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A Path Through the Embers and into the Agora?

- Notes on the Necessity for our Democratic Imagination to Take Better

Measure of the World
Richard Pithouse
Retrieving life and the human from waste
Achille Mbembe has argued that the rendering of human beings as waste by the
interface of racism and capitalism in South Africa means that for the democratic
project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a
conscious attempt to retrieve life and 'the human' from a history of waste. He adds
that the concepts of 'the human', or of 'humanism', inherited from the West will not
suffice. We will have to take seriously the anthropological embeddedness of such
terms in long histories of "the human" as waste. Mbembe is not the first to want to
hold on to the idea of the human in the face of the systemic denial of the full and
equal humanity of all people and to insist that the idea of the human needs to be
delinked from what Aim Csairecalled 'pseudo-humanism' colonial particularities
masquerading as universal. Csaire aspired to a true humanism . . . a humanism
made to the measure of the world. Steve Biko envisioned a true humanity.
The idea that progress requires that some humans should be rendered as waste was
central to the first stirrings of modernity. In 1764 John Locke, sometimes referred to
the 'father of liberalism', took the view that lands that, where ever they may be in
the world, were still governed under an idea of a right to the commons rather than
as private property mediated by money were 'waste' 'waste' that could and should
be redeemed by expropriation. One consequence of this, as Vinay Gidwani and
Rajyashree Reddy have noted, is that for Locke, 'waste' lies outside of the ethical
ambit of civil society. Locke was a particularly brutal figure - a theorist of slavery,
genocide, colonialism and the workhouse. He thought that children should enter the
workhouse at the age of three. But he was not an aberration within liberal thought.

After all John Stuart Mill, often seen as a gentler figure, entered the East India
Company at the age of 17 and was committed to colonialism throughout his life. He
began his reflections on liberty in 1859 with the disclaimer that we may leave out
of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be
considered as in its nonage . . . Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in
dealing with barbarians. The historical practice of liberalism was certainly
emancipatory for the English bourgeoisie from which it emerged but, beginning in
Ireland, it simultaneously produced what Domenico Losurdo describes as
exclusion, de-humanization and even terror for millions of others.
Making philosophy worldly
In 1842 Karl Marx, a young man with a PhD in Philosophy, was wrestling with the
German failure to repeat the French Revolution. He quickly realised that making the
world more philosophical would require that philosophy be made more worldly,
that it take its place in the actual struggles in the world. As Stathis Kouvelakis has
shown Marx saw that the state and capital both tended towards a repression of the
political and, looking for what he called 'a third element', a constituent power, he
first turned to the press arguing that the free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of
a people's soul...the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and selfexamination is the first condition of wisdom. Marx hoped that an association of
free human beings who educate one another in an expanding public sphere could
subordinate the state to rational, public discussion in a process of ongoing
democratisation. But when, in the following year, the newspaper that he edited was
banned Marx turned his attention away from the elite public sphere towards
suffering human beings who think and to the hope that making participation in
politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism could
provide new grounds for commitment to democracy as a process of
The philosophical dogma of the day, which, from London to Johannesburg, remains

the dogma of our own time, had argued that as a large mass of people sank into
poverty they would become a rabble, a threat to society. But Marx insisted that only
one thing is characteristic, namely that lack of property and the estate of direct
labour . . . form not so much an estate of civil society as the ground upon which its
circles rest and move. Marx, always refusing to hold up abstract ideas of an
alternative society to which actually existing struggles should conform, looked to
the real movement of the working class, the male working class of parts of Western
Europe, for principles to orientate future struggle and the material force to be able
to realise them. True to his turn to a philosophy of immanence he insisted that
theory, philosophy, can become a material force when it is formulated from the
perspective of the oppressed and becomes part of their constituent movement. But
he insisted that for this happen it must be radical because To be radical is to grasp
things by the root. But for man, the root is man himself. Communism, he insisted, is
fully developed humanism.
Marxism & waste
But there were moments in his life when Karl Marx took the view that colonialism
would be an ultimately redemptive force thereby implicitly rendering the majority
of actually existing people and economies as waste in the name of a shared future to
come. Kevin Anderson's recent book Marx at the Margins provides a useful analysis
of the way in which Marx's thought evolved during the course of his life and shows,
in particular, that he came to reject the idea of colonialism as a progressive force
and began to look at communal modes of life, outside of its reach, and the reach of
capital, as potential sites of progressive movement. Aditya Mukherjee has also done
important work on how Marx moved away from his initial view of colonialism as an
ultimately historically progressive force. Nonetheless there are still cases such as,
for instance, in West Bengal, where ongoing dispossession, and the rendering of
people as waste, has been justified in the name of a form of Marxism that, wielded
by the state, continues to see the enclosure of the commons and proletarianisation
as the royal road to a socialist future.

