Tracking everyday practices and interactions between poor residents and state agents in South Africa’s shack settlements, Chance investigates the rise of nationwide protests since the late 1990s. Based on ethnography in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, the book analyzes the criminalization of popular forms of politics that were foundational to South Africa’s celebrated democratic transition. Chance argues that we can best grasp the increasingly murky line between “the criminal” and “the political” with a “politics of living” that casts slum and state in opposition to one another. Living Politics shows us how legitimate domains of politics are redefined, how state sovereignty is forcibly enacted, and how the production of new citizen identities crystallize at the intersections of race, gender, and class.
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"Where There Is Fire, There Is Politics": The Material Life of Governance
Faku and I stood surrounded by billowing smoke. In the Durban shack settlement of Slovo Park, flames flickered between piles of debris, which the day before had been wood plank and plastic tarpaulin walls. The conflagration began early in the morning. Within hours, before the arrival of fire trucks or ambulances, the two thousand households that made up the settlement as we knew it had burned to the ground. On a hillcrest in Slovo, gathered in a mass meeting, were members of Abahlali. Slovo was a founding settlement of Abahlali, which emerged from a burning road blockade during protests in 2005. In part, the meeting was to mourn. Five people had been found dead that day in the remains, including Faku's neighbor. "Where there is fire, there is politics," Faku said to me. This fire, like others before, had been covered by the local press and radio, some journalists having been notified by Abahlali via cell phone text message and online press release. The Red Cross soon set up a makeshift soup kitchen, and the city government provided emergency shelter in the form of a large, brightly striped communal tent. Residents, meanwhile, took up tools for several days of hard labor, digging foundations and hammering nails to construct new shacks. By midday, local officials in luxury vehicles rode down the winding dirt road of the settlement, leaving piles of blankets and stacks of canned food. A Slovo resident, with a megaphone, shouted that those seeking the goods first had to display African National Congress (ANC) membership cards. A riot nearly erupted.
Fire is a familiar sign of life in the sprawling shacklands that populate the margins of Durban's city center. Behind securitized suburban landscapes, glossy shopping plazas, and beachfront tourist attractions, residents like Faku routinely use fire as a source of light and heat at home, and as a weapon of protest on the streets. By tracking everyday interactions with state agents between the mid-1980s and the present, this chapter analyzes how residents of shack settlements leverage the material properties of fire to secure claims to energy infrastructure, and more broadly to political inclusion and economic redistribution. As I illustrate, residents are deploying the distinct destructive and productive capacities of fire through practices, borrowed from liberation movements, which have been criminalized during South Africa's democratic transition. By approaching fire as intertwined with power, I illustrate how the urban poor, those living on the margins of the city, come to inhabit political roles that transform — and are transformed by — material life.
Fires in settlements occur because of household accidents or deliberate political acts. Official statistics suggest that shack fires happen ten times per day throughout the country, with one death resulting every other day. A shack fire is estimated at once per day in the city of Durban alone (Birkinshaw 2008, 1). During my own research, I recorded at least one shack fire and street protest every month in Abahlali-affiliated communities. Street protests are estimated at about five per day nationwide. These fires, as I found, are regular fodder for local tabloids, national television, and social media, ensuring that news of flames spreads quickly through South African media spheres.
To analyze the intertwining of fire and living politics in urban South Africa, the first section of this chapter illustrates how liberation movements and apartheid state agents made use of fire during the ungovernable years of the mid-1980s, searing it into the life histories of the next generation of activists in townships and shack settlements. The second section, focusing on burning barricades, suggests how Abahlali members are adopting and redeploying practices of liberation activists, which have been recast in the post-apartheid period as the work of "electricity bandits" and other shadowy "criminal elements." The last section, returning to shack conflagrations, suggests how forms of endangerment attributed to a lack of electricity and the promise of infrastructure have become a platform for innovative forms of political mobilization in poor communities.
Living Memories of Fire: Insurgency in 1980s KwaZulu-Natal
Prior to the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, fire was linked to the atrocities of apartheid, counterrevolutionary activities, and the very possibility of liberation. During the 1952 Defiance Campaign, a young Mandela and other activists torched their passbooks, the notorious identity documents that regulated and restricted the mobility of African people under apartheid. The campaign, which swelled membership across ethnic and racial lines by the tens of thousands, would mark the ANC's birth as a mass movement. By transforming a tangible symbol of apartheid into ash, Mandela showed up the illegitimacy of the race-based state's power to divide and rule, while issuing a performative claim on inclusive "nonracial" citizenship within a new democratic polity. The ANC had been inspired by Mohandas Gandhi's 1909 nonviolence campaign in KwaZulu-Natal, when South African Indians likewise broke the law to burn their passes — which prohibited crossing into unauthorized zones — in defiance of British colonialism, suggestive again of fire's potential power to destroy and redraw lines of difference.
