New Internationalist

The Power of the cooking pot

Issue 360

Fed up with the ANC’s free-market policies that deliver nothing, marginalized South Africans - ‘the poors’ - are taking politics into their own hands. Activist Ashwin Desai talks to Holly Wren Spaulding.

Holly Wren Spaulding: What are the new tools of liberation?

Ashwin Desai: Simply, we are rebuilding community structures. There is nothing more revolutionary than doing what is necessary for millions of people in my province to live a humble and decent life. This involves very basic things: love, respect, consideration, freedom to move around your neighbourhood. These are seemingly very minor events – manifest over a communal cooking pot for example – but they are infused with a lot of politics, a lot of feeling.

Many people on the Left are very cynical about community movements because their militancy is not palpable – they’re not storming the barricades, they’re not building the Paris Commune, they do not know the exact difference between the IMF and World Bank and don’t particularly care to know either. But I think what we are doing is building a sense of neighbourhood, a sense of community which is as effectively anti-World Bank as any demonstration or resolution coming out of an NGO workshop.

In Chatsworth in Durban, Mr Mhlongo was what they call a ‘bush mechanic’ in the area. He looked after people’s cars and they looked after him, through bartering almost. When council security guards and the police turned up to evict his family, over 150 people, mainly women, drove them away. They blockaded the stairs that led to his flat. There were gunshots and teargas and at least six casualties, but the residents had vowed to prevent the evictions from taking place. It was not just a battle for Mhlongo but for their collective dignity as humans.

Cooking up a mixture of politics and community spirit in Chatsworth.

So people have just had to gel and that’s the beauty of this idea of neighbourhoods, this idea of sharing with and defending each other. They may disagree about eight out of ten things – there are Catholics there, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Muslims and atheists there, and sure, they fight and quarrel – but they defend their turf and it works.

How does this translate into bigger things? I don’t have the answer to that, but I know there is something beautiful and precious being born.

The new politics is driven by families participating as households. The community movements that are forming in some parts of South Africa are not made up of those working in factories. Rather we have the ‘lumpen’, the rabble, the single mother, the proto-gangster, the young children and the aunties – the unorganizable – and nobody is out of the loop.

There is a re-evaluation of what has come to be seen as resistance from the Bolshevik Revolution, and the idea that change in society is about organizing the working class, the central committee, the political party; big figures who emerge in a struggle who are very knowledgeable and then direct the masses; the vanguard party. It would be incorrect to say that those ideas about organization are still being challenged in Durban. They have been debunked because they are simply irrelevant and impossible.

HWS: In terms of those social movements, are youth involved, or are they creating their own movements?

AD: From the beginning, all over the country, community movements were almost 80-per-cent women – most of them older women – simply because they were the first ones affected by the ravages of neoliberalism. Child maintenance grants were slashed and women were the first expelled from factory jobs when tariffs on sweatshop imports were abandoned. Those who found work again are now in sweatshops. Working Monday to Sunday, they earn R500 or R600 per month ($65-80). Basic upkeep for a single woman with one child is about R1,700 ($225), which is just really basic poverty. So they became part of the movement to boycott paying for services. They are very docile in the workplace toward the boss; they want that R500. But they are militant in the community by not paying for water and electricity. They are effectively creating a social wage through their actions, saying: ‘This state wants to allow people to pay us R500 ($65), but they want us to pay R800 ($105) in rent, so we are going to take that R300 ($40) from the state by not paying.’

We are not living in your nation, Thabo: We are seizing our own power! – Poem read at an anti-eviction rally, Cape Town

At the level of lived experience translating into activism, women are the real power. Of course young people are fascinated by the local drug lord, the gangster, the rap artist and so on; they are finding a sense of meaning through these things rather than through boring old struggle again. And many of us have come to hate that word ‘struggle’; a struggle that is epitomized by speechifying, hardly any vibrant discussion and arcane meeting procedure. People are ready for activism. Delivering free basic services by reconnecting water and electricity. Building structures of feeling by sharing resources. A dressmaker exchanging a set of school clothes with an unemployed man running a childcare centre. There’s a lot of joy. It’s a movement. It’s life.

If a house goes empty it’s not the local councillor who decides who goes in there, it’s the community. They take someone off the street and they give them a roof. We really are creating liberated zones. People confront their own misery by taking over local fields and doing market gardening.