At home, in Europe, Marx, in the first half of his life, spoke of the 'lumpenproletariat', the urban poor living outside of wage labour, with astonishing
vitriol. Marx first coined the term in The German Ideology a text that was written
in 1846 amidst the crop failure, escalating urbanisation and first stirrings of the
political ferment that would soon explode into the European spring of 1848. It,
tellingly, moves from the assumption that it is production rather than, say, as
Aristotle would have it, the capacity for speech that distinguishes the human from
the animal. The term 'lumpen-proletariat' is usually translated as the 'ragged
proletariat' but the word 'lumpen' meant both ragged and knave and it has been
suggested that Marx had the second use of the word in mind. In The Communist
Manifesto of 1848 he, with Friedrich Engles, wrote of The 'dangerous class', the
social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old
society. Four years later, in The 18th Brumaire, he railed against the scum, offal,
refuse of all classes.
Ernesto Laclau shows that, at this point in Marx's work, the proletariat is strictly
delimited from the lumpen-proletariat in order to affirm its position within
capitalist development with the result that the lumpen-proletariat is given the
status of the pure outside and its expulsion from the field of historicity is the very
condition of a pure interiority. In other words the virtue of workers, male workers,
is asserted against the dissolution of the urban poor. But when he wrote Capital,
fifteen years after The 18th Brumaire, Marx took a far less hostile view arguing that:
it is capitalist accumulation itself that constantly produces, and
produces indeed in direct relation with its own energy and extent, a
relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population which is
superfluous to capital's average requirements for its own valorization,
and is therefore a surplus population.
He also presents the combination between the employed and unemployed as both
a way for workers to combat the rendering of their own place within capitalist

production as precarious and a real threat to the logic of capitalist production that,
via the logic of supply and demand, relies on the existence of a large group of people
without an independent livelihood or a wage to drive wages down. Here Marxs
political imagination can see a positive role for the urban poor, although he still
thinks of labour solely in terms of work performed by men in the factory. He writes
that for the worker capitalist social relations transform his life-time into workingtime, and drag his wife and child beneath the juggernaut of capital. Of course Silvia
Federici, who we were honoured to have here at Rhodes last month, has shown not
just that the home is also a site of labour, largely performed by women, but also that
this labour enables the reproduction of the work force on which capitalism depends.
Despite Marxs his shift towards imagining a positive political role for the urban
poor, albeit in a manner pre-determined by his own theory, Marxism, as both
doctrine and political culture, often retains a deep current of hostility to the urban
poor and often sustains a fetish of the industrial working class, often imagined as
male, as the only subject capable of emancipatory political action. In contemporary
South Africa it is not uncommon for Marxists, in and out of the academy, and
including in seminar discussions here at Rhodes, to dismiss, on an a priori basis and without any attempt to investigate a particular political event, sequence or
organisation - any prospect of progressive action on the part of the urban poor.
Jeff Peires, for instance, has invoked Marx and the idea of the lumpen-proletariat to
reject, out of hand, the prospect of progressive organisation and mobilisation on the
part of the unemployed in Grahamstown. Jimmy Adesina has also invoked the idea
of the lumpen-proletariat in a way that compounds rather than contests the
production of people as waste.
Colonial discourses about race and the urban poor were enmeshed from the early
1800s. Engels followed the bourgeois thought of the day declaring the lumpen
proletariat to be a race . . . robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and
physically to bestiality. At one point Engels repeats one of the key tropes of the
bourgeois thought of the time, a trope that, in a racialised form, also became central

to colonial ideology that the urban poor are those who do not wish to work.
Nicholas Thorburn concludes that Marx and Engels' most vehement assaults are
saved for those who seem to revel in surviving outside productive relations.
As Kristin Ross has shown with her characteristic lan the Paris Commune of 1871,
an urban revolt that became a decisive moment in the formation of the modern left,
and continues to carry particular import for many radical approaches to the urban
question, also became a decisive moment in the political investment in the idea of
the good worker, a man, by the modern left. She suggests that this was largely in
response to right wing diatribes, often highly gendered, that presented the
politicised urban poor in monstrous terms. The Parisian elites at the time, along
with the usual claims that criminals and foreign agents were behind the uprising,
claims that are all too familiar to us in contemporary South Africa, also pointed,
amidst a full-scale moral panic, to the perversely gendered image of the Communard
as a woman, a 'petroleuse' - a bloodthirsty, slothful, drunken prostitute. Marxs
political investment in working men, and in particular factory workers, in response
to a political event, a municipal revolution largely constituted around the
neighbourhood rather than the factory, and that was, Manuel Castells argues,
decisively an action by the women, has left its mark on the common sense of the
This fetish of the male worker as the only credible revolutionary subject is often
apparent in dissident and more democratic currents of Marxism. In her reflections
on the Russian Revolution, published in 1918, Rosa Luxemburg, often seen, and for
good reason, as a democratic alternative to Vladimir Lenin, presented the 'lumpen
proletariat', under the heading of The Struggle Against Corruption, and with
reference to terms like 'degeneration' and 'sickness', as a problem to be reckoned
with, an enemy and instrument of counter-revolution requiring the 'healing' and
'purifying' rays of a revolutionary sun. In an earlier intervention, The Mass
Strike, she had written that Anarchism has become in the Russian Revolution, not
the theory of the struggling proletariat, but the ideological signboard of the

counterrevolutionary lumpen proletariat, who, like a school of sharks, swarm in the

