Roberto Sirvent and Koni Benson
Roberto Sirvent interviews Koni Benson about her new book Crossroads: I Live Where I Like, that draws on decades of research, to tell a sidelined story of the creation of the city of Cape Town, and the role of movements led by African women who were central in campaigning for public services. Benson speaks about how today there are over 2 million people in informal settlements or shanty towns, in a so-called ‘World Class’ city in the ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help readers understand the current political and social climate?
Koni Benson: Police repression is on the rise for movements for black lives across the world – including in South Africa where the city of Cape Town has earmarked millions for private security to demolish and evict shack dwellers from ‘occupying’ land for shelter, social distancing, and growing food in the midst of the global Covid pandemic. Crossroads: I Live Where I Like draws on decades of archival and oral history research, to tell a sidelined story of the creation of the city of Cape Town, foregrounding the central role of movements led by African women who were, and still are, at the forefront of organizing for what should be public services (food, shelter, water, land, safety) – basic human needs that have systematically been stolen and denied through processes of racist, sexist, colonial violence here and everywhere. Through the story of women’s organized resistance for housing in Cape Town the book tries to show how the current austerity of neoliberalism – the privatization of social services/the commons, has been constructed through an ongoing historical process that has been highly racialized, highly gendered, and highly contested.
Crossroads challenges the normalization of the current set up, shows how it was constructed, how it was challenged, how it can be deconstructed and reconstructed. South Africa has a brutal history of land dispossession whereby over 3.8 million forced removals took place between the 1960s and 1980s in order to engineer social and geographic segregation through a process of divide and rule. In the matrix of 87% of the land being reserved for the 13% of the population, the cities were designated as white areas. Forced removals were not considered in the famous 1994 Truth and Reconciliation Process.
Today there are over 570 000 families (which is about 2 million people) live in informal settlements or in overcrowded township housing, on official waiting lists for social housing, in a ‘World Class’, ‘Rainbow Nation’ city that builds between 11-16 000 low cost units a year. So if you do the math, you may get what they call a ‘housing opportunity’ in about 50 years time. So really, to quote Willie Baptist of the Black Panthers and National Union of the Homeless, ‘you only get what you are organized to take.’ In fact, recently the Minister of ‘Human Settlements’ said that anyone under the age of 60 did not ‘suffer from apartheid’ and is therefore not eligible for social housing today. So you can see what is at stake in the narratives that celebrate anti-apartheid organizing against evictions, but deny the need for and criminalize organizing for land and housing in the present. I think there are likely parallels with historical narratives that celebrate Black Power/Civil Rights movements in the 1960s while denying the ongoing brutalities of systemic racism in the USA today.
Roberto Sirvent: What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Koni Benson: The book tries to provide a history as an opening into conversations about mobilization, demobilization, and remobilization in the face of power. Once pieced together, the story in this book was then workshopped with activists and community organizers over a five year period, so to a large extent it was activists and community organizers who picked key themes to highlight for both education, mobilization, and debate in movements. This includes: the details of colonial and apartheid dialectics between experiences and structures often airbrushed into neat nationalist narratives; complexities of alliance politics across race, class, and issue; the internal dynamics of movements, particularly the gendered and generational dynamics; and it included questions of authority and individualization that often overtake collective narratives.
As the only informal settlement to successfully resist the apartheid bulldozers, thanks to the organizing of the Crossroad’s Women’s Committee, the book goes into detail of both the victories, and the unglamorous hard work of how women in Crossroads turned the building of shacks into a highly visible political campaign using posters, plays, pickets, direct actions, media campaigns, alliance building, and vigils, to the point where, in 1978 over 22 Congressmen stood up in United States Congress to appeal the demolition of Crossroads in Cape Town. All of this can be useful in honoring and inspiring struggle. But as Amilcar Cabral said, claim no easy victories, which here would include ‘ending the story’ at this high point, rather than seeing it as an important victory, in an ongoing war. The book therefore follows these movements past their heyday, and looks at how momentous gains were pushed back through a reconfiguration of power and politics.
