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Publication Details

Reference
Chari, Sharad  (2004) Political Work: Mobilization and Negotiation in the Shadows of Durban’s Refineries. School of Development Studies 50th Anniversary Conference : 1-19.

Summary
If you flew in to the port city of Durban or eThekwini, you might not miss the petrochemical refineries next to the runway, but you might miss two small communities that live cheek-by-jowl with heavy industry. These communities, consolidated in an incongruous industrial-residential landscape by the violence of Apartheid spatial planning, are the “Indian” township of Merebank and the “Coloured” township of Wentworth. On two sides of Duranta Road, and with roughly similar populations (about 27,000 for Wentworth and 21,000 for Merebank in 2001), these communities have been shaped in similar ways in some respects and in profoundly different ways in others. What is more, though both have lived with similar indignities, such as breathing benzene all their lives, and although Merebank’s residents have only slightly higher household incomes, and slightly lower unemployment levels , Wentworth today is a hotbed of political activism while Merebank is relatively quiescent. Wentworth is more strongly a ghetto in the analytical sense proposed by Wacquant (2004) as shaped by stigma, constraint, spatial confinement and institutional containment. Although its residents have come from all over South Africa, this diverse product of miscegenation seems mired in the poverties of place. Across the road, Merebank’s quiescence emerges from a very different history of space, through which a former village on the outskirts of Durban has become more organically part of the cultural political economic fortunes offered by the new
dispensation. Spaces of livelihood and belonging have been shrinking into a ghetto on the one hand, and broadening into South Africa’s middle and upper class world of possibility, on the other.

At first glance, Wentworth and Merebank appear to sit very differently in their engagements with government and the corporations that surround them. The key civic in Merebank, the Merebank Ratepayers’ Association (MRA), appears to be quite pragmatic in its relations with state and capital, and it has used “corporate social responsibility” funding from the refineries to fund a variety of community organizations. There are no civics to rival the MRA’s claim to the community’s mandate, as they can appeal to a long and hoary tradition of representation harking back to a village on the periphery of the expanding municipality of Durban. Indeed, despite a rich history of anti-Apartheid activism—with complex links between members of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), Black Consciousness (BC) activists at the Alan Taylor residence for black medical students of the University of Natal, underground uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) activists with connections to the ANC/SACP in exile through peripatetic underground figures, a range of safe houses and supporters, the last including decades of care-work from women like the heroic Aunty P—Merebank today is quiescent. Despite once being a hotbed of multilayered political activism until the final underground political and military ‘plan B’ of the MK/ SACP, Operation Vula, short for ‘Vulindlela’ or opening the door, today Merebank’s door is only slightly ajar for the ruling alliance when it comes to exercising the vote.

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