumbent has had a dominant effect on its construction.

We need to start with ‘non-racialism’ as the name or signifier of a nationalist politics prevalent in the 1980s. The nation then was understood and could only be understood as an exclusively political conception not one founded on any social category of any sort. While this affirmation originated within Black Consciousness, it was developed to the fullest by the UDF and in its revival of the Freedom Charter so that it constituted a new framework for political thought.

The core of this understanding was the idea that SA belongs to all, and that the members of the nation were not to be defined by any social category but were comprised of all those who consistently fought for ‘the struggle’ irrespective of race, social background or even birth in SA. No one stopped to ask whether you were born in Lesotho and whether you were South African enough to be involved in the struggle. This purely political quality of the nation is made clear in Allan Boesak’s reminiscences in his recent book ‘Running with Horses’. His work is significant as he was a co-founder and main leader of the UDF in the 1980s. ‘The only real criterion [for membership of the UDF] was genuine commitment to the struggle’ (Boesak, 2009: 157). Freedom, democracy and justice within the nation were all purely a matter of belief and had to be practiced as the struggle unfolded in the here and now. It is clear that non-racialism required constant commitment and agency in order to be established; it was a statement of a universal politics. The foundation of the UDF provided the conditions for the universal political practice of non-racialism to be realised (this does not simply that empirically such non-racialism was uniformly adhered to); it becomes the condition of possibility of such a universal which is consequently in Badiou’s terms ‘anobjective’, an ‘incalculable emergence rather than a describable structure’ (Badiou, 2009: 26,28).

Non-racialism was not something that could be ‘delivered’ from above, and outside political agency. It could only be achieved through political action; it is in this sense that it can be maintained that the concept of the nation during this period was purely political and not social, as it existed only in thought, in the ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ of the activists engaged in such politics. The replacement of ‘non-racialism’ by ‘multiracialism’ or the ‘rainbow nation’ in the 1990s suggested the end of such a political conception of the nation and its replacement by a social understanding now propagated by the new state. This new nation could now be ‘delivered’ or ‘built’. In other words delivery implies the de-politicisation of the nation and if you like of its ‘socialisation’ or ‘objectivisation’ which can now be empirically described, analysed and measured. Such a process was not unique to the South African experience but is a common characteristic of the transition from emancipatory to state politics or from politics properly conceived as thought to the social as the objective foundation of state politics (or from a universal politics to a politics founded on interest; Fanon shows this transition in the form of one from Pan-Africanism to chauvinism for example; it can also be understood as the transition from political principles to the politics of command, opportunism and corruption, what Badiou calls the general lesson of Thermidor).

The New South Africa must be understood as beginning in 1990 and not in 1994, because in that year not only is the ANC unbanned but it enters the state and no important government decision is taken without its knowledge and involvement. Elections by universal suffrage in 1994 only legitimate the status quo compromise established over the years 1990-94 and do not inaugurate a new state form as such. In any case the government established after 1994 was a government of national unity, which allowed for a ‘transition period’ of joint control of the state by outgoing and incoming state parties and elites. The main post-1990 state political sequences can be briefly outlined as follows:

1) From 1990 to 1996: This could be named ‘the celebratory, nationalist social democratic and human rights sequence’. Its proper name is Mandela (and his Madiba shirts); it lasts until 1996 and the systematic introduction of neo-liberal thought and the dragging of the country into globalised hegemonic neo-liberal economics and politics. Until that date there had been a contradiction between statist nationalism – a ‘natural’ outcome of the previous sequence of non-racialism dominated by the UDF within a cold war developmentalist discourse – and the growing dominance of economic neo-liberalism as the New RSA was born as Bush senior’s ‘new world order’ was being established. The RDP had been an expression of a kind of statist developmentalist Keynesianism, which the erstwhile nationalism of the ‘cold war’ period had encouraged for newly independent states; it found itself overtaken by the new global hegemonic discourse of the ‘Washington consensus’ and was largely still-born. However these changes did not just concern ‘economic policy’ but much more broadly, they signalled an adherence to the building of consensus around a neo-liberal state, which it was believed could be checked through ‘civil society’ interest representation (the organisational inheritors of the UDF political tradition which were no longer seen as political or universal but simply as interest-bearing expressions of social groupings) could perform a ‘watchdog’ role and that ‘civil society’ and especially but not exclusively the COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) unions – could then provide a counter-pressure to government (this provided a justification for abandoning their erstwhile popular politics associated with the UDF in the 1980s and which constituted the main reason for liberation). In this manner a non-racial, non-sexist and for some ‘non-class’ democracy could be constructed. A number of corporatist structures (the most important of which was Nedlac in its final form) were set up and these simply integrated civil society organisations into state politics as civil society itself had wished. Broadly speaking, the organisations ‘of civil society’ which begin to operate during this sequence and the next (Anti-Privatisation Forum, Treatment Action Campaign etc) whether they be NGOs or social movements locate their politics within a framework in alignment with state politics and within a problematic of delivery as they tend to be dominated by professionals and intellectuals whose politics remain within the confines of classist conceptions (Keynesian or Marxist).

