Decolonizing the Commune

Abahlali baseMjondolo: Fanonian Practices and the Politics of Space in Postapartheid South Africa

Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa has sought to structure itself as a confederation of self-managed and democratically organized communities in struggle.

76622_164694820227445_7444338_nBy Richard Pithouse

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a movement largely based in shantytowns built on land occupations in and around the South African city of Durban. Since 2005 it has sought to build popular counter-power through the construction of self-managed and democratically organized communities engaged in a collective struggle.

While the movement has not used the term “commune”, it has, on occasion, been described by left theorists as seeking to constitute itself as a set of linked communes. This assessment has been based on the movement’s organizational form. But this struggle, while often strikingly similar to Raúl Zibechi’s account of territories in resistance in Latin America, is very different from how Marx and Bakunin imagined the struggles of the future in their reflections on the Paris Commune. It is primarily framed in terms of dignity, fundamentally grounded in the bonds within families and between neighbors, and often largely waged by women from and for bits of land in the interstices of the city.

If Abahlali baseMjondolo (the term means “residents of the shacks”) is to be productively connected to the idea of the commune in terms of a set of political commitments, it would requireas George Ciccariello-Maher has argued with regard to Venezuelaa detachment of the concept from “a narrow sectarianism” with the intention to “craft a communism on local conditions that looks critically, in parallax, back at the European tradition.”

The Land Occupation

In Durban, as in much of the world, one starting point for this work is that the passage from the rural to the urban seldom takes the form of passage, via expropriation, from the commons to the factory, from the life of a peasant to the life of a proletarian. And for many people born into working-class families long resident in the city, work—as their parents and grandparents knew it— is no longer available.

When urban life is wageless, or when access to the wage occurs outside of the official rules governing the wage relation, the land occupation can enable popular access to land outside of the state and capital. And land, even a sliver of land on a steep hill, between two roads, along a river bank, or adjacent to a dump, can—along with the mud, fire and men with guns that come with shack life—enable spatial proximity to possibilities for livelihood, education, health care, recreation and so on.

Across South Africa, urban land has become a key site of popular contestation with the state and the liberal property regime. In Durban the steep terrain also enables opportunities for new occupations within the zones of privilege, nodes of spatially concentrated, racialized power. But, again as in much of the world, dissident elites have often been skeptical about the political capacities of the urban poor. The worker or peasant has often been imagined as the subject of a “proper” politics, a politics to come in which industrial production or rural land would be the key site of struggle.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has, affirming what it has called “a politics of the poor”, disobeyed the various custodians of a “proper politics”, affirmed the value of an “out of order” politics and taken the situation, the strivings and the struggles of its members seriously. It has affirmed the city as a site of struggle and impoverished people seeking to occupy, hold and develop land in the city as subjects of struggle. It has constructed a political imagination in which the neighborhood is seen as the primary site for both organization, through direct face-to-face deliberation and democratic decision-making, and the broader practices that sustain resilience.

A conception of political identity rooted in residence in a land occupation, whether established or new, has enabled the affirmation of a form of politics that exceeds the central categories through which impoverished people are more usually divided. This includes an ethnic conception of belonging that, in Durban, has increasingly been asserted by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), as well as a national conception of belonging, undergirded by a paranoid and vicious xenophobia, asserted by the ruling party, the state and much of wider society.

The movement has been able to successfully resist these forms of division and has consistently taken a multi-ethnic form. People more ordinarily described as foreigners rather than comrades have often held important leadership positions, while the movement has been able to occupy and hold land and to sustain impressive popular support. But there are significant limits to its reach, it has been subject to serious repression, and it has not been able to sustain the political autonomy of its larger occupations over the long-term.

A Homemade Politics

Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed in 2005 in a group of nearby shack settlements, all on well-established land occupations, some reaching back to the 1980s or even the late 1970s. The people who formed the movement drew on a rich repertoire of political experience that included participation in the ANC, trade unions and the popular struggles of the 1980s. There were also familial connections reaching back to key moments in the history of popular struggle like the Durban strikes in 1973, the Mpondo Revolt in 1961, resistance to evictions in Durban in 1959 and the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906.

