Opinionista Julian Brown 14 September 2015

Op-Ed: Activism is alive and well and living in SA

We do not have a crisis of activism or political commitment in South Africa. Instead, we have a vibrant, challenging, and contentious political sphere defined by grassroots activism.

If we’re to believe recent reports in the Daily Maverick, South Africa’s activists are in trouble: Zwelinzimi Vavi believes they don’t exist, saying that “South Africans have become resigned” and “they are complaining everywhere but there is no real activism”. Commenting on his statements, Ranjeni Munusamy suggests that activists have lost their “mojo”, perhaps because “South Africans are just lazy”. David Lewis, meanwhile, suggests that protests are too isolated, activists too easily demobilised, and calls upon them to “update their activism” and “grasp this nettle”.

The authors each pin the plight of South African activism to a march being planned for later in September by the United Against Corruption campaign. Vavi suggests that: “This march is a great test, whether people are willing to go beyond complaining endlessly.” Lewis partially agrees: “Will the marches accurately represent our current mojo? Yes and no … Mostly, I think the march will reflect how well or otherwise activists have adjusted to radically changed circumstances …”

What is all this about?

I don’t think that its really about the march. After all, it hasn’t happened yet. No one can possibly know whether it will succeed or fizzle out. Instead, I think that these comments are driven by concerns about a shift in the nature of politics and popular activism in South Africa: away from national campaigns – coordinated and led by ‘civil society’ – and towards localised acts of insurgency.

It is this shift that underpins the discomfort with contemporary activism obvious in Vavi’s statements and in Munusamy’s article. It is also key to answering David Lewis’s call for activists to “update their activism” – to use new technologies of communication and new modes of engagement to build broad-based civil society movements that can effectively engage with the state, in the way that earlier movements were able to. Lewis’s argument seems to come close to suggesting that contemporary activism has failed because it has not built a lasting civil society organisation that can coordinate representation outside of the state. In this context, the political consciousness expressed in protest has the life of a mayfly, going from birth to death in a day.

All these approaches seem to me to be wrong. In my book, South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens, I argue that we do not have a crisis of activism or political commitment in South Africa. Instead, we have a vibrant, challenging, and contentious political sphere defined by grassroots activism.

This claim needs some context. In the last 15 years, a new model of political activism has developed in South Africa’s townships, informal settlements, and inner cities. This activism – unlike the activism of the apartheid era – starts from the understanding that the state is legitimate, but unresponsive. Activists can assume that elections are free and fair, that most officials are seeking to represent their electorate, and that the courts and institutions of justice are accessible and honest brokers of fundamental disputes. And that yet – despite this – the state is not always approachable. It doesn’t deliver necessary services predictably, or distribute them evenly. It often ignores efforts at participation, letting citizens petition committees endlessly. It dismisses protests as uncontrolled and juvenile. And sometimes the state responds to protests and other unlicensed forms of activism with callous brutality – as it did at Marikana, at Ficksburg, and elsewhere.

The contradictions of the post-apartheid state are experienced locally, at the level of communities: in neighbourhoods without water, in communities without housing, in settlements where police harass activists. Unsurprisingly, it is in these communities and locations that activists organise.

The ambiguities of the state – legitimate, yet unresponsive – shape the forms local activism takes: sometimes these activists seek to engage, and to participate. Sometimes they seek to protest and to challenge. Sometimes they seek to organise local electoral opposition. Sometimes they go to court. Sometimes they connect up with national campaigns. Sometimes they seek to build solidarity between disparate communities. Sometimes they go it on their own. And sometimes – often – community activists try each and all of these tactics, whether simultaneously or sequentially.

The history of local politics in Thembelihle, a settlement near Lenasia on Johannesburg’s outskirts, provides an example of how contemporary activism works. Since 2001, Thembelihle has been the site of near constant activism – first in response to efforts by the state to remove and resettle the community. Between 2001 and 2005, activists associated with the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) organised protests, arranged petitions, and went to court to prevent their relocation. Throughout this period, the police harassed local activists and sought to prevent protest action. During this time, the TCC was linked closely to the Anti-Privatisation Forum – organising political events in collaboration with the larger civil society organisation. Between 2007 and 2011, the community once again attempted to engage with the local state, attending ward committee meetings and presenting petitions to the mayor. They also took to the streets. But this was not all: in these years, the TCC took part in the Operation Khanyisa Movement, an attempt to intervene in electoral politics. In 2006 and 2011, the movement fielded candidates in the local government elections, and in each case succeeded in having one proportional representation candidate elected to the city council. At no point in the last 15 years could activism in Thembelihle be said to have been “demobilised”, “lazy” or “complacent”.

Nor, however, can it be neatly summed up in one phrase, or identified with any one organisation. It took many different forms; it responded to changing local circumstances; it engaged with other civil society movements; it moved between the confrontational space of unlicensed protest, the spaces of civil society organisation, and the spaces of electoral politics. It did not stick to any one.

Much the same account could be given of the politics of Abhalali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement based out of Durban. On 3 October 2015 it will celebrate its 10th anniversary of struggle: of local community organisation, of mass marches and protests in and around central Durban, of engagement with and disengagement from national civil society organisations, of legal struggles and court-room victories, of self-defence and challenge. It will also recall a decade of internal struggles and splits, of debates over Abahlali’s decisions to boycott elections – and then, last year, to provide a limited endorsement of the DA in KwaZulu-Natal. Abahlali’s decade of activism doesn’t fit into neat categories: it is at once outside of institutional definitions of civil society, and deeply embedded in it; it is political and social; local and national.

It is this complexity and these ambiguities that are missing from the accounts of activism provided in last week’s Daily Maverick articles. Vavi’s implicit description of all this activity as so much “complaining” denies the legitimacy of the multiple forms of activism undertaken by citizens and activists in Thembelihle and Durban, and silences the dissenting voices of activists across the country. Munusamy’s approval of his comments is clear from her suggestion that “service delivery protests” do not count as activism because “these are normally centred around local community issues and usually last just a few days”. This glib, evidence-free, description cannot capture the 15-year long series of struggles and protests in Thembelihle, or the decade of Abahlali’s activism; nor is it capable of describing the ways in which these activists have moved in and out of struggles over local ‘service delivery’, worked with other activists and organisations in solidarity, and reshaped the ways in which communities across the country have embarked upon politics.

Lewis is right to suggest that the future of South Africa will not be built on the model of past politics, but he is wrong to suggest that this is because local activists are out of date. South Africa today is not a society in which people are resigned to the status quo. Nor is it a society in which people are “lazy” or “complacent”. Instead, it is a society in which people are continually reinventing ways of engaging with the state and with the public sphere – ways of engaging that seem to be invisible to many commentators and organisations. If there is anyone who needs to have their ideas about activism “updated”, it is the media at large and other established figures.

There is a lot that can be learned from listening to activists struggling on the ground today, and little that they need to be told about the realities of political action in post-apartheid South Africa. DM

Julian Brown lectures in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, and is the author of South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens, which is published in the UK by Zed Books and in South Africa by Jacana. It will be released locally in the week of 21 September 2015.


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