This sequence saw the final killing off of the remnants of an independent politics embodied previously in the UDF and approved by the ANC; the idea of non-racialism strongly rooted in BC (see Boesak, 2009) was gradually replaced by ‘the rainbow nation’ (‘of God’ according to Tutu’s original formulation) i.e. a form of ‘multi-culturalism’ of the liberal variety which eschewed a politics of national unification in favour of a simple ‘toleration’ or ‘recognition’ of existing cultural differences which of course remain untransformed (and thus essentialised) and hence obstacles to a national construction which implies unity in diversity – the state contributed to this in its gathering of statistics as apartheid racial categories were retained in a simplified form, viz. African, White, Coloured, Indian. Moreover these given unchanging ‘cultures’ can then provide the basis for nativism as well as for racism, so that apartheid divisions become even more entrenched. Concurrently the TRC process transforms the agents of the 1980s into supplicants for state help and ultimately pardons perpetrators more than it ‘empowers’ victims. Finally, democracy during this period becomes the name given to the new state (democracy is understood as a form of state from 1994 onwards according to a number of technical features), rather than to the form of politics which had been developing among the people especially from 1984 to1986; in other words democracy is no longer understood to refer to a form of politics but to a form of state.

By 1996, although frustrated by Mandela’s unilateral assertion without discussion that GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy) was fundamental ANC policy, civil society had fully agreed to form part of state political subjectivity. The nationalist grievances (for which the struggle had been fought including urban needs such as jobs and houses), were now to be addressed through the consensus of the state-civil society nexus. Convinced by the arguments of the IFIs and African-American businessmen, the dominant faction of the ANC leadership fell for the idea that the market rather than the state would be the basis of freedom in RSA, that state democracy rather than state nationalism would form the basis of both state and society.

2) From 1996 to 2008, this sequence could be called the ‘sequence of elite construction’ dominated by apparently a politically neutral expert/technical statism whose proper name is Mbeki and where the contradictions in state thought (especially between state nationalism and state democracy) are not always successfully papered over let alone resolved; when democracy and African state nationalism (more and more communitarian as indigeneity is stressed as opposed to democratic nationalism) are in central contradiction within state=ANC’s=Mbeki’s thought which dominates political discourse (e.g. Zimbabwe, the Press and racism, HIV/AIDS, Nepad and African Renaissance, Affirmative Action/BEE, Native Club, ‘ultra-leftism’, etc ) and when there is a growing denialism of growing communitarianism and xenophobia resulting precisely from an emphasis on indigeneity and other forms of identity politics developing more and more in this period as a result of state-sanctioned ‘nativism’ while the rest of the African continent is simply seen as a backward place to be led and acted upon, not to be a part of.

The new bourgeoisie is only interested in stressing its ‘Africanness’ in relation to whites in South Africa, not in relation to other Africans. There is a systematic state failure to unite the people behind a conception of a national community let alone behind a pan-African vision. The pathetic attempts to do so are treated with derision, and Ubuntu even though potentially a great unifying idea, finds no real root among the popular psyche and remains an empty slogan to be distorted by commercialism (with the notable exception of a small number of Constitutional Court judgements).