wake of the battleship of the revolution. And therewith the historical career of
anarchism is well-nigh ended.
But classical anarchism mirrored rather than opposed the objectification of the
urban poor surviving outside of formal employment. While Marx saw
proletarianisation as enabling revolutionary agency Mikhail Bakunin saw it as
destroying revolutionary agency that, for him, was rooted in the peasant commune
and its insurrectionary traditions and various groups in the cities that had not been
subordinated to the discipline of work. Bakunin sustained Marx and Engel's
objectification of the urban poor while inverting its logic to conclude that in them
and only in them [the lumpen-proletariat], and not in the bourgeois strata of
workers, are there crystallized the entire intelligence and power of the coming
Social Revolution. A popular insurrection, by its very nature, is instinctive, chaotic,
and destructive. As Thorburn notes Bakunin, in a fashion not so different from
Marx's account of lumpen 'spontaneity', assumes that the lumpenproletariat carries a transhistorical instinctual rage. There is no space here for a
politics rooted in organisation, worked out via the use of reason and expressed as
There are other lacunae in the classic texts of the modern left. For Walter Benjamin,
writing in 1940, the year that he, in flight from the Nazis, took his own life on the
border between Spain and France, the wreckage upon wreckage that undergirds the
'storm' of modern progress erected the elegance of the Parisian arcades, the
ancestor of today's mall, on the foundation of a permanent state of emergency. But
while crude material need was systemically unmet the working class in Germany
could still assume that being swept into the factory was, nonetheless, a movement
with the current of history, with the fall of the stream, in which it would soon take
its rightful place. The factory appears as a step on the way from the commons to
socialism. But in the colonised world people were not only expropriated and
proletarianised. People were also turned into members of races in a world that was,

Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961, the last year of his life, cut in two, divided
into compartments . . . inhabited by different species.
Thinking the unthinkable
In Aim Csaires famous equation colonization = 'thingification'. Csaire, writing
in 1955, insists that in the colony 'the storm' is more about what has been trampled,
confiscated, wiped out and brought into new regimes of abuse in a circuit of mutual
services and complicity than any sense of hard won but ultimately redemptive
universal progress. Here neither the living nor the dead can be redeemed by a
modernity in which capital makes concessions to society in a double movement, or a
revolutionary proletariat seizes the engines of progress for itself, until racism is
abolished and humanity known under a generic appellation. But the sorry state of
the postcolony where, as Fanon warned, national consciousness has seldom attained
political and social consciousness, makes it clear that while the abolition of racism
is a necessary condition for the achievement of a generic humanity it is not, on its
own, a sufficient condition. In fact its clear that colonialism and anti-colonial
nationalism have often shared a view of the subaltern, as Partha Chatterjee writes of
the peasantry in India, as an object of their strategies, to be acted upon, controlled,
and appropriated within their respective structures of state power. Chatterjee also
notes that elite nationalist thought excludes the subaltern from the domain of
reason and argues that Nowhere in the world has nationalism qua nationalism
challenged the legitimacy of the marriage between Reason and capital. Both the
expulsion of the subaltern from the domain of reason by nationalist elites, in and out
of the state, and the conception of the subaltern as an object to be acted on from
above, which is also central to the logic of some forms of left vanguardism, including
those organised in NGOs and groupuscles of various sorts, are familiar to us in South
Chatterjee has sought to introduce some conceptual categories that can shift the
discussion of what he calls 'popular politics in most of the world' on to a rational

terrain. In his estimation shack dwellers, living outside of the law are not just
subject to stigmatisation but are also structurally excluded from the agora. They are,
he argues, only tenuously, and then even then ambiguously and contextually,
rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution. They are not,
therefore, proper members of civil society and are not regarded as such by the
state. Chatterjee notes that politics conducted outside of civil society, outside of
the zone of legitimate political discourse, is often just dismissed as lumpen
culture amidst fears that politics has been taken over by mobs and
criminals. Again this is something that we are very familiar with in South Africa.
And there have been occasions when the left has read the entry of the subaltern
subject into the agora with forms of panic and hostility, sometimes clearly racialised,
that mirror those of the most crudely unreflective forms of ordinary bourgeois
thought. Chatterjee argues that it makes better sense to see the zone of engagement
outside of civil society as what he calls 'political society', a space in which people
may transgress the strict lines of legality in struggling to live and work but are,
nonetheless, engaged in real forms of politics, some of which can enable actual
expansion of the freedoms of people. Aditya Nigam, who is not uncritical of
Chatterjee, has written that Chatterjee's notion of political society has provided an
unprecedented opening, a possibility that of thinking the unthinkable.
In Texaco, his fabulously inventive novel about a shack settlement in Martinique,
Patrick Chamoiseau writes of a proletariat without factories, workshops, and work,
and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an
existence like a path through embers. But Texaco is also a novel of struggle, of
struggle with the 'persistence of Sisyphus' - struggle to hold a soul together in the
face of relentless destruction amidst a disaster of asbestos, tin sheets, crates, mud
tears, blood, police. It is a novel of barricades, police and fire, a struggle to call
forth the poet in the urban planner, a struggle to 'enter City'. It's also about the
need to hold on, hold on, and moor the bottom of your heart in the sand of deep

