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Khan, Firoz & Pieterse, Edgar  (2004) The Homeless People’s Alliance: Purposive Creation and Ambiguated Realities. A case study for the UKZN project entitled: Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa : 1-39.

The slums and shantytowns of our world – the shadow cities – are the ‘fully franchised solution to the problem of warehousing the twenty-first century’s surplus humanity’ (Davis 2004: 13). In our popular imagination and imageries of development, the slums are ‘social wastelands’, bearing testimony to the failure of ‘development’ – a project designed and engineered by a malignant, malevolent and monstrous state. It is only ‘beyond the state’ – in the ‘free market’ and ‘civil society’ – that true ‘human flourishing’ 1 can begin. Criticising the excesses, inefficiencies, and injustices of the state is what unites market fundamentalists and post/anti-developmentalists. In bothcases, there is little room for ‘forward politics’ because what remains of ‘development’ is only the ‘destructive power of social engineering’ (Nederveen Pieterse 2000:186).

But the slum dwellers of the world rudely interject elegant contemporary development studies debates, pointing out an alternative possibility rooted in a poetics of a political imagination that inhabits a realm located midway between purposive creation and determined resistance to injustice and exclusion. These residents participate in social movements that are akin to what Arturo Escobar (1992:396) defines as follows:

Today’s social movements are seen as playing a central role in producing the world in which we live, its social structures and practices, its meanings and cultural orientations, its possibilities for change. Social movements emerged out of the crisis of modernity; they oriented themselves towards the constitution of new orders, and embody a new understanding of politics and social life itself. They result in the formation of novel collective identities which foster social and cultural forms of relating and solidarity as a response to the crises of meanings and economies that the world faces today.

These socio-cultural forms of relating and solidarity are distinctive because the state is not the starting point for their existence and relevance. Instead, and provocatively, these social movements mobilise on the premise that the state is unlikely to create opportunities for them and their members to access and exercise substantive citizenship. What follows is a determined series of social and political practices in the realm of ‘mutual-help’ and ‘social solidarity’ that implicitly set the terms for the state to engage with them when it is interested and/or ready to do so. However, those terms of engagement are then largely defined by the priorities and ways of relating that arise from the cultural politics of the movement, which is sutured by the imperatives of everyday life, survival and solidarity.

This cultural-political practice plays out in the interstices of a profoundly ‘disjunctive’ (global)democratisation project; i.e. systematic violation of human rights and institutionalised exclusion in elected constitutional-liberal regimes (see Holston 2002; Kabeer 2002 for a full discussion). The focus of our study, the Homeless People’s Alliance (HPA) – comprising the Homeless People’s Federation (a network of community based organisations), People’s Dialogue (a nongovernmental organisation) and uThsani Fund (a community managed revolving loan fund) - can be counted amongst those social movements signalling alternative realities and possibilities. What is particularly fascinating about this movement – ‘based on trust, saving systems and lateral learning’ (Development Works 2003:28) - and its partners across the world, is that, despite its grassroots preoccupation and rejection of the official development horizon and outputs, it ends up exercising a most profound influence over the state and its urban development ambitions and programmes. Thus, in South Africa, by the late 1990s, the state adopted the substantial components of the community mobilisation methodologies of the HPA – the People’s Housing Process (PHP) – and mainstreamed it into government policy. This move opened the door for the HPA to become a key political actor in development policy debates about effective poverty reduction in urban areas. This shift introduced a new challenge; being equally effective at engaging the state and maintaining the core grassroots values and identity of the movement. This ension overshadowed the movement’s growth, organisational identity, developmental impact and political practice.

In this study, we trace the origins, growth trajectory, ideological framework, organisational praxis and developmental impact of the Alliance. In our view, the sophisticated ideological framework of the HPA, and its unique engagement with the state, is of particular significance and therefore constitutes the main focus of the case study. However, to fully understand the dynamic adaptability of this movement, we also hone in on a key episode in the life of the movement – a major restructuring exercise in 2001/2 precipitated by a series of crises detailed later on (in Section 3). In adopting this approach, we explore the unique attributes of the HPA vis-à-vis other social movements being studied in this project, teasing out broader conceptual and political implications for understanding the unfolding dynamics between the state and civil society in democratic South Africa.