The movement was also shaped by practices and ideas developed in African-initiated churches and adapted from rural life. From the beginning ideas about a pre-colonial world in which personhood was respected and understood to be attained in relation to others were significant. But elements of the new liberal order, like rights-based conceptions of gender equality, as well as political traditions that claim descent from Marx, were also present. These were largely derived from trade unions and the alliance between the South African Communist Party and the ANC.

abahlali-round_transparentThis new politics was often described as a “homemade politics” and as a “living politics”. The idea of a “homemade politics” carried some sense of bricolage, a general feature of life in a shack settlement, and both of these phrases marked a commitment to a mode of politics that emerges from everyday life, is fully within reach of the oppressed, and is fully owned by the oppressed.

The settlements where the movement was formed had all been dominated by the ANC. At the time the ANC, as Idea, was still entwined with the nation and the struggle that had bought it into being. As a result the break from the authority of the party, which resulted in autonomous elected structures being set up in each affiliated settlement, was often understood as a challenge to local party structures, rather than a rejection of the party altogether.

It was frequently assumed that the fundamental problem was that impoverished people living in shack settlements had somehow been forgotten in the new order. It was often thought that if they, like the industrial working class, could develop an organizational form to successfully assert themselves as a particular category of people, with a particular set of interestsas the poorthe sympathetic attention of leading figures in the party, and elsewhere in society, could be won, and that recognition and inclusion could be attained.

But there was, from the beginning, also an evident commitment to attain inclusion in a manner that altered the nature of the system in various respects. One was with regard to how decisions are made. Reflecting on that moment, S’bu Zikode, a participant in the early discussions, recalls: “There was a realization, at the onset, that it was a mistake to give away our power.” There was a clear resolve that the right of people to fully participate in all decision-making relating to themselves and their communities, a right understood to have been expropriated by colonialism, needed to be restored.

The implication of this is that there was a commitment to dispersing power and to changing the nature of the relationship between the state and society. Another commitment that was present at the outset was a rejection of the commodification of land. Again this was often framed in terms of restoration.

An Autonomous Politics

The political form of the movement was constituted around elected structures in each settlement affiliated to an elected central structure. Meetings were required to be open to all and held in the settlements at set times. They took the form of inclusive and slow deliberative processes that continued until consensus was attained. It was a politics consistently constituted around an open and face-to-face democracy. The role of elected leaders was understood to be to facilitate this kind of decision-making and to adhere to it. There were also frequent assemblies, often attended by hundreds of people, and the smaller meetings would refer important decisions to these assemblies.

The slow politics that results from the need to attain consensus before acting sometimes meant that political opportunities were missed. But because peoplewary of the frequently crass instrumentalization of impoverished people by parties, the state and later NGOs tooknew that they fully owned this movement, popular support was sustained.

abahlali 2The early decision to refuse any participation in party politics or elections was vital to sustaining unity, and deflecting constant allegations of external conspiracy. For some people it was purely a tactical measure while for others it was a point of principle. But a clear distinction was drawn between “party politics” and “people’s politics”. For Zikode, “we realized that to be in a political party was to be confined, as in a coffin.” Despite extraordinary inducements and pressures the movement sustained its autonomy from political parties and, later on, NGOs. In both cases the response from constituted authority was to resort to colonial tropes and present the movement as criminals under the control of malicious external white authority.

While the movement always understood that its original and fundamental power lay in self-organized communities, the capacity to occupy and hold land and the use of disruption via road blockades, it was never solely concerned with this sphere of action. Alliances were also sought with actors outside the settlements, like journalists, lawyers, academics and religious leaders. There were regular interventions in the wider public sphere, via lawful forms of mass protest as well as the media, and an often very effective use of the courts to, in particular, take contestation over land off the terrain of violence.

Autonomy was taken seriously within the movement, but it wasn’t imagined as an exodus from sites of constituted power. It was imagined more like Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the neighborhood council as a political commitment that would enable effective collective engagement on other terrains. People spoke, by way of analogy, of occupying space in sites of constituted power, like the media or the university.