The theoretical project, undertaken in and around the academy, of working towards
the assertion of a more genuinely universal humanism and a more genuinely
universal emancipatory horizon 'the sand of deep freedom' - is one thing. The
political project of affirming an equal humanity amidst relentless destruction and
waste with 'the persistence of Sisyphus' is another. It is not that often that they are
brought together. One reason for this is that it is a common feature of a wide range
of polities that the damned of the earth, people who may be seen as populations to
be managed by the state and NGOs but who live and work outside of the parameters
established as legitimate by bourgeois society, are not welcome in a
shared agora. Indeed it is common for their very appearance in the agora as rational
speaking beings rather than as silent victims requesting help from their masters, or
a cheering mass performing fealty to their masters, to be received as illicit as
violent, criminal, fraudulent and consequent to malevolent conspiracy even when
their presence takes the form of nothing other than rational speech. This is as
common in states that aspire to liberal democracy as it is in states governed by an
authoritarian nationalism - be it inflected with ideas of the right or the left. It's also
equally common when the masters in question are in the state, NGOs (across the
political spectrum) or the left understood, in Alain Badiou's terms, as the set of
people that claim that they are the only ones able to provide 'social movements'
with a 'political perspective' . Jacques Rancire is quite right to insist that, from the
ancient world until today: The war of the poor and the rich is also a war over the
very existence of politics. The dispute over the count of the poor as people, and of
the people as the community, is a dispute about the existence of politics through
which politics occurs. We need to be clear that while it is true that, since Plato, it
has often been thought that workers should keep to their place and function it is
also true that during the last century workers won a political place, a subordinate
place to be sure, in many societies. And as we know all too well the worker who
steps on to the political stage outside of authorised forms of organisation and
representation can very quickly appear as criminal or as a dupe of someone else's
conspiracy to the state and civil society. But there is often a significant degree to
which the urban poor, and especially people who live and work outside of the law,

are cast out of civil society, and out of the count of who has a right to the political, in
a way that is far more acute than that of worker who lives and works within the law.
This situation has often been intensely compounded when people who have to make
their lives on 'a path through embers' have also been raced.
There is a long history, across space and time, of people being objectified in a
manner that refuses to recognise their speech as speech or to take their political
capacities seriously. In Silencing the Past Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a brilliant historian
who died last year, examines the reception of the Haitian Revolution of 1804. He
showed that the idea of African slaves winning a revolutionary war for their
freedom against the great European powers of the day was simply unimaginable unthinkable - in the most globally powerful sites of authorised intellectual
authority at the time. He notes that the Haitian Revolution constituted a sequence
for which not even the extreme left in France or in England had a conceptual frame
of reference. Trouillot goes on to argue that the narrative structures of Western
historiography have not broken with the ontological order of the Renaissance and
concludes that This exercise of power is much more important than the alleged
conservative or liberal adherence of the historians involved.
Silencing the present
Today we can speak of a silencing of the present. Human beings continue to
become objects to others, either invisible or hyper-present, their faces distorted into
caricature or worn into nothingness by the enduring weight of the economic, spatial
and symbolic division of the world in accordance with what Trouillot terms an
ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants.
There has been, and, with important exceptions, often continues to be, a silencing of
the struggles of the urban poor, struggles in which women have often been at the
forefront, even within theories of collective emancipation. In the metropolitan
ghetto, defined by Loc Wacquant as a distinctive, spatially based, concatenation of

mechanisms of ethnoracial closure and control, what Wacquant calls 'territorial

stigmatization' has been profoundly inflected by race. The idea that spatial divisions,
which are also sociological, must also be ontological has frequently been part of the
unexamined common sense of the postcolony. For instance Obika Gray writes that in
Jamacia in the 1970s the mobilized urban poor remained a morally discredited,
socially isolated and culturally stigmatized group.
The tendency to read the intersection of spatial and sociological realities in
ontological terms often endures across time and through different political regimes.
In 1976 Janice Perlman famously argued that the myth of the marginality, of the
moral degradation of shack dwellers in Rio was produced by the constant attempt
of those in power to blame the poor for their position because of deviant attitudes,
masking the unwillingness of the powerful to share their privilege. She noted that
the political left is also influenced to some extent by the myths of marginality and
concluded the myth was anchored in people's minds by roots that will remain
unshaken by any theoretical criticism. Almost forty years later Ral Zibechi reports
that: The Latin American left regard the poor peripheries as pockets of crime, drug
trafficking, and violence; spaces where chaos and the law of the jungle reign.
Distrust takes the place of understanding. There is not the slightest difference in
perspective between left and right on this issue.
This can be compounded by the catastrophic and still poisonous history of race as a
tool of domination. Achille Mbembe begins On the Postcolony by noting that
Speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally.
V.Y. Mudimbe notes that anxieties about the African presence in the modern world
have often been particular concerned with the urban African: Marginality
designates the intermediate space between the so-called African tradition and the
projected modernity of colonialism. It is apparently an urbanized space. The
universitys pretensions to science, or academic rigour, offer no automatic immunity
from the widespread inability to consider Africa, and sometimes, in particular urban
Africa, rationally.