Given the unique character and political ideology of the movement, considerable space is devoted to the ideology and identity of the movement (see Section 2). However, this only makes sense if it is located in the over-arching political transition from apartheid to political democracy – our starting point in Section 1. Across these two sections, the unique approach of the HPA to the state is explored, best characterised as a politics of ‘bargaining at the top, pressure from below’. The state is not seen as a body to be ‘taken over’ and ‘turned into an instrument of drastic social change’ (Farhi 2003: 37). The manner of the state’s insertion into social, economic and cultural life – through its policies, programmes and institutional infrastructure – and the way it ‘inhibits’ transformative / empowering / capability-generative potentials/capacities as opposed to its spirited promotion of superficial or procedural democratic engagement, comprises the focal point of struggle. Patience is the key organising frame of politics, wherein a central place is awarded to accommodation, compromise, negotiation and long term pressure, rather than confrontation of threats of political reprisal (Appadurai 2002:29; Environment and Urbanisation Brief 2001: 4). This ‘politics of patience’ is not about climbing or scaling the emancipatory peaks of the development imaginaries of mainstream development thinkers. Politics, in this frame, is ‘not an event that happens once, a spectacular outburst of energy that overcomes the dark forces of oppression and lifts liberation into a superior state of perpetual triumph’. Instead, it is the ‘very act of climbing, daily, tenaciously and incessantly’ (Farhi 2003:39), in pursuit of constructing empowering pro-poor democratic arenas, spaces and futures.

As we demonstrate below, the materiality of this project encompasses a politics of dignity, a politics of poverty eradication, a politics of citizenship and self-affirmation, and a politics of human rights anchored in deep democracy 2 and the associated nurturing and embedding of a specific ‘cultural capacity’, i.e. ‘capacity to aspire’. Theirs is a project about ‘optimising the terms of trade between recognition and redistribution’ (Appadurai 2004: 05) through reclaiming the democratic right and power to choose their own path of development daily denied them by material poverty; the routine violation of their fundamental human rights; and the whittling away of their capacity to change their situation through political and economic exclusion (People’s Dialogue 2000). Optimising the terms of trade, in the face of fierce opposition, requires mastery of a complex political calculus of rejection and resistance, on the one hand, and compliance and co-operation, on the other. This project is about challenging inherited ideologies, doctrines and norms through metaphor, ritual, rhetoric, organisation and public performance. But purposive creation in an age of disjunctive democratisation, the dominance of neoliberal supply-side citizenship and community development, the deficiencies of planning praxis, and local governance dynamics are not without their own pitfalls, as elaborated in the final section of the report.

Narrating and analysing the genesis, rise, restructuring and consolidation of the HPA from a civil association to a civil/political movement; i.e. from concentrating solely on community mobilisation to gradually combining community work with political engagement with state actors at different scales (Millstein et al 2003), is no small undertaking. The internal and external relational dynamics are dense and complex, entailing multi-pronged strategies of localisation – a place based localised strategy for the defence of livelihoods – and a shifting political strategy linking identity, territory and culture at different scales spanning the globe (adapted from Escobar 2001:163). Of central concern in this paper is an elaboration and elucidation of the confluence of forces that enabled this social movement to eschew emergent (post-apartheid) official discourses about ‘appropriate’ community development processes in the shelter sector, and, more interestingly, the (selective) appropriation of elements of the HPA’s approach into official praxis. The study goes further and delves into the emerging, contradictory consequences of the HPA’s seeming ‘victory’ in the hegemonic elevation of their ideology and praxis.

At the outset we need to register a methodological note that the HPA is too large, complex, established and dispersed a movement to study in its full richness within the confines of this project (and certainly within 15 000 words). Fortunately, there are earlier very rich studies to supplement the abbreviated findings presented herein (for example BRCS 2001, 2002, 2003; Marx 2003; Baumann and Mitlin 2002; Napier 2003). These studies have also assisted us to cut down on the number of participant observations and interviews, permitting us to hone in more finely on the central questions of this study and use interviews and ethnographic encounters more judiciously. It is for this reason that we have confined interviews to key strategic activists and practitioners. This report is also part of an ongoing dialogue with the HPA, and reflects and draws on a number of their materials, based on mutual agreement, to ensure that the exercise in recounting and documenting remains as close as possible to their own self-descriptions, but verified through intensive interviews and critical commentary (secondary literature).

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