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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick (2004) South Africa’s Resurgent Urban Social Movements The Case of Johannesburg, 1984, 1994, 2004. Centre for Civil Society Research  Report No. 22: 1-34.

Summary
This year is important in part because we commemorate the liberation of South Africa from apartheid ten years ago. However, if we go back another ten years, to 1984, we may learn a great deal more about prospects for more thorough-going social justice, here in South Africa and globally. As is well known, the resurgence of anti-apartheid struggle after the dark years of the 1960s began here in Durban with the trade union upsurge of 1973, and simultaneously moved through black consciousness student/community organising and the Soweto youth revolt in 1976. The protest movement took an explicitly urban form through the example of civic associations in Port Elizabeth townships during the late 1970s, inspired in part by Saul Alinsky’s ‘people’s power’ model of ghetto organising, translated by Manila-based organic intellectuals and Jesuits.

But I will focus on experiences I am more familiar with: within South Africa’s primary megalopolis, in the spirit of commemorating the 1984 Vaal civic battles that catalysed the formation of hundreds of similar social movements in Gauteng and across the country. As a site to consider civil society’s recent development, greater Johannesburg is notable in many respects, not least because the specifically ‘urban’ and ‘global’ come together through challenges to municipal, national and even international socio-political processes.

South African civil society has long been deemed a highly contested terrain, not amenable to the traditional liberal definitions, such as: ‘the non-market sphere of organisational life lying between the family and state.’ From the early 1990s, attempts to add radical analysis via a reading of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks – specifically, his concern that civil society, endowed with status quo features because of capitalist hegemony, acted as the outer trenches protecting the fortress of the bourgeois state -- led to the idea of ‘working-class civil society’ more consistent with the traditions of ‘dual power’ and ‘organs of people’s power’ provided by the 1970s-80s anti- partheid movements.2 It is in this spirit that the following pages unfold, although obviously there have been many more attempts to understand South African civil society through existing literatures of social movements, civil society and the ‘third sector,’ as noted below. Invariably, South African politics and ideology overwhelm the typical institutional and functional considerations that are more common within international civil society debates.

One reason is that since even before coming to ower in 1994, important factions within the country’s ruling party -- the African National Congress (ANC) -- attempted to use civil society for its own ends or to demobilise grassroots organisations, and when that did not uniformly succeed, to demonise them as reactionary (as was common in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands during the early 1990s) or more recently as ‘ultraleftists’ or ‘popcorn civics’ (that pop up suddenly and immediately fall back). However, the most crucial basis for the politicisation of civil society in Johannesburg was the late 1990s decision by city managers to welcome corporate globalisation and all that it entails, after several difficult years in which central government in Pretoria had subjected the economy to trade and financial liberalisation. Civil society critics allege that because more privileges were given to investors and wealthy residents as a function of the desire to be a world-class city, the material grievances of low-income people were not only mainly ignored, but their organisations were actively demobilised and then repressed.

The context is worth dwelling upon, even briefly. Our focus is on uneven access to municipal services, a problem that has, recently, generated enormous ferment amongst the citizenry (Section 2). Then, after an international and local literature review (Section 3), the story of Johannesburg’s resurgent civil society must be told dating from the upsurge of urban social movement mobilisation in the mid- 1980s (Section 4).

Following a period of mid-1990s civic movement decay, the resurgence of Johannesburg residents’ organisations in the late 1990s was correlated to global pressures on city finances and policies, especially in relation to the distribution and regulation of housing, water and electricity. The city’s ‘Igoli 2002’ strategy caused massive conflict with trade unions and a new generation of community groups that came to be federated in the Anti-Privatisation Forum. The single most spectacular event that reflected the contemporary tensions between Johannesburg’s world-city aspirations and local civil society activists was the August 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Because of split loyalties between important civil society groups, including nationally-headquartered trade unions and NonGovernmental Organisations, the story is complex, but nevertheless crucial to evaluating how Johannesburg municipality might fare when seeking not only future events of such global stature, but also the desired status of ‘world city‘ (Section 5).

So too are the political implications of the ruling party’s increasing distance from its base. This distance portends problems in maintaining hegemony for many years to come, and helps explain the virulent reaction by government officials to the resurgent civil society activism – a phenomenon which is probably best conceived as being for the ‘globalisation of people’, and against ‘the globalisation of capital’ (Section 6).

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