At the same time there is a growing rift within different statist politics represented by neo-liberal language, through which it is expected that the market will level economic differences (through ‘trickle down’) (with the help of Affirmative Action and a Black Economic Empowerment of a totally individualistic kind); while increasing evidence of corruption and speculative deals by those with state connections on the one hand and increasing poverty undercutting the power of civil society especially unions on the other become apparent. The tide of resistance within the ANC to what are seen as the pro-capital policies of Mbeki take-off with the sacking of Zuma from his position of deputy president as a court finds him tainted by corruption and imprisons his ‘financial advisor’ Shabir Shaik. It begins in 2005, builds up through various trials in 2006 and finally comes to power within the ANC at the end 2007 at Polokwane, when Mbeki is removed from power. Throughout his trials Zuma uses Zulu ethnic ‘culture’ as part of his defence and crowds are bussed outside the courts to support him and to chant derogatory slogans against his opponents (including crass sexist ones – the silence of the feminists within the upper echelons of the ANC was deafening and practically total apart from a very small number of lower ranking women in the party). The vision of a ‘non-racist’, non-sexist’ (and as some had optimistically mentioned ‘non-class’!) democratic society gradually disappears apart from in its crude formalistic sense. In fact all vision disappears under a cloak of petty corruption and scramble for resources while the judiciary is subjected to attacks of various sorts.

The emphasis on nativism to ensure BEE deals for the most ‘previously disadvantaged’=most ‘native’ and the tying of a nationalist project to accumulation by a chosen few, rather than to a popular conception wherein all the people could be brought together to engage in more communal schemes of a national character, not only provided the conditions for increased poverty but also for an impoverished communitarian nationalism which was regularly directed against non-nationals and which finally exploded massively in May 2008. This therefore constitutes the beginning of a new sequence. During this period the establishment of local ‘community’ power structures, some based on previous ones, (street committees) others founded on the distortion of originally democratic structures (e.g. Community Policing Forums, Ward Committees and Branch Electoral Committees which are often the same thing) lead to local social relations being dominated by local power brokers who require local ANC support and networks in order to ensure the reproduction of patron-client relations and power of both political and economic kinds. In other words elections, support, community organisations, and political parties at local level all combine to form (a standard for many countries) a process of power ‘clientelism’ at local level involving councillors, police, regional and sometimes national MPs (‘slumlords’ often in alliance with local politicians) which becomes a systematic threat to the democratic expression of grievances and to popular nationalism, but which it seems is seen as the only legitimate way of conducting local politics in the eyes of the state. Allan Boesak was rightfully indignant and disgusted at Mandela’s insistence on seeing only the ‘Coloured politics’ of ethnic opportunism and ‘wheeling and dealing’ in the Cape, rather than the democratic principled alternatives which the UDF had managed to construct (op.cit.:30).

Local politics then becomes run by local mafias so that serious attempts to develop a local politics founded on basic democratic norms, constantly butts against these repressive relations with which it comes into conflict. The most important of such politics is invented by AbM and a few others who discover the need to break from the politics of corruption associated with party politics. The revolt in the ANC, which removes Mbeki at Polokwane, does not alter this state of affairs; it merely changes the actors at a higher level but not the modus operandi at the base, which the top actors need for their survival and that of the ANC in power. Popular discontent with such politics, which enables both corruption and exclusion, becomes expressed more and more in communitarian forms as, in the absence of truly democratic alternatives as in AbM which are quite rare, no other avenue for the expression of popular grievances is left open. This frustration combined with identity politics of a non-religious kind finds its expression in communitarian forms of violence, most particularly in May 2008, where foreigners are killed and expelled ostensibly for ‘economic reasons’.

This sequence saw a failure in both state provisioning – quite predictable, given the failure to address national demands for jobs and housing in a neo-liberal context – and a failure of national politics and citizenship. This has been principally a failure of the state, and particularly, but not uniquely, a failure of the ANC as the main state party.

3) The current ‘communitarian sequence’ is inaugurated within the country in May 2008 (before the elections of 2009 which brought Zuma to power) with xenophobic pogroms of African foreigners and continues with ‘community protests’ – so-called ‘service delivery’ protests, which concern political but parochial concerns of communities. Initial research shows that while clearly these protests are not simply about increasing the speed of state ‘delivery’ and more about people in poor communities being systematically ignored by the state in terms of social provisioning and material resources, they are politically contradictory. On the one hand they assert the need to be taken seriously politically, on the other their ideology seems to be dominated by narrow interest politics at best, and by identity or communitarianism and xenophobic politics at worse. The absence of consistent democratic politics in these forms of protest is quite palpable. This sequence continues and is expressed in the ethnic mobilisation against AbM in September/October 2009.