A quotation by Winnie Mandela, at times cited in present-day protests, captures the spirit of these turbulent times and helped make her its controversial icon — then and now. In 1986, she said, "Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches ... we shall liberate this country." Her words suggest how the properties of fire constituted its threat to state security and its importance to urban insurgency. Unlike guns and other weapons that required a supply chain and orders from above, fire was always within the grasp of ordinary men and women, made from ordinary, on-hand materials found inside the home. The primary tools of its ignition, matches, are not only affordable and accessible to all, and in this sense highly democratized, but they are also highly mobile, easily transported from place to place; they can be secreted, if necessary, hidden away in one's palm, pocket, or kitchen cupboard. Once set, flame spreads rapidly and consumes what it touches, making its illuminant effects highly visible, but leaving the agents who have lit the match often invisible, mysterious, or unknown.
Abahlali members often point to the Defiance Campaign as a fiery precursor to post-apartheid civil disobedience. Yet residents of contemporary shack settlements — in life histories, in texts produced by them, and media representations — identify their mobilizations involving fire with one historical moment in particular: the insurgency of the mid-1980s. Persuaded that the time had come "to submit or fight," the ANC established Umkhonto we Sizwe, the MK or "Spear of the Nation," in 1961, following the Sharpeville Massacre, in which sixty-nine people were gunned down during a mass gathering against pass laws. The MK's guerilla military cells, by way of matches and petrol bombs, set on fire government buildings and blew up electricity pylons.
By the mid-1980s, with many of the earlier generation of fighters such as Mandela in prison, the ANC famously called for the townships to be rendered "ungovernable," thereby expanding and popularizing the role of militant activities beyond the rigid hierarchies of the MK. Oliver Tambo, then president of the ANC, referred to the militant operations of the party as "the terrible but cleansing fires of revolutionary war." Fire during this period served not only as a popular political metaphor but also as a choice weapon for youths coming of age during the struggle; they notably set about blocking roadways with fiery barricades and burning the homes of despised local councillors. The term "ungovernable" generally implied intervening in interactions with state agents by breaking the law, and destroying — through unrest, disruption, or violence — material manifestations of the prevailing order.
Yet as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) revealed in gruesome detail, apartheid state agents harnessed some of the same properties of fire during the mid-1980s for their most shadowy operations. Security forces were known to burn the bodies of the disappeared, which along with preventing proper burial, destroyed evidentiary traces of the identities of both victim and perpetrator. Inkatha fighters, Zulu nationalists known as "the third force," were armed by the old regime to target their neighbors during the liberation struggle and made a practice of burning rural homesteads, a memory that lives on for many in Durban shacklands. Burning homesteads dually served as retribution for supporting ANC operatives and as a sovereign claim on disputed territories.
All sides — the apartheid state, Inkatha, and the ANC — deployed so-called necklacing, setting on fire a rubber tire around the neck of a suspected impimpi (spy, colluder in isi Zulu and isi Xhosa), who would slowly burn to death. Necklacing as punishment for political disloyalty was a practice viewed by some in the ANC as evidence that populist violence had run amok. One of the earliest recorded cases of necklacing was brought to light by the TRC, which documented the burning of a young girl, Maki Skosana, in July 1985, accused of being an informant. Dramatically, while attending the funeral for one of the young comrades she had supposedly had a hand in killing, she was set on fire. Necklacing, along with the torching of shops and homes, would reemerge after apartheid in the wake of "xenophobic attacks" targeting ethnic and national minorities, as well as in acts of vigilante justice aimed at suspected witches and criminals (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001; Hickel 2014) — including at sites where I conducted research. In Kennedy Road, fire was used during ethnicized armed attacks by ANC supporters, which were aimed at movement members in 2009 (Chance 2010).
As the above historical outline suggests, during the mid-1980s, while apartheid state agents cultivated fire to fuel the counterinsurgency, residents cultivated it as a guerilla weapon. These interactions are relevant not simply because practices of the mid-1980s continue to be enacted in present-day shack settlements but also because fire conjures powerful living memories of organized warfare. Many residents of Abahlali-affiliated settlements were involved in various capacities with liberation movements, including the ANC, whether through military operations, churches, or trade unions. Others, especially young people, characterize their political activities and involvement with what they even now call "the struggle" (umzabalazo) as beginning with the fall of apartheid and battles emerging over adequate housing, work, and access to infrastructure in the newly desegregated cities. All residents I spoke with who lived through apartheid were subject to, and witnessed enactments of, state violence, frequently mediated by fire: forced removals, political killings, and military occupation. The racialization, and indeed ethnicization, of social spaces and subjects implied by this violence, again, highlights fire's ability to draw lines of difference.