In 1952, in his first published essay, The North African Syndrome, Fanon, then
twenty seven years old, argued that in France migrant workers from North Africa
were hidden beneath a social truth, thingified and dissolve(d) on the basis of an
idea within French science. He was particularly critical of the view that the North
African was a thing tossed into the great sound and fury which he described as
manifestly and abjectly disingenuous as it functioned to mask both the reality of
an inhuman system that treated people as objects and the humanity of the people in
question. The philosopher Lewis Gordon, who will take up the Nelson Mandela
Professorship here at Rhodes University next year and whose work on illicit
appearance speaks well to some of the issues I am raising here - makes a similar
point in his sustained reading of W.E.B. Du Bois's essay The Study of the Negro
Problem over the last decade or so. The essential lesson that Gordon draws from his
reading of Du Bois is that there is a profound difference between studying
oppressed people as 'problem people', an approach that implicitly assumes that the
broader system is essentially just and that there is something lacking in people who
inhabit its underside, and studying oppressed people as people that have been
subject to oppression and confront a particular set of problems consequent to that
experience. A concept like the 'lumpen-proletariat', or 'the lumpen' which has been
borrowed from Marx by Mbembe, and seized from Mbembe with some enthusiasm
by liberals like Alistair Sparks is, when used uncritically and without very careful
qualification, plainly more suited to the first mode of study than it is to the second.
Around the world, contemporary struggles by the urban poor are often, via implicit
recourse to an ontological division of the world, subject to contemporary forms of
silencing. For instance in an intervention on the uprising in the Parisian ghettoes in
2006 Emilio Quadrelli shows the huge gulf between the assumptions, invariably
pejorative, of what Bruno Bosteels calls speculative leftism, delinked from concrete
engagement and as radical as it is politically inoperative, and the realities of the
actually existing struggles in the banlieues by the simple but effective device of
juxtaposing theoretical flights of academic fantasy, ungrounded in any actual

experience of participation in popular struggles or credible research, with

interviews with grassroots militants. There are cases in which a similar method
would produce similar results in South Africa. NGOs, which often set the agenda for
the media and academy, can also function to silence popular political initiative on
the part of the urban poor. Peter Hallward shows that in Haiti NGO power is
frequently racialised: the provision of white enlightened charity to destitute and
allegedly superstitious blacks is part and parcel of an all too familiar neo-colonial
pattern. He notes that left NGOs tend not to organize with and among the people . .
. In the places and on the terms where the people are strong but prefer trivial
made-for-media demonstrations . . . usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40
people. Hallward shows that some of these NGOs, like Action Aid now
headquartered in Johannesburg, supported the 2004 US backed coup against an
elected government that drew much of its support from the urban poor. His critique
extends beyond NGOs and includes the small political organisation Batay Ouvriye, a
tiny political organisation that is, like any number of neo-Trotskyite sects . . .
militant and inconsequential in equal measure, but has nonetheless been
prominent on the international left and which produced slander against popular
forms of political mobilisation as virulent as anything produced by the right. This
became, he concludes, invaluable propaganda for the sector of civil society most
committed to legitimating the US backed coup against a popular and elected
government. Hallwards account of how popular struggles in Haiti have been
received by elites in NGOs and small political sects has striking points of connection
with recent South African experiences. In both the cases discussed by Quadrelli and
Hallward it becomes clear that a priori ontological assumptions are sometimes given
more explanatory weight than empirical investigations. Perhaps there needs to be a
return to Mao's dictum No investigation no right to speak that was appropriated in
Paris in 1968 with considerable intellectual and political consequence.
The rendering of people as 'waste' takes on a particularly acute intensity in South
Africa. As Giovanni Arrighi et al note the South(ern) African experience (is) . . . a
paradigmatic outlier case of accumulation by dispossession. Gill Hart has argued

that here the extent of dispossession is an important factor driving the inability of
the economy to create employment. The scale of what Marx called 'immiseration'
extends far beyond that of any process that could be argued to be functional to the
economy in so far as it constitutes a 'reserve army of labour'. Large numbers of
people are simply economically redundant. And for many people labour, whether or
not it is accompanied by a wage, is undertaken on a precarious and often highly
exploitative basis outside of the formal economy and the legal protections that, often
more in principle than in practice, regulate labour in that sphere. This economic
bifurcation is being actively compounded by the persistence of a profoundly
unequal and inadequate education system. Moreover the rendering of people as
waste is increasingly being built into the materiality of our cities in the form of the
peripheral housing developments and the transit camp zones of exclusion,
suffering and stigmatisation - both of which are widely referred to in popular
discourse via metaphors that speak to contemporary forms of 'development' as
banishment, incarceration and the rendering of human beings as rubbish and as
Trade unions continue, sometimes militantly, to contest the terms on which labour
engages with capital. But the community has, as was the case in the 1980s, also
become a site of intense struggle. The shack settlement has often been central to this
still escalating sequence of struggle the nature and significance of which is often
obscured by the a priori use of descriptive terms like popcorn protests or, more
commonly, service delivery protests. These terms often function to render protest
banal but there is also a whole lexicon that functions to render it perverse. Across a
range of sites of elite power shack dwellers' political agency is frequently read in
terms of external conspiracy, criminality or some sort of intersection between
ignorance and thuggery. Reports of deliberative and democratic processes on the
part of grassroots militants by researchers who have engaged in long term
ethnographic immersion or participation have been confidently dismissed as, a
priori, romantic or even fraudulent by people who have not conducted any
investigation of their own. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the

