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Publication Details

Reference
Barchiesi, Franco Gago, Veronica Sztulwark, Diego (2004) “South Africa: Popular Forms of Resistance” Interview with Franco Barchiesi. Interactivist Info Exchange : -.

Summary
It is called operation “Khanyisa”, which means “switch-on” or “connect”. It is a mass practice that is implemented daily in South Africa and it consists of reconnecting basic services that have been suspended due to non payment. It is something not very different from what is going on in many neighbourhoods and communities of the Buenos Aires province. Attracted by this and other similarities, the Italian political analyst Franco Barchiesi -- lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg -- has come to Argentina. He is researching movements of resistance to privatisation in South Africa in relation with the unfulfilled promises of the government of Nelson Mandela and his successors, the first case, as he says, of “national liberation” to take place in times of globalisation. Barchiesi, 34, is one of the editors of the magazine “Debate – Voices from the South African Left”, was active in the Italian social centres and is currently taking part in various anti-neoliberal initiatives in South Africa.


First, let’s locate a turning point in recent South African history: “The April 1994 elections, with the victory of the African National Congress (ANC) and the rise of Nelson Mandela to the presidency marked the beginning of the transition from apartheid to a regime of formal representative democracy. That event was very significant for debates on the fate of the nation state in the age of globalisation because, in fact, the difference with past experiences of liberation is that these established a link between anti-colonial programmes and the aspiration to non-capitalist paths to development. The ANC victory with 62% of the vote, which became 67% in the 1999 elections, reflected a massive popular demand for a programme that combined a nationalist discourse with the promise of a “developmentalist” role for the state to address huge social inequalities.”

- And what was the outcome of this aspiration?

“Today, after eight years, the political myth of the post-apartheid state is in a deep crisis and many of its preconditions and compromises seem to have been abandoned or reconfigured in a very distinct, often contradictory, way. Currently, one third of the rural population and one fourth of the urban one have no access whatsoever to basic services, like education, water, electricity. As a consequence we have a state of “endemic rebellion”, with frequent revolts in rural and urban communities against the ANC government. In these places, in fact, the government “contracts” the police and private security to cut off connections to basic services for those who cannot pay. The state comes to be perceived by the mass of excluded as a force of occupation.”

- How is the nation-state thought of in the context of this “disillusionment”?

“The crisis of the state cannot be simply regarded as a “decline” of the South African nation state in relation to global forces, or as a reduction in the capacity for state intervention. The crisis of the South African nation state rather affects its ability to link sovereignty to an inclusive and expansive view of citizenship. Therefore this shapes the relations between global processes and local insurgent subjectivities, which are redefining state sovereignty mainly as the reproduction, control and repression of social exclusion. Various authors have been concerned with defining the elements of continuity between the colonial and the postcolonial state. In my view this continuity resides in the attempt by the state to build a capitalist labour market that allows to extend the wage relation to the totality of the population. But this project has encountered a strong resistance and opposition especially in different forms of defection from wage labour. The postcolonial state tried to define a level of inclusion but achieved that only for a small minority of workers, public bureaucracies, armies and various clientelarist channels. Therefore, I think it is crucial to look at the reconfiguration of the connection between work and citizenship in a situation where specific dynamics of subjectivity have been for a long time non-capitalist or pre-capitalist and prevent the extension of wage labour as a form of social inclusion. At a second level, we have to look at the ways in which these dynamics impact on state citizenship and, in particular, my hypothesis is that as a consequence of these contradictions internal to wage labour and linked to new social movements, the relationship between sovereignty and citizenship, which has been central to twentieth century capitalism, is now changing: it is no longer based on the extension of social inclusion, but on the management of social exclusion.”

- What are the forms of resistance in this context?

While political abstentionism is growing and political participation in traditional terms declines, new phenomena are emerging: occupations of houses and land, illegal reconnections of water and electricity by users disconnected for non-payment and a whole series of informal networks as in the case of doctors that cure AIDS sufferers in defiance of government-imposed restrictions on treatments, over and above limited state resources. These processes are weaving a new texture and a new narrative of resistance. In synthesis, we can say that they express a strong rejection of the whole South African political class, including vanguardist forms of left politics, but at the same time they face increasing levels of state repression, authorised by the government and trade unions that define them “reactionary”, “opportunists” and “counter-revolutionary”.

- What are the relationships, in your view, between South African and Argentine movements?

“ I think that the social movements that have emerged in South Africa and Argentina in recent years question conventional definition of ‘anti-neoliberal’ movements: that is to say, they are not based on mere resistance to the implementation of conservative economic policies. This concept has become too limited in relation to what is, in my view, the most innovative aspect of these movements: the way they elaborate the crisis of wage labour as a mechanism of social integration and, especially, their departure from wage labour as the ‘ontological’ foundation of confrontation. Far from being a mere reaction to ‘unemployment’, these movements are fundamentally involved in practices of production, exchange and sociability that require a radical redefinition of life. The dominance of non-monetary forms of reproduction in both cases is a sign of the potential of these processes. These dynamics are expressed in very different ways in the two countries. In the Argentine case it seems to exist a priority in the definition of a capacity for conflict to demand from the state resources to be utilised in self-managed forms. On the other hand, this demand is expressed in very different ways: from options of an ‘assistance-based’ kind to dynamics based on alternative experimentations with the constitution of the social, as in the case of factory occupations. In the South African case, conversely, the demand for a radical change is expressed by making reference to the socialist foundations of national liberation, and this is being played more as a symbolic appellation rather than as a total discredit of the political class as it happens in Argentina. With no doubt, in both cases the first convergence of these two processes is the end of the image of the waged worker as the crucial actor of liberation and the opening of an actual politics of the multitudes. This expresses forms that directly touch the political sensitivity of the communities. A comrade in Durban was recently telling me that, after having heard news from Argentina, social movements there feel greater solidarity towards the piqueteros than with the struggles of public sector unions in South Africa. Second, both movements radically question forms of political representation through which the capitalist state has historically integrated anti-systemic forces. Again, this contestation takes different forms. In Argentina the development of forms of counterpower – nurtured in recent insurrectional practices – and the rejection of the political class is more firmly grounded in the agenda than in South Africa. In South Africa, the critique of political representation is deepening, taking the form of a conflict within the social movements between, on one hand, a leadership largely linked to the idea of the ‘workers’ party’ and, on the other, grassroots that refuse such an option and consider it a constraint on a movement that owes its strength to the diversity of experiences of struggle and to the priority placed on life forms rather than organisational forms.”

- So, how would you define, today, the relationships between social movements and the national liberation tradition?

“National liberation movements entertained a very complex relation with the idea of nation. Social movements have maintained a common terrain with past elites of the liberation movement: a demand for equal rights of access to income and resources. But, in another sense, there is a resistance, a refusal of the productivist implications that this image of the rights of the Nation implies. It’s a contradiction between the attempt to valorise the terrain of rights and refuse its productivist implications which, I insist, in the postcolonial state have been translated into a strategy to create a capitalist labour market that was always incomplete and contested. In the imagery of some of these struggles the crucial element is an ambiguity with regard to the role of the state: the state is regarded as captive to neoliberal forces and fully engaged in privatisation and, at the same time, as the only actor capable to oppose this dynamics. But we also have attempts to go beyond this opposition on the role of the state and valorise exclusion from wage labour as a dynamics that produces new meanings and social imageries that define the state as a counterpart but not as an actor to which struggles are delegated."

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