Life histories of Abahlali members and other residents I spoke with clarify how fires, past and present, punctuate life in settlements. Siboniso and I sat in colorful plastic chairs at the movement's then national headquarters in the Kennedy Road settlement to speak about his memories of fire. With the din of children playing in the day care center next door, we talked about Bellcourt, where he grew up. Bellcourt is a small town amid the rolling green hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal, a land of livestock and white commercial farming. Siboniso moved to Durban in 1998 to find work and study law at the local university. When he first arrived in Kennedy, the shack conflagrations brought back memories of his rural hometown. He would awaken at night screaming, uncertain why or from what nightmare, but certain it had to do with the fires. While staying with relatives in a nearby township, he landed a job as a gas station attendant filling tanks. When his employer learned of his membership in Abahlali — not long after his arrest and torture in police custody linked him to the formation of the movement — Siboniso lost his job, allegedly under pressure from the mayor. After two years of study, no longer able to afford his tuition bills, he was ejected from the university.
Although popular national histories draw the battle lines of apartheidera civil war between the old regime and the new dispensation led by the ANC, there remain at the regional level other powerfully felt fields of conflict and other actors that tell of fire. In the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, Bellcourt was a hotspot for battles between the Zulu-nationalist movement Inkatha and the supposedly nonethnic nationalist forces of the ANC. The area of Bellcourt in which Siboniso's family lived was an Inkatha stronghold. Siboniso, like others in the province, characterizes his hometown as divided, homestead by homestead, into two camps of opposing party affiliation. "Party politics," he said, "was one being an enemy to the other," with fire being of deadly importance to this distinction: "[As a child] I did not understand party politics, other than as an opportunity to learn to shoot well. If you are IFP, then the ANC would kill you; if you are ANC, then the IFP would kill you — your house would be burned down or you would be shot to death."
Siboniso and other residents I have spoken with liken the process of acquiring organizational status in an activist movement to gang initiation, a violent and masculine rite of passage. But where guns took aim at men, fire took aim especially at women and children. The deployment of fire targeted the home, the site of the domestic sphere, of social and biological reproduction. Against this stark picture of civil war, Siboniso joined the Boy Scouts, whose activities — not perceived as a threat to Inkatha territorial sovereignty — proved a permissible refuge. Often drawing parallels between the Boy Scouts and Abahlali, Siboniso suggests that the organization contributed to a prominent formulation of his movement's politics, a living politics (ipolitiki ephilayo) or a "home politics" outside nationalist party structures.
Busisiwe, another Kennedy resident, grew up in an ANC stronghold called Nortown, a hundred kilometers from Bellcourt. We first talked at length about fire while visiting her relatives in a township adjacent to a dusty, abandoned main street, which in earlier days had drawn vacationers to nearby hot springs. Along with her mother and two siblings, Busisiwe moved to Durban and the Kennedy settlement in 2003 in search of decent schools and upward mobility in the city. In contrast to the concrete block house her family had built in Nortown, their shack in Kennedy was a one-room affair with the basics — a few pieces of furniture, a paraffin lamp, and wallpaper made of a mixture of juice and milk cartons. Busisiwe particularly loved the wallpaper for the childhood memories it evoked. In Nortown, her family had lived along a contested road, where Inkatha and ANC operatives targeted each other with arson and petrol bombs. "Every time these two were fighting. They would just come and camp by the corner of our house. One would shoot up the road, the other would shoot down the road." After one long day of fighting on the road, Busisiwe's family received news that her uncle had been killed. As a known ANC loyalist, he had apparently been the target of a "plot."
What emerges in Siboniso's and Busisiwe's narratives in two distinct party strongholds is the mediating force of fire in the spatiopolitical configurations of rural towns in late apartheid-era KwaZulu-Natal. Alleged arson, a fire with a suspected yet obscured agent, hinged on "operations" aimed at designating a suspected impimpi. "If your house is set with fire," said Siboniso, "then that would mean it would have been planned. There would have been a conspiracy. There would be a lot of people knowing that you were a suspect, so you would not retaliate." Intervention in the public designation of an impimpi could risk perceived affiliation with the suspect. Under apartheid, amid the banning of activists and organizations and police crackdowns on public gatherings, funerals took on a strong political valence as potential sites of mobilization.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Living Politics in South Africa's Urban Shacklands"
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Table of ContentsPreface
List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Elements of Living Politics
Fire / Umlilo
1 “Where There Is Fire, There Is Politics”: The Material Life of Governance
Water / Amanzi
2 Debts of Liberal State Transition: Liquid Belonging and Consumer Citizenship
Air / Umoya
3 Coughing Out the City: Everyday Healing in the Toxic Borderlands
Land / Umhlaba
4 Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: How Territorial Informality Builds Future Cities
5 “The Anger of the Poor Can Go in Many Directions”: Rematerializing Identity and Difference
Conclusion: Liberal Governance and the Urban Poor Revisited