Democratic Alliance (DA) both routinely present protest from shack settlements in
terms of malevolent external conspiracy. In March 2013 a Durban newspaper, The
Daily News, ran a story with the headline Shack dwellers invade Durban. The
article, described the shack dwellers in question as an armed mob, and as
invaders and quotes interviewees, local property owners, describing a mad racket
and speaking of a tragedy. The land occupation inciting all this panic had been
organised by long standing residents of the city who had been illegally and brutally
evicted from their homes by the municipality. It was hardly an invasion of the city.
When challenged from below to operate in a more democratic manner NGO
networks have, just like the state, responded with entirely dishonest allegations of
criminality, thuggery or external manipulation. There are cases where academics
have repeated some of the worst aspects of the sectarian slander, some of it
outrightly defamatory, much of it clearly racialised, against autonomous popular
organisation that has emerged out of the intersection between NGOs and the
authoritarian left in South Africa. But even when academic work has no sectarian
axe to grind it frequently writes about the urban poor in a manner that draws on all
too confidently held prejudices rather than credible research. For instance Daryl
Glaser, in a piece on the xenophobic and ethnic pogroms of May 2008 that Michael
Neocosmos rightly terms crass, simply asserted that popular democracy in action
is not a pretty sight and concluded that the pogroms were in fact profoundly
democratic, albeit in a majoritarian sense. No mention was made of the popular
organisations, in at least one case deeply democratic, that effectively opposed
xenophobic and ethnic violence. The result is that the reader is left with the false
impression, one that conforms to the most base stereotypes prevalent amongst
elites, that all poor people are xenophobic, violent and incapable of participation in
the agora. In an otherwise valuable article on Jacob Zuma's rape trial Shireen
Hassim writes that:
(T)here is also a challenge to rebuild relationships horizontally with
the leadership of the social movements, who support Zuma as a propoor candidate. Despite their professed commitment to poor women,
the new social movements have revealed themselves as ready to ditch

equality rights when more important decisions about leadership are

debated. Of the major social movements on the left, only the TAC has
sided with womens organisations. Yet it is not the only social
movement that has a majority female membership the same is true
of the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Campaign
[sic], and Abahlali Mjondolo[sic]. These movements, dependent on
women for their grassroots character, seem willing to trade away
womens rights to dignity and autonomy for short-term political gain.
This author has no inside knowledge of how the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee
responded to the campaign in support of Zuma at the time. But it can be affirmed
with certainty that neither the Anti-Eviction Campaign nor Abahlali baseMjondolo
ever expressed support for Zuma in any form. In the latter case the refusal to
support Zuma cost the movement some support in some neighbourhoods, including
support from women, and resulted in it being subject to serious intimidation,
including misrepresentation from a suddenly explicitly ethnicised local ANC as
having 'sold out' to its Indian and Xhosa members. This eventually enabled serious
state backed violence against its leading members that was mediated through ethnic
claims. Hassim's gross misrepresentation of the politics in the Anti-Eviction
Campaign and Abahlali baseMjondolo at the time is certainly not based on any
attempt to make sense of empirical realities but it does confirm to some stereotypes
about popular politics. This cannot be held to be respectful of the dignity and
autonomy of the members of these movements, many of whom, including many
people in leadership positions in Abahlali baseMjondolo, were women.
The shack settlement as a site of politics
The significance of the shack settlement as a site of politics, and the shack dweller as
a subject of politics, is not a recent development. On the contrary the shack
settlement became highly politicised in South Africa at various moments during the
last century. These included the mobilisation by the Industrial and Commercial
Workers' Union in Durban in the second half of the 1920s, the various shack
dwellers' movements in Johannesburg in the 1940s, the contestation for Cato Manor


in Durban from the late 1940s until the late 1950s, and the mass struggles of the
1980s which, in and out of the shack settlement, often took an urban form. There
were moments when insurgent spatial practices were combined with a broader
vision for social change and there were moments where womens agency was
central to these mobilisations. But, perhaps most infamously in Cato Manor in 1949
and in Inanda, in Durban, and Crossroads, in Cape Town, in the 1980s, there were
also highly reactionary forms of violent mobilisation grounded in the opportunities
for livelihoods that can be found in shack settlements and mediated via appeals to
ethnicity or the patriarchal authority of culture. These forms of reactionary
mobilisation often aligned themselves with a repressive state. They have a lot in
common with the form of mobilisation that the ANC has recently sought to incite in
Durban in order to crush independent organisation.
Before the end of apartheid shack dwellers' struggles were usually subsumed under
a nationalist struggle, or opposition to it, that tended to disavow the particularity of
the shack settlement as a site of habitation and struggle. It was often assumed that
the urban question would be automatically resolved by the success of the national
struggle. However there are clear lines of continuity in both state and popular
practices in the periods before, during and after apartheid. The state continues to
respond to the urban poor in an exclusionary, authoritarian and often violent
manner. It continues, as happened under apartheid and colonialism, to see dissent
from below, whether formally organised or not, as a result of external conspiracy
rather than as what it says it is. At the same time insurgent spatial practices,
sometimes taking the form of what Asef Bayat calls 'quiet encroachment' and
sometimes taking the form of overtly political mobilisation like the recent spate of
land occupations named 'Marikana', continue and, at times, continue to offer a
significant challenge to the ability of the state and capital to sustain their duopoly on
urban planning. After apartheid the shack settlement has, again, become a site of
acute political intensity.


