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Publication Details

Reference
Pithouse, Richard (2006) “Our struggle is thought, on the ground, running” the university of Abahlali Basemjondolo. Centre for Civil Society Research Report 41: 1-43.

Summary
The thing becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
-
The inception of a politics – of its statements, prescriptions, judgements and practices – is always located in the absolute singularity of an event.
- Alain Badiou, Metapolitics

What social democracy has not given the order to fire when the poor come out of their territory or ghetto? Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?

Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban shack dwellers’ movement is, at the time of writing, a year from its founding event. In this year the Abahlali have withstood systematic state repression, including 84 arrests on criminal charges, to grow from a struggle begun by a few hundred people in one settlement to a movement that has mobilised tens of thousands of people in settlements across the city. The Abahlali are committed to the day to day practice of democracy where people live. They have democratised settlements, created political autonomy resolutely independent of political parties and the state, introduced all kinds of innovation into popular political culture, won space for shack dwellers’ voices in elite publics and forced the eThekwini Municipality’s slum clearance policy into a legitimation crisis. However, the various levels of ANC government are determined to limit democracy to the stage managed spectacle of elections and to stigmatise the popular practice of democracy as anti-national. There is a battle on.

The material lines across which this battle is waged are not new - Frantz Fanon called the shanty town the gangrene of colonialism and the colonial city was often in part a displacement of the European slum. There is a history here. There is also a future. Mike Davis’s apocalyptic polemics have recently alerted many to the fact that almost a billion people now live in shack settlements and that the number is gowing rapidly in absolute and relative terms. Davis reports the material conditions of many (although certainly not all)3 shanty towns accurately – many people do make their lives in dense conglomorations of flimsy structures built on shit amongst pollution and always at risk from diarrhoea, fire and overnments. But Davis generally fails to represent the humanity of shack dwellers and ometimes collapses into the enduring reality of outright racism.

Both the scale of the growth of the shanty town in the post-colony and Davis’s confident assumption that he can be left without taking the thinking of the objects of his research seriously means that Davis retrospectively haunts Fanon’s ultimate optimism. But the enduring liberatory power of Fanon’s radical humanism also haunts Davis. While Davis tells his readers that it is structural adjustment that produces the rapid growth of contemporary slums his methodology is not sufficiently dissimilar to that of the World Bank, UN, donor agencies and their consultants. He certainly departs from their consensus in that he sees poverty as an historical rather than an ontological condition. But, like the consultants, Davis aims to be a scientist, a subject gazing down at objects, rather than a partisan and hence a subject amongst subjects. He is just plain wrong to believe the consultants and their surveys and to argue that the left is missing from the slum. He is equally wrong to assume, as he does, that the left, the left of the 11th
thesis, the left of the battles that are always already on, is missing from the academy.

In Lagos, in Istanbul, in Sao Paulo, in Bombay there are people who write in the mode of the academy from within resistances – from within militant engagement in particular collective openings, quetionings and movements - that no counting or theorising from above in the name of the global that is not attentive to the lived experience of the singularities of situations will ever be able to measure or contemplate

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