The Long Shadow of the State

The organizational form developed by Abahlali baseMjondolo enabled a political space in which the oppressed, albeit it in this case self-identified as the poor rather than the working class, could, as Marx said of the Paris Commune, work out their own emancipation.

Although this process has, at points, had to grapple with internal difficulties and frustrationssuch as new entrants bringing in contradictory projects, families seeking to turn the risk and commitment of a child or sibling into a reward, or distortions consequent to repressionit has often been undertaken with a strong sense of collective excitement.

But any affirmation of the commune as a political strategy rather than a description of an organizational form has to take careful account of the fact that, since 1871 and continuing with more recent experiences in, say, Oaxaca and Oakland, the declaration of a commune has seldom resulted in a sustainable political project. States rarely tolerate the emergence of even modest instances of dual power. In Durban the intersection of the ruling party, which employs technocratic, Stalinist and ethnic language to legitimate the centralization of authority, has used two primary strategies to regain control over territories in which a degree of political autonomy has been asserted.

One of these strategies is the simple exercise of violencewhether carried out by the police, private security, local party structures or assassins. Violence has been a constant presence during a decade of struggle. But there have been two periods of particularly intense repression that have both, in different ways, had a profound impact on the movement.

The first was the expulsion of the movement’s leading members from the Kennedy Road settlement in 2009, via the destruction of their homes by armed men acting under the direction of local party structures, and with the support of the police. This was a process that continued for some months. The second was two assassinations, and a police murder, in the Marikana Land Occupation, in 2013, followed by another assassination in KwaNdengezi in 2014.

Both periods of intense repression placed some people under severe stress resulting in anxiety and paranoia, as well as familial pressure, and resulted in real strains in the movement. In 2014, in an act of desperation when it seemed that murder was being carried out with impunity, a collective decision was taken to make a tactical vote against the ANC, with a view to raising the costs of repression for the ruling party, while remaining independent from any party political affiliation.

The second primary strategy of containment, frequently related to the exercise of violence, is the often very effective attempt to make independent development on occupied land very difficult while mediating access to state development through local party structures. For as long as the state has the capacity to demolish homes, an investment in building a brick and mortar house is not rational. Shacks, particularly in acutely contested land occupations, are often designed to be cheap, perhaps built from pallets salvaged from a warehouse. They are sometimes designed to be able to be collapsed when the demolition squad comes and rebuilt when they have departed.

When the state concedes the legitimacy of a land occupation and offers a housing development there will be significant opportunities for accumulation via local party structures, often enmeshed with local criminal networks, and access to the housing will be allocated through party structures. These two factors combine to make it almost impossible to benefit from development while being outside the party. In a context in which the party machinery offers the only viable route out of impoverishment for many people, responsibilities to family can begin to conflict with responsibilities to neighbors and comrades. This can result in a situation where some members of the movement go over to these structures. It can also result in a situation in which party structures return, from outside, at gunpoint.

For these reasons it is very difficult to sustain the political autonomy of a territory once the state has conceded its legitimacy and brought it into the ambit of its development program. Material successwinning land and housingbecomes political defeat. This has meant that while Abahlali baseMjondolo has endured, and grown, during a decade of struggle in which the movement has always remained vibrant, the sites where the struggle is waged with most intensity have been dynamic.

A Moment of Political Opportunity

If the political form of the commune is understood as the self-management of a spatially delimited community under popular democratic authority, thenalthough the term commune has not been used within the movementit could certainly be argued that Abahlali baseMjondolo has been and, despite the trauma of serious repression, remains committed to the construction of a set of linked communes.

However, if the commune is understood as a form of politics with explicit commitments to the radical traditions developed in 19th century Europe, then things are more complex. Although the movement’s politics has evolved over the years it has always been committed to some principles that had a productive resonance with standard European conceptions of socialism and communism. This is true with regard to what, using Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar’s terms, can be described as both its interior emancipatory horizon and the practical scope of its day-to-day actions.

But dignity has consistently been a far more central concept than socialism. The practical scope of the movement’s work has overwhelmingly focused on the sphere of social reproduction rather than the sphere of industrial production.