The intensity of the shack settlement as a site of contestation plainly has a lot to do
with material factors. It also has a lot to do with the state's turn in 2004 towards an
agenda aimed at the control and eradication rather than support of shack
settlements. The way in which the state and the ruling party seek to discipline
rather than enable organisation in the shack settlement is also an important factor.
But it also has something to do with the fact that to step into the shack settlement is
to step into the void. This is not because of any ontological difference amongst the
people living there, or because life there is entirely other at the level of day-to-day
sociality. It is because it is a site that is not fully inscribed within the laws and rules
through which the state governs society. Because its meaning is not entirely fixed it
is an unstable element of the situation. The unfixed way in which the shack
settlement is indexed to the situation opens opportunity for a variety of challenges from above and from below, democratic and authoritarian, in the name of the
political, of tradition, of nationalism and of private interest, and from the left and the
right - to the official order of things. Of course neither social exclusion, nor the many
ways in which it is resisted, can be reduced to the shack settlement. But there is no
question that it is a site where people's various forms of refusal to accept that they
be rendered as 'waste' have come in to intense and sustained conflict with the state.
The shack settlement was a central site for the xenophobic pogroms that swept
parts of the country in 2008.It has also been a central site for most of the formally
organised movements that have emerged after apartheid. The shack settlement has
also been a key site in the sequence of popular protest that is generally not
organised by sustained and formally constituted social movements. Camalita
Naicker, a Masters student here at Rhodes, is looking at womens struggles in
Marikana. Her work shows that the shack settlement was an important part of the
struggle in Marikana. Benjamin Fogel, who studied here at Rhodes, has argued that
in De Doorns, the centre of the uprising on the farms in the Western Cape last year,
key organisers had been politicised by struggles for housing and services in the
Stofland shack settlement. Women and young people have often been central to the
forms of organisation and mobilisation that have been developed in the shack

settlement which have often been constituted around the idea of community rather
than work. These realities have not always sat well with forms of politics that invariably dogmatic, often authoritarian and uniformly unable to build sustained
mass organisation or mobilisation - operate under the illusory assumption that
reality should, in Antonio Gramsci's words, conform to [pre-existing] abstract
Dwelling is fundamental to any existential conception of human being. And, as
Martin Heidegger argued in 1951, We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means
of building. Given the degree to which direction from donor and state agendas has
ensured that much of the academic and NGO writing about housing and the broader
urban question in contemporary South Africa is entirely technocratic this assertion
of the existential aspect of dwelling, which has tremendous popular resonance
often framed in the language of dignity, is invaluable. Housing is not solely a matter
of a material need and the degree to which its provision is effective is not solely a
quantitative question. It is also, as has so often been asserted in struggle, a matter of
But modes of building and dwelling are not solely inflected by existential choice. The
capacity to build for oneself is dependent on access to resources whether from a
wage, other form of income or a commons and the regulation of the right to build,
or to occupy buildings, has frequently been one of the mechanisms by which people
are classified into putative types and by which participation in the agora, economic
well-being and access to physical security has been mediated. Buildings, and the
lines of force that cut through their agglomeration, shape space and constitute a
considerable part of the social situation in which dwelling takes form. Both
economic and political inequality and forms of opposition to exclusion and
domination, be they in the form of popular action be it insurgent or defensive,
openly and collectively confrontational or quieter and more personal forms of
disobedience - or state reforms, have often been concretised in the manner in which
the world is built and the social logic of building sustained by armed force in the

hands of the state and the market, barricades in the hands of popular forces and all
kinds of less dramatic forms of routine social regulation and contestation.
The intensity of the shack settlement as a site of politics is not, at all, unique to South
Africa. There is a similar intensity, often associated with a repertoire of tactics that,
like the road blockade marked by burning tyres, have become part of an
international grammar of protest in many countries across the global South. In India
and Kenya the shack settlement has been a site of catastrophic religious and ethnic
mobilisation. But it has also recently been a site of progressive politics that, in
countries like Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela, has made important national
interventions with international consequences. Account of the Egyptian uprising
based on credible research rather than lazy assumptions about the power of social
media are increasingly pointing to the role of the urban poor. Ral Zibechi take the
view that: If a spectre is haunting the Latin American elites at the beginning of the
twenty-first century, it is for sure living in the peripheries of the large urban cities.
The main challenges to the dominant system in the last two decades have emerged
from the heart of the poor urban peripheries.
In South Africa, as is common elsewhere, the shack settlement has also become a
deeply contested space onto which elite fears about crime, immigration, disease, and
political and social insubordination, sometimes gendered, are projected with
increasing virulence. In some cases it is a site of spatial exclusion that is functional
to capital, and bourgeois society more generally, as it enables low wage labour,
usually precariously employed, to be housed at no cost to the state or capital. But
there are also cases where it provides a genuine challenge to the sanctity of private
property and spatial segregation. When shack settlements are spatially insurgent
they often enable access to opportunities of various sources, and in particular those
relating to livelihoods, and to institutions, like schools.
At the same time as all sorts of anxieties are projected onto the shack settlement
political parties and NGOs are involved in active competition to capture these spaces

and to be able to represent their inhabitants as obedient partisans of their projects.