AbM is unique in its development of non-state, non-party politics at a distance from all state modes of thought and founded on a universal conception of citizenship in which the statement of the Freedom Charter that South Africa belongs to all who live in it provides the basis of an alternative universal truly democratic politics in line with those of the UDF. The name of these politics is no longer ‘non-racialism’ but a ‘living politics’, but its foundation in subjectivity remains the same. The ‘living politics’ which they espouse is a purely subjective notion founded on belief and faith, and is not reducible to any social category other than ‘the poor’. Among all the organisations ‘of civil society’ which saw the light of day during the previous sequence, AbM is the only one to have developed such a politics of the universal and has thus positioned itself beyond the pale of civil society itself.

After its destruction in Kennedy Road, the state asserted that it was an illegitimate organisation, even though it had mass support in the community and that the ANC structures the state imposed by force were legitimate. Clearly this legitimacy refers to legitimacy in the eyes of the state and not in those of the people. This is precisely why AbM can be said to exist beyond civil society. The overall result is that the democratic politics of the AbM had become a threat to the patron-client relations on which local politics is founded as well as to the state-civil society consensus around which the politics of stakeholders are deployed. AbM has managed to provide a universal conception of citizenship and the nation where the state has proved itself singularly incapable of doing so. The vision of another world in the here and now (viz the ‘all here and now’ of Boesak’s speech at the launch of the UDF in 1983) proposed by AbM has succeeded in providing leadership where the state has failed and has been quite unable to provide such a vision for the country. Not surprisingly then, the state found AbM an ideological threat in Kwazulu-Natal.

The attack on AbM amounts to an attack on a universal democratic alternative of the kind which mobilised the politics of liberation of this country, and precisely on the popular democratic traditions of the UDF type and which had been in the past embraced by the ANC. The attack on AbM also shows how ethnic slogans today can be mobilised for reactionary and repressive ends justified often by chauvinistic slogans (the democratic nation and the citizen turning into their opposite, from a universal to a narrow social category).

The attack on AbM in Kennedy Road is bound to affect politics generally in a reactionary direction, not simply because it threatens the form of state which calls itself a democracy, but also because it does so in a way that legitimises authoritarian communitarianism. It must be stressed that it was not the police that initially broke up the Kennedy road organisation and its politics, but thugs chanting ethnic chauvinist slogans. Although AbM has always been a peaceful and non-violent organisation, the violent attack on Kennedy Road was initially successfully repelled by the community; the police then came in and arrested those that had organised the resistance thus allowing the attack to then succeed and the homes of all AbM leaders to be demolished.

Of course the police have been used as agents of the interests of local powerful figures and political ‘lords’ and came in later to ensure that ‘calm returned’ in a manner which excluded AbM from Kennedy Road: i.e. by allowing the ethnic thugs to continue their rampage unhindered. This attack denotes a failure of nationalism and citizenship and not only a failure of democracy. The outcomes of these changes are such as to suggest that, in this current sequence, some people have the right to rights and others do not. In this sense, the democratic practice of popular politics which has enabled in the case of AbM the formation of a politics based purely on the subjective belief that a better world is possible and that what South Africans fought for must be taken seriously, is simply sacrificed at the altar of an apparently democratic state whose modus operandi is light years removed from what South Africans did indeed fight and die for.

In this latest sequence in SA hegemonic politics, it seems more legitimate to deploy ethnic politics than to insist on universal conceptions of citizenship and the nation – this has been exacerbated by Zuma’s coming to power and his espousal of ethnic politics evident during his various trials, but it began independently of his rise.

At the same time, there is evidence of police engaging more and more in raiding poor communities (along with an emphasis on the militarisation of the police and ‘shoot to kill’ policies by the new government ostensibly to combat crime). The idea here is no longer ‘community policing’, itself heavily compromised by its xenophobia and its control by local power brokers, but conceiving of communities as enemy territory as under colonial forms of state.

The police raid usually for a short period and the intention seems to be to instil fear into a community. They knock down doors as if they are on enemy territory, beat people up (men and women), sometimes arrest people on trumped up charges – and often simply release them a few days later as no charges have been laid. A recent example of this is the Pemary Ridge Police attacks. There is no way this can be justified as crime-fighting. It is an expression of a particular form of state politics akin to the politics of colonialism and apartheid, where a certain section of the community is considered as the enemy. Who is the enemy in this case? Recall that for the apartheid state, the liberation struggle was simply criminal, to be dealt with by a policing action. Is the enemy the urban poor? Is it the organised urban poor? Is the idea to try to force people out of their areas before the Football World Cup? On whose orders are the police acting? The fact that this is probably on the orders of local and regional politicians suggests a disastrous move towards a form of politics similar to chiefly politics in the rural areas, hence with one more similarity to communitarianism, although the political signifiers need not always be evidently ethnic.