The apartheid state employed counter-revolutionary guerrilla warfare strategies which were developed and used across the world at the time, from Vietnam and Colombia, to undermine community protest ‘from within.’ In Crossroads in 1986 state-sponsored vigilantes (known as witdoeke), set the Crossroads camp on fire and chased out 70,000 residents deemed “squatters” by the apartheid state. The Women’s Committee was then dismissed and housing allocation militarized over the subsequent decade in the area.
After apartheid officially ended, women in Crossroads were again at the forefront of initiating one of the first and most prolonged protests for undelivered housing and public services. Yet their 1998 four-month sit-in on City Council Housing Offices, like other occupations and protest movements today, was criminalized by the state, vilified and oversimplified by the media, and disconnected from the more complicated legacies of colonialism and anti-apartheid organizing. Again, women’s leadership was demobilised, depoliticised, and dislocated from the issues they stood up for and from the celebrated history of women’s mobilising in Crossroads during apartheid.
This lip service, and these unresolved complicated dynamics of movement demobilization impact current attempts to mobilize for housing, water, education, etc. and are important to acknowledge and study in order to subvert, for strategic purposes, as well as for facing questions of how do we (want to) operate, amongst ourselves, in the face of neocolonialism, racism, and patriarchy in the present.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Different readers will have different take aways, but there are a number of ideas about borders, boxes, and boundaries that the book tries to challenge. The first is to challenge the denial of ongoing apartheid: the myth that 1994 was a key turning point. This is the so-call South African miracle, Rainbownationism – where the ANC led us to the end of apartheid and that there is no need to drudge up calls to decolonize and call attention to white wealth, now. The book tries to show how the negotiated settlement, first experienced in Crossroads and then in South Africa as a whole undermined community organization and shows how post 1994 organizing is conveniently disconnected from colonial legacies and anti-apartheid era organizing, and instead criminalized today.
The 1994 divide keeps us from seeing the liberation struggle as unfinished, as an urgent priority that requires drastic measures, immediately. While Crossroads is an iconic piece of anti-apartheid struggle history in South Africa which captured local, national, and international attention at the peak of the apartheid regime, two decades later, when 300 African women – the 1998 Crossroad’s Women’s Power Group – organised in the same place, again publicly and politically against some of the same male figures in authority, they were vilified.
These moments of women-only organizing are rarely connected in public debate and never taught in schools where anti-apartheid struggle history is limited to learning about Mandela and ends in 1994. In the main, Crossroads Women’s Committee women are treated as disposable footsoliders, freeze framed in the 1980s and ignored today, and the Women’s Power Group, one of about 10 000 protest moments per year in post 1994 South Africa, are framed as undeserving, impatient troublemakers dislocated from the celebrated history of women’s mobilising in Crossroads. Listening to them speak their much more complicated truths to power in this book challenges the 1994 narrative that tells us we are in good hands.
Second, the book attempts to go beyond exposing or juxtaposing the extremes of Cape Town and the wealth gap that characterizes South Africa as the most unequal society in the world. Apartheid translates into separateness, but in fact, apartheid then and now is about a set of relations, a deep, exploitative, personal and structural dependency on racism and sexism – a playing out of what Walter Rodney called underdevelopment in his history of colonial dynamics between Europe and Africa. If this is understood then it becomes clear that liberal ideas or projects that attempt to address ‘black poverty’ without challenging white privilege will never disrupt the current status quo.
Third, I hope to raise questions about who counts as a struggle ‘or ‘leader,’ and what counts as the women’s movement and as women’s history. Beyond ‘retrieving’ women leaders from the ‘silences’ of history to compete with or compliment the better known individual male nationalist leaders of liberation struggles, Crossroads is a collective biography of two women-only organizations. And within these gender-based formations, as is the case with most local women-led collectives, women were not fighting for ‘women’s rights’ per se, but for basic human rights and public services, in a word the commons, for all. As such it attempts to unsettle the ideologies that underpin conventional nationalist historiographies and liberal feminist practices of women’s histories.
