The site of many of these struggles is the neighbourhood. The people involved are men, women and children of all ages, and of many different African cultures. The important thing is the form the struggles take – the way they organise, and the way they communicate amongst themselves and take decisions in large assemblies. Desai reports how new social relations are being formed in the townships, as people gather in the evenings and “escape the loneliness and lethargy of TV or slumber to crisscross their areas bearing messages or pamphlets or gossip”.
The struggles are largely led by women, and largely focused on immediate needs, not on some hypothetical future aim. But “these protests were not driven by ideology but by the need to survive and their desire to live decently.” Decisions are taken by consensus. The demands are winnable, and are sometimes won – but they always have to be fought for. The state is giving nothing away – or even leaving anything the same – without a fight. But whilst abstract ‘political’ identities are rejected – there is also an understanding of the global nature of capital and of those struggling against it. “News of social struggles in Soweto, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Genoa… are received with intense interest and joy.” The people are interested in both the common forms of struggle and the common enemies.
We have yet to see if these new struggles will continue to grow in number and effect, or if they will stay in a defensive position and fall into pitfalls such as those of successful repression, or diversion into ‘politics’ (e.g. what the Trotskyists offer and, to a certain extent, what happened to the popular assemblies in Argentina). It seems that all over the developing world, people are struggling to keep some basic living together some land, water and food. However, as Desai points out: “The struggles… reveal much about the transition to democracy in South Africa. So often they are aimed at no more than remaining in dilapidated accommodation devoid of basic social amenities, without lights and water. And yet they are seen as a threat to the state. The poor are having to fight to remain ensconced in the ghettoes to which apartheid consigned them. Are these the revolutionary demands we make?” Are we seeing the start of a new movement based on autonomous ‘communist’ principles and the emergence of a new politics based around community activism, or just desperate and isolated responses by communities under constant assault – or just desperate survival measures driven purely by reaction?
Perhaps the extreme measures of depriving people of water stems from the simple fact that the numbers of people moving to the cities exceeds the numbers needed to work. We are superfluous humans – and simply have to be stopped from causing too much trouble, using prisons rather than welfare.
Within this new movement, any direct action taken by ordinary people to meet their needs is not only considered justified, but heroic. In it, a worldwide tendency to reject the politics of the 1970s can be seen: a rejection of highly centralized parties, of armies of followers treated as ‘cannon-fodder’, and of stale political dogma. Noticeable instead are the movement’s widely-shared ideals of horizontal organisation, with emerging and mutating forms of organising, according to the immediate situation, replacing organisations whose orders one simply follows. Other welcome trademarks of these new movements, and visible on a worldwide basis, are their frequent acceptance of consensus-based decision-making processes, and an appeal to the notion of human dignity.
January 2005 [email protected]