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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick & Desai, Ashwin & Ngwane, Trevor (2012) Popular protests still far from posing a genuine threat. Eye on Civil Society (The Mercury) : -.

Summary
Patrick Bond, Ashwin Desai and Trevor Ngwane
6 February 2012

As we enter a 2012 politically bookmarked by the African National Congress 100th birthday in January and its potentially dramatic – but more likely boring – leadership conference in December, let us first acknowledge that our society is among the most consistently contentious places on earth, with disruptive protests on a nearly constant basis.

In the wake of two decades of neoliberal policies which made the society more unequal than during even Apartheid, what are often called ‘service delivery protests’ occur many thousands of times a year, according to police statistics. These are, however, intensely localized and self-limited in their politics.

Many protesters operate in close interconnection with parts of the Tripartite Alliance, and the line between movements and governing organizations is not always clear. They also suffer from geographic and political isolation from each other.

As a result, national sources of the neoliberalism – the Treasury and most Cabinet decisions – are so far unaffected. Only a distant National Health Insurance promise, rising numbers of people on inadequate welfare grants, tokenistic ‘free basic services’ and three million badly-built, poorly-located, tiny houses let ANC leaders posture that they serve the masses.

Context is important, because poor and working people’s disorganisation reflects the new ‘precariat’ in society. Instead of a proletariat with the possibility of consciousness-formation and collective organisation forged in the massive factories and mines of yesteryear, our precarious economy is now characterized by diffusion, dispersion and deindustrialisation.

Some sectors – construction, finance and commerce – boomed but most former labour-intensive manufacturing sites either went bust, casualised jobs to labour brokers, replaced workers with machines, or shifted from general production for a local mass market to niche production for a global upper-class market, such as luxury autos and garments.

From sports stadia to shipping/airports to smelting, the recent major capital investments generated very little employment, especially in Durban. The new R24 billion oil pipeline to Johannesburg, for example, creates only 100 new permanent jobs.

Unevenness of development is also geographical, with small areas of South Africa operating within a circuit of luxury consumption and new technologies, but inner cities, rural areas and small towns continuing their decline.

Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma share the ‘two economies’ myth, that rising Sandton skyscrapers, suburban shopping complexes and office parks can be made to trickle wealth downwards. Mbeki bemoaned the ‘structural disconnection’ of poor areas to rich.

What any serious student of Apartheid can confirm, instead, is that over more than a century, our economic system was structurally connected in order to create poverty at one pole – especially Bantustans – as a condition for wealth at the other: the white man’s factories, fields and especially mines. Those who hired migrant workers would get a mostly uncompensated subsidy in child-rearing, healthcare and old age care from rural women.

The subsequent worker remittances, pension grants and child welfare payments did not reverse this dynamic, nor has slightly-increased post-apartheid state aid reached Southern Matabeleland or Mozambique from where so many new migrants hail.

The challenge for progressive politics is to create a common project from this unevenness, capable of transcending familiar tensions – urban/rural; worker/poor; local/national/global; society/nature; gender; etc. – in part by linking what are essential relations amongst these contradictions.

In many of the successful instances of protest – e.g., the reconnection of water and electricity, the rolling-back of privatization schemes (with Gauteng road tolls the big fight of 2012), or the reduction in the annual price of antiretrovirals from $15,000 per person to zero – relatively privileged townships like Chatsworth and Soweto were the initial sites of urban discontent. Leading activists were found amongst residents who already had houses, but were now fighting a defensive battle just to stay on in the ghettoes.

Initially, those in shacks clinging to a fragile urban existence appeared to be patient. The Alliance’s promises to the poor included access to the city, while at the same time, municipalities were evicting others for non-payment as unemployment increased to more than forty percent of the workforce.

For a while, the enormous historical prestige of the ANC explained this patience. But ongoing waves of protests broke across the country’s formal townships and shack settlements, beginning in 1999 when Fatima Meer’s critique of Durban’s misrule helped launch the ‘new urban social movements’.

Though the first waves ebbed after a huge national protest at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, more surges began from mid-2004 in impoverished Zevenfontein north of Johannesburg, in dorpies like Harrismith in the Free State, in Durban’s Kennedy Road shack settlement beginning in early 2005, and in border towns like Khutsong fighting provincial location decisions.

But not only did state repression inevitably follow, in many cases what started out as insurgencies outside the control of the Alliance were siphoned off into calls for participation, legal challenges, and ‘voice’.

Another of the striking elements of the protests is their failure to ‘scale up,’ or join together either geographically or politically. With some few exceptions, the recent upsurge of service-delivery protests have taken the form of ‘popcorn protests’, that is, community activism that flies high, moves according to where the wind blows – rightwards even in xenophobic, patriarchal or homophobic directions at times – and then falls to rest quite quickly.

Attempts at coordination since the early 2000s – Johannesburg’s Anti-Privatization Forum and the national Social Movements Indaba – suffered continual splintering and a failure to make common cause with the left of the labour movement, a problem that continues in the Democratic Left Front. So there have developed no common programmes and no bridging organisational strategies to challenge neoliberalism on a national level.

In a longer version of this essay (http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za), we dwell on three elements of this failure: the importance of access, localism, and leadership. We optimistically conclude that what appear to be debilitating divisions are more a symptom than a cause of the strategic impasse faced by South African urban movements. Internal tensions often come to the fore when there is no clear way forward for externally oriented action.

But pessimistically, we also observe that urban community movements are at once extraordinarily militant in actions and excessively moderate in politics, drawn – often counter-productively – to expanding rights through time-wasting litigation and creating coopted spaces for what we might call ‘inside-the-box participation’.

At a time parliament is steamrolling secrecy legislation – extending to anti-corruption whistle-blowing and even prohibitions on pollution alerts by the likes of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance – it is vital that social activists continue challenging the ruling party’s venal elements, which appear unreformable and ensconced in power.

Yet if a crisis consists in the fact that ‘the old is dying, but the new cannot yet be born’, it begs the question of what ‘the new’ will be and what its birthing process could look like. No, we don’t have clear answers, but if tensions continue rising, 2012 will provide some if we go beyond the media’s trivially-minded fascination with personality factionalism and listen more carefully to the society’s vast base of dispossessed people.


(Bond at UKZN, Desai at University of Johannesburg and Ngwane of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee wrote this as a contribution to a forthcoming book, Marxism and Social Movements)

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