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Pithouse, Richard (2000) The Poors of Chatsworth by Ashwin Desai: A short review. Green Left Weekly : -.

South Africa's undeclared war on the poor

The Poors of Chatsworth
By Ashwin Desai
Madiba Publishers
South Africa, 2000

DURBAN — Ashwin Desai describes his book, The Poors of Chatsworth, as “journalism, an account from the frontlines of the [South African] establishment's `undeclared war' on the poor”.

Chatsworth is a formerly Indian township in Durban. Desai tells the story of its people, who have “photographs of grandparents as slaves and parents as sweatshop workers”. Chatsworth was a creation of the apartheid-era Group Areas Act. In the 1950s, Indians from all over Durban were rounded up and dumped in Chatsworth. The land had been taken from 600 Indian farmers.

As Desai notes, “just as some residents were arriving to start a new life, others were coming to grips with the destruction of a life-time's work”. The new houses, described as `stables', started falling apart almost immediately. Rents were far higher.

While many people were able to improve the conditions of their lives and the township developed pockets of affluence, thousands spent their lives working in clothing factories to stave off eviction. They had lost the independence that they had enjoyed as occupiers of informal space and were locked into enforced obligations to the agents of their original dispossession, the Durban City Council.

Most Indian politicians concerned themselves with the community's political situation and ignored its economic situation. But the people were resilient. They raised their children and organised and fought and developed a deep sense of community and a rich tradition of struggle.

A place of struggle
The euphoria of the 1994 election victory by the African National Congress and the hopes for a better life did not last long. The ANC moved quickly to lower tariffs on imported clothes with the result that the local industry was decimated and tens of thousands of jobs lost. There were 435 employers in the clothing industry in 1995. In 1999, there were only 166.

The state moved against the poor just as quickly. As early as July 1994, eviction notices were served on 950 tenants who were in arrears. Water and electricity cut-offs followed. By 1996, 40% of tenants were in arrears and the city council sent 50 men with guns and dogs to evict people from their flats. People who didn't want to be next hurriedly pawned anything of value. Young daughters took up prostitution. In 1998, after the local government elections, the council stepped up the pressure. People put their bodies on the line. There was blood on the streets and a death. The council even evicted Ms Shinga and her daughter, both of whom were suffering from AIDS contracted after rape.

In May 1999, Professor Fatima Meer, hero of the struggle against apartheid, arrived in Chatsworth with a small organisation called the Concerned Citizens Group. CCG's mission was to persuade the 250,000 voters in this community to vote for the ANC rather than the “white parties” in the coming general elections. The business and professional elite embraced her call but the poor told her that they were “not concerned about their former oppressors but were angry at their present oppressors”.

Meer discovered that unemployment was running at 70%, that children were not at school because their parents couldn't pay the fees and that disease was rife.

Meer threw her energies into the compilation of a research report that she intended to present to the government to show that people were not able to pay their rates and rent and to argue that poverty was not grounds for eviction and disconnection. While she was working on her report, Begam Govindsamy, a woman in her 80s, received an eviction notice. Govindsamy had been evicted twice during the apartheid era. A new struggle had begun.

Meer made no further calls to the Indian community to vote one way or another. She submitted her report to the ANC and was horrified that after the elections ANC councillors were “among the most vociferous in insisting that electricity and water cut-offs and evictions be visited on the poor”. She found that the “disciples of a better life for all were behaving as if poverty itself were a crime”.

The CCG mutated into a non-sectarian human rights pressure group. Food hampers were distributed to the indigent. Gangsters were “spoken to”. Diwali, the festival of lights, was reinterpreted with the city council as the villain bringing darkness. The CCG used the constitution and the law to stave off evictions and disconnections. “Struggle” plumbers and electricians reconnected disconnected services. The council presented its actions as technical. The CCG insisted that they were political.

Confidence grows
Identities and loyalties proved to be fluid. Desai explains that after a clash between officials and protesters “a defining moment in the struggle of and for Chatsworth occurred. One of the designer-bedecked (African) councillors began castigating the crowd. She had one lived in a shack, she screamed. Why were Indians resisting evictions and demanding upgrades? Indians were just too privileged. One elderly [woman], Girlie Amod, screamed back: `We are not Indians, we are the poors'. The refrain caught on as councillors hurried to their cars ... Bongiwe Manqele introduced her own good humoured variant, `We are not African, we are the poors'. Identities were being rethought in the context of struggle.”

On February 8, council security came to evict Mr. Mhlongo and his children. They were driven away by 150 people, mainly women. The next day the council officers returned with a division of police. The people stood firm and refused to allow the police into the flats. The police used live ammunition. Six people were wounded. Yet, the security forces withdrew without effecting the evictions. Indian women had stared down bullets to protect an African family. The community grew more confident.

The council responded by referring to the families targeted for eviction as drug lords, shebeen owners and “sexual deviants”. “Just as in the past”, Desai writes, “it was to be presumed that poverty-stricken township dwellers were social deviants by virtue of their degraded circumstances.”

By June, 23,786 households had had their water cut off by the Durban City Council. In Chatsworth, cut-offs were no longer possible. People were prepared to put their bodies on the line. Solidarity was developing with people facing similar cut-offs in the nearby township of Umlazi. A powerful movement was growing.

Desai weaves individual stories into the larger story of Chatsworth the struggle. Many of the stories don't come with any hint a “happy ending”.

Desai names names — from the former activists turned council hard-liners, like Trevor Bonhomme, to ministers like Kader Asmal. He accuses South African President Thabo Mbeki of “presiding over economic genocide” and details the hypocrisy of the 30 members of the council who, as the end of their term of office nears, voted themselves a pension payout that will cost the city an estimated R40 million.

While The Poors of Chatsworth was at the printers, Durban journalist Xolisa Vapi reported that “KwaZulu-Natal ministers are in arrears for millions of rands for failing to pay their monthly rents of luxurious official houses”. Vapi added that the ministers had proposed that their arrears be written off and that they be expected to pay rent of just 1% of their annual salary. According to Vapi public works minister Celani Mtetwa justified the ministers' failure to pay their rent on the grounds that “the official houses did not have swimming pools, tennis or squash courts”.

From Prague to Chatsworth, a spectre is haunting neo-liberalism. The spectre of the multitude. Desai's book is alive with the energies and desires of the multitude. Time will tell whether or not the small revolts breaking out all over South Africa will grow and connect or be contained and defused. Desai's reflections on the Chatsworth experience are urgent and essential reading.

[Richard Pithouse teaches Political philosophy at the University of Durban-Westville and the Workers' College in Durban, South Africa.]

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