Fourth, related to the ideology of the individual heroes is the idea of the individual expert, the historian, researching and writing history. I want to challenge the practice of just adding new, albeit badly needed, content to history books without changing the form that both research and writing takes. It is an experiment with creative collaborative re-presentation of the past. So this book was illustrated by the Trantraal Brothers and Ashley Marais, local political cartoonists by drawing on over sixty life narratives and a decade of archival research I had conducted and workshopped with contemporary housing activists and women’s collectives who chose the most urgent and ongoing themes they felt spoke to and clarified some of the ongoing challenges against segregation, racism, violence, and patriarchy standing between the ongoing colonial and apartheid past, and a future we are still fighting for.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
As explained best by Paolo Freire, I don’t see intellectual work as limited to those who author books or lead movements, and even those who do author books or take leadership positions are products of larger environments. But I can share some of the works or ways of working that represent some of the main threads that shaped my thinking and practice behind the experiment which became this book.
Feminist organizers of ever evolving formations and collectives that have actualized compasses that lead our way, for me, would include Ottilie Abrahams, Grace Lee Boggs, the Combahee River Collective, Dora Tamana, the Crossroads Women’s Committee, and Awra Amba. On the work of radical political education, I am led by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Training for Transformation, the Highlander Institute, and the many comrades whom I have learned from in movements in action over the last 15 years in Cape Town.
On creative and poetic history as political engagement, I am grateful for the works, ways of being, and words of Yvonne Vera, Ayi Kwei Armah, V. Geetha, Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, Nawal El Saadawi, June Jordan, Patricia McFadden, and the cultural work/ers of Medu Art Ensemble and the Rhodes Must Fall Writing Subcommittee. Relatedly I am inspired by the radical archiving initiatives of the Mosireen Collective’s 858.ma An Archive of Resistance and Interference Archives and the radical history education work of Know Your Continent.
The political and intellectual work of activist historians who I turn to over and over again, include Walter Rodney, Neville Alexander, Robin Kelley, Susan Geiger, CLR James, Jacqui Alexander, Amilcar Cabral, Amrit Wilson, Manning Marable, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. This intersects with the strands of oral history and feminist collaborative praxis where Richa Nagar and Chandra Talpade Mohanty have blazed trails for anti-disciplinary border-crossing.
On graphic non-fiction, this book has been inspired by Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Chester Brown’s Riel (2006), Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side, Stavans & Alcatraz’s Latino U.S.A, and D’bi Young’s Shemurenga, and by the Just Seeds Collective.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Women in Crossroads have gifted us with a history of organized resistance and alternative visions of what Robin Kelley writes about in his classic book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination: “In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflection of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born. Recovering the poetry of social movements, however, particularly the poetry that dreams of a new world, is not such an easy task.”
These ‘poetics of struggle,’ or what Silvia Federici describes as a ‘joyful militancy’ that comes from connectedness and courage to collectively confront the world are evident in life histories of activists involved in the struggle for Crossroads. Amidst the layers of brutalities women in Crossroads refused another forced removal and organized until the end of the infamous apartheid pass laws. Their strategizing, their stories, their alliances, their tensions, their humor, their pain, their planning, recalibrations over time, and reflections decades later all comes through in their narratives pieced together through oral histories and archival materials and drawn by the sharp eyes and skillful hands of the Trantraal Brothers.
For those of their generation still on earth, this book is a retrospective photo album of days remembered. For those of us who were not there, this history is a doorway into an alternative future that has yet to become present. It is an invitation to imagine forms and prospects of organizing, of collaborative scholarship, of storytelling, and of writing that can challenge the artificial and colonial built boundaries between activism vs. academia, and the classroom vs. the community, and unsettle conventions of exclusive readerships and expert authority and authorship in alienated academic knowledge production. We want to imagine manifesting new approaches to some of the old impasses of history writing and make space to experiment with collective and creative approaches to engaging history.
Koni Benson’s Crossroads: I Live Where I Like was published in conjunction with PM Press and Jacana Media. A version of this interview was published by the Black Agenda Report here.
Koni Benson is a historian, organiser, and educator. She is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.