As there was a growing sense that we couldn’t be about meetings where people stood on the pulpit and lectured in boring fashion, the younger people came with their own style of taking action, and a different attitude – they wanted music and to dance, and they get pissed off and do more militant things. They care very little about the long CVs of former MKs [members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrilla army, now disbanded] and those with long struggle histories. They care about what is happening right now and they have a wonderfully cynical nose when it comes to the platitudes of politicians and other authority figures.

Now, youth are very much part of the community movements. For example, the Vulumanzi Boys (‘water opening boys’) are a youth group that teach others how to reconnect water after the company has cut them off. So there are changes and people are getting more inspired, and feel that they can find a home now in a community movement.

HWS: You talk about casting off political labels and walking naked…

AD: In apartheid South Africa, the way you shook somebody’s hand, the way you clenched your fist, said which family you were in – whether you were PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) or ANC, or part of the Black Consciousness movement. Movements literally became your family. So, for many of those involved in the politics generated by community movements, they’ve had to cast off old political affiliations and be strangers for a while, alone, and then rebuild something, redress themselves in completely new clothing, and in that new clothing, march against the very people they had previously marched alongside and shared prison cells with. Leaving political ideologies behind is a big deal but excising that part of your personal identity that depended on membership to a particular clique or creed is even bigger. Some people have identified with a party for decades. But in this new movement there is a need to break away from that and from electoral politics. It’s like marching against your parents, forsaking them and decrying them.

For many people, their biographies are written with all kinds of contradictions. If Thabo Mbeki or Mandela comes around to remember the 16 June Soweto uprising people still see the need to go to the meeting and chant the slogans of the ANC as slayer of apartheid. But the next day they are fighting evictions and denouncing the ANC as a party of neoliberalism. A militant opposition has invented itself in other places in the world, but in South Africa it has happened very quickly: the miracle here is how quickly the ANC has donned the cape of the IMF and World Bank and unsheathed the sword of structural adjustment. The pace of opposition has had to be very quick.

Part of building community movements is unlearning old ways of doing things.

HWS: Can you explain the significance of ‘living spaces that are not bound to the dollar sign’?

AD: It’s almost like the ANC has given up on ever dealing with the poor and is hoping simply to force them far out of town so they can get on with development – which means building casinos and massive statues of liberation heroes. Really. Community movements are located here – with the poorest 60 per cent of society – those whom ANC economic policy makes poorer still.

The state is slimming down its provision of maintenance and social welfare for the poorest of the poor. You need more and more money in order to survive as everything becomes privatized. This visits the most horrendous deprivation upon people: water and lights get cut off, parks get cordoned off with razor wire so kids in one neighbourhood can’t play in what was once a public space.

The hopeful thing is a sense amongst people that this government will never deliver and that we’re going to have to start building our own lives. These kinds of governments operate on a kind of ‘demobilization’: you vote once every four years and you wait, and you wait and you wait, and the father figure (yesterday Mandela, today Mbeki) will deliver. Well, we are tired of father figures.

We’re very conservative actually – we respect persons in authority here – but we’re increasingly disrespectful of authority in new and unpredictable ways. There was one case about two months ago in Mandela Park in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where the City Manager who has been evicting people and cutting off their water comes to address a mass meeting. He wants to go to the toilet in the middle of the meeting but of course there is no water because he has cut it off, so they bring him a bucket. Try as he might, he can’t pee in the bucket in front of a thousand peering faces. That would never have happened in the past; people would have actually stopped the meeting to allow the person to go to the loo.

There’s a sense that the state won’t deliver and people are making connections at the local level. A mechanic fixes a car and then a person who sews returns that with dresses or school uniforms. It’s almost as if people are part of the economy, but they’re able not to be part of the economy at the same time, and there are incredible bonds being built between people as they’re imagining a new world. These are small things, but they’re very big things.

People’s stories are being told for the first time. Not Mandela’s story and so on, but the real lives of ordinary South African people are being taken seriously now. The Poors of South Africa have not given up. They will make history. Again.

Ashwin Desai is a community activist. This is an extract from We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism, Verso, September 2003. Order the book from the NI online shop: www.newint.org/shop

Mutual Aid

Poor communities in South Africa are ‘doing politics’ – by cooking for each other, by helping neighbours resist eviction – without necessarily using the traditional language or methodologies of politics. Having experienced one liberation struggle – against racist apartheid – they have realized that true liberation will not be delivered from above, but is an ongoing process generated by their own efforts.

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