The politics of human rights has been gradually displaced by a politics of communitarianism and by the division of the South African population into two broad groups, in which those who have the right to rights are attempting to construct a consensus founded on a state politics of systematic plunder of collective resources and oppression of the poor who have to suffer, not only economically but also by being deprived of the right to rights, and being forced against their will into patronage relations necessary for the former elites to exercise their rights.

The situation is quite simply disastrous and a major catastrophe is simply waiting to happen, as citizenship rights have been systematically eroded and people lack the medium to express their grievances. In the words of Allan Boesak’s book on which reflection is urgently required: ‘this is precisely the tragic situation our country faces today. When one strays from the path of non-racialism, one inexorably moves into the camp of ethnic nationalism. Or one is pulled in... We then begin to fear when there is nothing to fear’ (Boesak, 1990: 398).

How can a way forward begin to be thought? This question has to be answered both at the level of the state and at that of society. At the level of the state, it seems that the country is crying out for a vision, an idea as to where it is going. The original idea of a non-racial, non-sexist democratic society has simply fizzled out and the state by its total monopoly of transformation has made it impossible to involve ordinary people in such a process even though they had been involved in the 1980s. It is this enforced exclusion by the state that arguably lies at the root of recent protests, as people were given the impression that things would be different when a new ‘left-leaning’ government was in power. At the level of the state, a national dialogue is required to develop/rekindle a vision and to assert just what is and what is not permissible in terms of political behaviour. The professionalisation of the police and its independence from local power elites is crucial for this process, which otherwise would not impact on people at the base.

At the level of society, what is required is not the creation of a ‘working class party’ – such a move would only take us backward as the issue is not one of ‘taking power’ – but perhaps an umbrella organisation of popular political organisations and the development of a mass non-party politics ‘at a distance’ from state subjectivities. The issue is not so much the ‘Zanufication’ of the ANC, as Jeremy Cronin had noted with regard to Mbeki’s ANC in 2005 – although his description of authoritarian trends in the party have been largely borne out – but the fact that all party politics is statist and corrupt within the period of globalisation, where the distinction between state and market has largely collapsed.

The ‘left-right’ dichotomy that had oriented our political thinking is itself no longer useful in a period of consensual politics among state parties. The point of politics should therefore not be aimed at controlling the state, but at developing a universal politics beyond the state. AbM has recognised this and was subject to attack simply because it was small and isolated within single communities such as Kennedy Road. A much more extensive network and larger organisation (within which affiliates can operate independently within criteria applicable to all which have to be established) is clearly necessary. Moreover, in order for there to be a counter to the politics of patronage at local level, more AbMs (not ATMs!) are necessary. The politicisation of communities in this fashion would also ensure eventually a gradual understanding of the common interests of the poor and of all the population in an open society. A moral community of active citizens could thus be constructed.

A democratic state worthy of the name can only be a state which provides conditions for the independent operation of popular organisations within mutually agreed limits to be established jointly at a national conference. Leadership can only be established in dialogue with these independent organisations and the way forward must be found jointly and not imposed by state institutions and power. In the absence of this kind of process, the country will remain in perennial crisis.

* Michael Neocosmos is honorary professor in global movements at Monash University, Australia and South Africa.
* The author is grateful to Richard Pithouse for encouragement and detailed comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. He is however solely responsible for all errors and oversights in this text.


AbM various documents and press releases to be found on
Badiou, A. 2009 ‘Thinking the Event’ in A. Badiou and S. Zizek Philosophy in the Present, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Boesak, A, 2009 Running with Horses: reflections of an accidental politician, Cape Town: Joho Press.
Gibson, N and Patel, R 2009 ‘Democracy’s everyday death: South Africa's quiet coup’ Pambazuka News, Issue 451.


[1] On the recent events at Kennnedy Road, see Nigel Gibson and Raj Patel ‘Democracy’s everyday death: South Africa's quiet coup’, Pambazuka News, 2009-10-08, Issue 451
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