Introduction

Driving through the glorious open South African rolling countryside. Mile upon mile of open fields, with hardly any buildings except for the large manor house of the landowner… Then you come over the brow of the hill and there are tens of thousands of tightly-packed, small crowded houses. No real gardens or streets, just ramshackle buildings and signs of poverty and overcrowding everywhere.

Almost no land and no wealth was redistributed after the ANC government was elected in 1994.1 Material inequality has deepened, and new and dynamic forms of solidarity and resistance have emerged in communities.

This article is based on an excellent book by Ashwin Desai about the emergence of community struggles in South Africa – We are the Poors.

The recent information and the ‘background’ come from my own research. Desai documents the real stories of those struggling in the South African townships: the ‘struggle electricians’ who reconnect their neighbours' cut-off power; the ‘grannies’ and ‘aunties’ who blockade narrow flights of stairs in their tenement buildings to prevent cops from carrying out evictions; the entire communities that react to the arrival of new water meters by revolting, smashing the meters and chasing away the installers. It is “first and foremost an account from the frontlines of the establishment’s undeclared war on the poor. It is, I am told, a heart-warming report because the war no longer seems to be one-sided”.2 Desai vividly describes the history and background to the areas he writes about, putting the current situation into context, but here I focus on the more recent events, at many of which Desai himself was present.

Although We are the Poors was printed two years ago, the actual struggles remain much the same. What has changed is that they are more connected to each other, they receive more publicity (and so benefit from the added support), and the academics and politicians are now debating their significance.3 There are also reports that Trotskyist groups are trying to dominate the movement, with mixed success.

  • 1. Except for the creation of a new black elite, giving the appearance of change without the upper class really having to give anything away. There are even bizarre stories of workers going on strike for ‘more black bosses’.
  • 2. Ashwin Desai, We are the Poors, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002, page 14
  • 3. To the extent that a (recuperative) conference was held on this topic last month: The President from the Sky v the Auntie who says “NO!” Social Movements Conference, Johannesburg, October 28 & 29, 2004