The result is a strange bifurcation in the stereotypes projected onto shack
settlements and shack dwellers. When they are seen as a threat to bourgeois society
across the political spectrum - shack settlements appear, as Fanon wrote as
places of ill fame peopled by women and men of evil repute. But when their
inhabitants have, or can be made to appear to have accepted the tutelage of an NGO
or a clientelist relation to a political party they are more likely to appear as the long
suffering but patient and noble poor. In both cases the shack dweller appears as
other-worldly and certainly does not appear as a person who thinks or who is
worthy or indeed capable of independent participation in civil society. On the
contrary it is routinely assumed that civil society is a space in which, as Marx
observed with regard to French peasants: They cannot represent themselves, they
must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their
master, as an authority over them. The result of this is that the shack settlement
routinely appears as a space from which, to appropriate Jacques Rancires words,
only groans or cries expressing suffering, hunger or anger could emerge, but not
actual speech demonstrating a shared aisthesis. Despite the persistence of the
shack settlement as a site of politics there is an enduring inability amongst elites,
across the political spectrum, to recognise political agency in the shack settlement.
No matter how articulate the subaltern may be there is a systemic inability to
recognise her speech as speech in elite publics. This is as true for the state as it is
for much of the media, professional civil society and the academy, including, in both
the latter cases, their left edges.
Ever since the shack settlement became a site of politics after apartheid, and from
Johannesburg, to Durban, Cape Town and innumerable small towns, it has,
irrespective of the language that people are speaking, become common to hear
people ground their right to disobedience in an affirmation of their humanity. Of
course other discourses are also mobilised including citizenship, culture, loyalty to
the ANC and histories of struggle. But, although popular politics is a certainly a
dynamic space the affirmation of humanity as a foundation for a challenge to elites

of various sorts has been striking. The years of protest from shack settlements
around the country have won many small victories but they have never come close
to forcing the state, capital and civil society to accept a fundamental democratisation
of the urban regime. However they have constituted the urban poor as political
actors and, despite relentless attempts by various elite actors to technicise the
political, to politicise aspects of the ongoing production of people as waste.
A humanism made to the measure of the world
There is a rich tradition of thought that, in Csaire's phrase cited at the outset,
reaches towards a humanism made to the measure of the world. This thought has
sought to extend the category of those that count as fully human and to oppose
ontological explanations for invisibility, exclusion or subordination with political
explanations. Some of it has, as Mbembe writes in a luminous essay on what he calls
the force and power of the metamorphic thought of Fanon, the brightness of
metal. In Fanon's case the will to contest rather than to abjure humanism is rooted
in fidelity to the two ethical axioms on which his project is founded. The first is the
necessity to recognise the open door of every consciousness. The second, which
follows from a full apprehension of the first, is that we all have the right to come
into a world that [is] ours and to help to build it together.
The character of the bright metallic strength that Mbembe discerns in Fanon's
thought is drawn from the experience of being a subject amongst subjects on the
common paths of real life. Fanon is clear that it is forged in action and requires
ongoing ethical engagement with the self as well as others. This makes it entirely
different to the ruthless will to power that can come with modes of politics that
speak in the name of justice from within the blinding pain, fear and rage of a
collective wound, fantasies of a privileged access to ethical enlightenment or
strategic capacity, the politics of the synecdoche in which a part believes that it
stands in for the whole, or a sense that states or economies are inhuman forces to
which progress requires accommodation rather than contestation.

For Fanon the capacity for reason is central to human being. This is, of course, an
ancient idea. For Aristotle the human, as political animal, is separated from other
animals by the capacity for speech, which is not the same as voice, as it extends
beyond the ability to communicate pleasure and pain to enable discussions on the
question of justice. Aristotle concludes that It is the sharing of a common view in
these matters that makes a household and a state. But when the agora is not open
to all, when the right to speech is not extended to all and the mere appearance of
certain people in the agora is considered to be illicit a dominant view will often be
mistaken for a common view. In many cases its claim to constitute a common view
will be rooted, along with other modes of containment that divide those presented
as having a capacity for speech from those assumed to have a mere capacity for
voice, in exclusionary spatial practices the woman, the worker, the raced other and
the foreigner all in their place and often kept there by forms of policing, some
discursive and some simply violent.
Our prospects for a democratic future, for democracy as a democratising process,
for 'an association of free human beings who educate one another' is receding in the
face of a state willing, amongst other things, to use murder as a form of social
containment. But the democratic prospects that remain will not be realised if we do
not find a way to look beyond elections and civil society to affirm that there is
thought amidst waste and to open the agora to all.
Grahamstown, October 2013
This essay draws, in part, from a seminar presented at WISER, at WITS, in May last
year; a public lecture given at the University of Illinois in March this year and recent
papers published in City, The Journal of Asian & African Studies, South Atlantic
Quarterly and Thesis Eleven as well as two forthcoming pieces. George Caffentzis
pointed to an important omission in the first draft.