Posted January 7, 2008
We Are the Poors, by South African activist, journalist, and teacher Ashwin Desai, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. These days, it amounts to a concise recent history of anti-privatization social movements in South Africa. Much of the action centers on neighborhoods and townships in and around Durban.
The thesis of the book is that the revolution of the anti-apartheid movement remains incomplete to the extent that it has failed to secure basic economic rights for the poor majority of the nation, and that the politics of black empowerment represented by the ANC and the growth of a black elite is “superficial,” in that inequality and the misery of the poor, black majority has grown under the post apartheid government. The book’s hope is that new social movements rooted in poor (multiracial) communities and aimed at fighting water privatization and electricity cutoffs can be the engine of a new cycle of resistance to neoliberal economic policies both in South Africa and around the world. Desai frequently refers to (Robben Island veteran and anti-globalization movement elder) Dennis Brutus’ formulation of ongoing global racial and economic inequality as a kind of “Global Apartheid.”
In this book, the most important political statement of the new movement is its uncompromising view of the ANC, along with its two rival parties, as the main enemies of “the poors.’ The second key factor is a movement ethos which rejects tired and limiting organizational forms of the old left-wing parties and structures.
Equally important for Desai is the non-racial–yet anti-racist–character of the new movements. He begins his tale in Chatsworth, an area which began its life as an apartheid-era enforced reserve for the large Indian minority of KZN. The story begins when long-time ANC activist Fatima Meer visited in an attempt to counteract the region’s “culture of nonpayment” which encouraged residents to avoid their water and electricity bills. She also intended to combat racism by convincing poor Indians to vote for the black-led government incumbents, rather than their white party challengers.
A sociologist by trade, Meer, quickly noticed that the “culture of nonpayment” was a fantasy of the ruling party—nonpayment was actually the result of un- and under-employment, which at the time was at 45% for the nation, and is obviously higher in areas like Chatsworth. (The news tonight pointed out that for young workers, unemployment in South Africa is at 70%). When ANC leaders ignored Meer’s concerns, she converted her group, the CCG, into a support organization for poor people fighting cutoffs, evictions, and forced removals—all problems which helped to spark the anti-apartheid movement in its early days and throughout.
The climax of the story occurs at the posh new Durban conference center in 2001, just days before 9-11, during the World Conference on Racism (WCAR). By this time the Chatsworth community group has joined forces with poor people facing similar problems from Umlazi (Durban’s largest black township), Soweto, Mpumalanga, Tafelsig, Jo’burg, and elsewhere.
Objecting to what they see as ANC hypocrisy in acting as the global representative and broker of racial justice, they form the Durban Social Forum (DSF) and set up a counter-summit for the worlds poor and active, and hold a 20,000 person march against the Conference, the largest, then, since apartheid days.
The story moves quickly and provides a lot of compelling detail, personal stories, and some good gossip (for instance, U.S. activist-turned-scholar Angela Davis marched with the ANC, not the DSF, that weekend.)
Its well worth reading for anyone interested in South African politics, or for anyone who is simply interested in the possibilities for social movements and social transformation in our time. The book, in that it squarely points the finger at the ANC as a sell-out leadership of politicians (say it with a sneer) who got to sit out the hard stuff in exile, does us a favor in trying to think through the nature of the oppression of South Africa’s poor, and by extension that of the world’s poor majority. If not these crushing economic policies, what could and should the ANC have done over the last decade plus instead? What would that have looked like? What, exactly, is possible?
The downside of the book is one which afflicts much movement analysis and reporting; the book’s optimism-by-design leaves the 2007 reader wondering what has happened to these vibrant movements. Though they continue to exist and to resist cutoffs and evictions, they seem not to have dramatically increased in scale in the last six years, (although, demonstrations and strikes are on the upswing) nor have they impeded the privatization of basic resources in South Africa. This question implies no condemnation of the organizing or the activists; I just wonder if Desai still holds out the kind of hope expressed in this book.