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Publication Details

Reference
Berold, Robert  (2004) Review: We Are The Poors – Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Centre for Civil Society : 1-3.

Summary
The unruly social movements to the left of the ANC have become a permanent feature of South African politics since the mid-1990s. They were visible in the Anti-Poverty hearings, the Free Water campaign, the resistance to service cut-offs and the march at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit. The Landless People’s Movement’s No Vote campaign is a current reminder of their presence.

We are the Poors, published in the USA in 2002 and now released in South Africa, is the first book describing how poor communities have reacted to the consequences of South Africa's neoliberal economic policies. Author Ashwin Desai, who teaches at the Workers' College in Durban, is a community activist who has been a leader in many of the struggles described in the book. Desai could be described as one of the few remaining 'organic' intellectuals of the Left, one for whom analysis and praxis are inseparable. He has stayed with the marginal 'poors' and the result is this radical book that cuts right through the discourses of party politics and blacker-than-thou obfuscation.

According to Desai, the new community politics is not driven by the working class so much as by the underclass. It is more about survival than ideology. When it comes to being evicted from their homes, or having their water cut off, poor people are not taken in by the argument that there is no alternative. They know at least two things for sure – that they have the right to be treated decently, as human beings, and that their demands on local authorities are realistic.

The new social movements have not appeared overnight. They go back to the early 1990s. In the euphoria that followed the unbanning of the ANC, returning exiles took control of internal party structures, sidelining many internal leaders and the remnants of the UDF (United Democratic Front) and MDM (Mass Democratic Movement). Activism in poor communities was at a low ebb in the first years of the new democratic government. The hopes of the poor for a quick improvement in their livelihoods began to fade with growing unemployment, the government’s market-based land reform policy, and the user-pays policy for basic services.

Desai's story begins and ends in Chatsworth, the Durban Indian township built in the 1960s, with its two storey flats lined up in rows beside the South Coast railway line. When the ANC came to power in 1994, riding the slogan of 'a better life for all', the people of Chatsworth had high expectations. But the consequences of the ANC's economic policy choices soon began to hit on all sides. The government was inexplicably over-zealous in its embrace of neoliberalism, for example voluntarily phasing out tariffs for the clothing industry in eight years even though the World Trade Organisation allowed a twelve year phase-out. In a community where most were employed in the clothing and textile industry, this meant large-scale retrenchments. In the late 1990s unemployment in Chatsworth was running at 70%.

One of the first things the ANC-led city council did after the 1994 elections was increase rents, water and electricity charges. Costs for water, rent and electricity averaged R400 a month and, not surprisingly, most people in Chatsworth were in arrears. Eviction notices were issued, although at first they were not followed up. But in 1996, and again in 1998, evictions were carried out with the aid of police and private security forces.

In 1999 Fatima Meer came to Chatsworth to canvass for ANC votes. Instead of listening to her, residents demanded she to listen to them. They challenged Professor Meer and her Concerned Citizens Group (CCG) to forget about the politics of voting and transform itself into a pressure group for civic associations. The CCG was quickly convinced, and joined with the residents to demand the cancellation of the huge accumulation of rent arrears, and to hold off evictions, reconnect water and electricity and upgrade houses.

Over the next two years the people of Chatsworth become more and more organised and skilled in the tactics of resistance. Desai relates how in 2000 the sheriff of the court, backed up by police and security guards converged on the houses of three arrears defaulters. The community blocked the way to the houses. They asked for 30 minutes to try and obtain a court interdict. This was refused: instead, the police responded with live ammunition and a baton charge. But they did not succeed in making an eviction. Indian women stood in the line of fire to protect an African family. "We are not Indians" one woman had said when challenged about their 'un-Indian' behaviour "we are the poors". Racial consciousness had changed in Chatsworth. People resisted water cut-offs in a similar way.

Other initiatives took off in other parts of the country. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Campaign began reconnecting electricity illegally using 'struggle electricians', and also, in a daring move, disconnected the water of Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo. In Tafelsig, an area of high unemployment in Cape Town, an anti-eviction campaign was launched. In Mpumulanga Kwazulu-Natal, the community went on an innovative protest march – 10 000 people waving R10 notes, demanding to pay R10 and no more for their monthly services.

In a chapter on the pressures on employed workers under global capitalism, Desai details the strikes at Volkswagen in Uitenhage, and Engen in Wentworth, close to Chatsworth. At Volkswagen the workers went on strike against their own union, NUMSA, to protest against a sell-out labour deal to make the company more competitive globally, which NUMSA officials had signed. At Engen, workers went on strike to protest against the company's use of contracted labour brokers as a way of getting round the labour laws.

The World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in 2001 provided a focus for all these local activists to oppose the global pressures that were bearing down on them indirectly. Over 20 000 people took to the streets of Durban. It was the first mass rally against the ANC government since it took power in 1994. 'Mbeki is a liar' shouted the banners. 'ANC is an agent of global apartheid' . 'Durban Social Forum says Phansi GEAR'.

Desai writes evocatively about the 'rich, complex, imperfect and sensuous collectivity' of the community movements. He describes how youth culture, women's solidarity and religious organisations have all contributed to this energy. As he puts it, the traditional left, by focussing on ideological correctness and a philosophy of domination, "has been unable to recognise the teeming life in between. Life! The practice of left organisation in South Africa had become so disconnected from the dreams, desires and emotions of ourselves and the people … as to be completely ineffective."

Publication by the prestigious Monthly Review Press means that We are the Poors will be read internationally, but it really needs to be published locally, at a price and distribution that brings it within the reach of the people who need to read it – meaning most of us. Perhaps Desai will do an updated version. If so, let us hop he even further his storytelling method of texture and dialogue (life! in fact) that he already does so well.

Desai concludes "Only a few years after 'national liberation' the community organisations are developing a form of class politics, but imbued with passions beyond left politics. This movement has a world-historical sense of itself but focuses on combat with local enemies and thrives on small victories. We are at that precarious point in South African history where something precious and powerful is coming into being." The struggle can and will continue.

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