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Political Work: The Holy Spirit and the Labours of Activism in the shadows of Durban's Refineries: Sharad Chari



If you flew in to the port city of Durban, or Ethekwini Unicity, you might not miss the petrochemical refineries next to the runway, but you might miss two small communities that live cheek-by-jowl with heavy industry. These communities, consolidated in an incongruous industrial-residential landscape by the violence of Apartheid spatial planning, are the ‘Indian’ township of Merebank and the ‘Coloured’ ownship of Wentworth.2 On two sides of Duranta Road, and with roughly similar populations (about 27,000 for Wentworth and 21,000 for Merebank in 2001), these communities have been shaped in similar ways in some respects and in profoundly different ways in others.3 What is more, though both have lived with similar indignities, such as breathing benzene all their lives, and although Merebank’s residents have only slightly higher household incomes, and slightly lower unemployment levels4, Wentworth today is a hotbed of political activism while Merebank is relatively quiescent. Wentworth has over time become a ghetto in the analytical sense proposed by Wacquant (2004) as shaped by stigma, constraint, spatial confinement and institutional containment.5 Although its residents have come from all over South Africa, this diverse product of the attempt to legislate against ‘miscegenation’ is now mired in the poverties of place. Across the road, Merebank’s quiescence emerges from a very different history of space, through which a former village on the outskirts of Durban has been pulled apart and has become part of the cultural political economic fortunes offered by the new South Africa.

Rather than a tale of two townships, what I narrate are divergent histories of space through which livelihoods and senses of belonging have been shrinking into a ghetto on the one hand, and broadening into South Africa’s broader circuits of class and social citizenship.
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