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South African shack dwellers show how grassroots democracy is done

- Edward Webster and Bukiwe Tambulu

Trevor Ngwane shows how structures that emerged in the struggle against apartheid continue in democratic South Africa, now in conflict with the ruling ANC.

Many of the recent debates about democracy in South Africa point to the danger of growing authoritarianism or stress how the country’s colonial and apartheid past continues to shape the present.

But activist and scholar Trevor Ngwane has taken a different, innovative approach in his new book Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements. He explores how ordinary people conceptualise democracy. He does this by examining their understanding at the grassroots in shack settlements.

Ngwane shows how very diverse community structures that emerged in the struggle against apartheid continue in post-apartheid South Africa, now in conflict with the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). These forms of popular democracy – what he terms “democracy on the margins” – provide, Ngwane believes, a vision of hope. Amakomiti (committees), he says, are everywhere.

In South Africa’s transition to democracy, two competing approaches to democracy emerged. One was a traditional representative form of liberal democracy that was to shape Parliament.

The other was a more direct form of participatory democracy. This was clearest in the trade union movement where representatives – shop stewards – were elected directly by their fellow workers. They were accountable to, and could be recalled by, rank and file members.

Ngwane argues that this tradition of participatory democracy has persisted in the hundreds of “committees” scattered throughout the shack settlements of South Africa. He calls this a decolonial approach which allows for a conception of democracy that is not centred on the ANC and Eurocentric notions.

In his advocacy for “democracy on the margins” Ngwane challenges the top-down approach to governance in favour of a more grassroots participatory form of democracy.

At the centre of the book is a challenge to existing interpretations of squatter movements as non-ideological, apolitical and inward looking.

For Ngwane these squatter movements are examples of the self-organisation of the working class. They are transformative in that they foreground the interests of workers and prefigurative in that they anticipate the future (page 9). They are also a challenge to orthodox Marxism which sees working-class revolution emerging from the centres of production, rather than the places of habitation. But, for Ngwane, in South Africa labour and land (settlements) are inextricably linked and cannot be studied apart.

Varieties of committees

The empirical heart of the book is drawn from ethnographic research conducted in 46 shack settlements and four in-depth case studies.

The most active and progressive of these committees is the Thembelihle Crisis Committee near Lenasia, southwest of Johannesburg (page 114- 133).

The Thembelihle Crisis Committee fights for housing, water, electricity and other services while contesting the ANC through democratic processes. The consistency of the committee in its fight for services and defending its community against the governing political party has led to a strong political culture of resistance in Thembelihle. It is the kind of people’s democracy that Ngwane champions.

Though he advocates for “democracy on the margins” to replace the current top-down approach for a radical participatory democracy, he emphasises that this is not done blindly, noting,

I must make clear that what I saw of amakomiti is not heaven on earth, (there) is the good and the bad, the progressive and the reactionary.

In the case of Duncan Village in East London, for example, we see the poor performance of amakomiti, where they are incorporated into the ANC, functioning as “conveyor belts” of the state (page 72-94). Which begs the question: how will the community hold amakomiti accountable if they embrace the “democracy on the margins” model, given the proclivity for corruption in local government?

The author perceives amakomiti as embryonic structures of the kind of democracy he envisages and cautions against discarding “traditional” hereditary forms of governance dominant in the rural areas. He points to the forms of governance employed by platinum miners living in shacks where rural migrant miners still use traditional forms of governance such as inkundla (the council) to deal with everyday struggles in the mines. “They called,” he says, “for a traditionalist and rural communal approach to dispute resolution and dealing with victims and perpetrators of crime.” (page 104)

Although the platinum miners’ approach to governance is people-centred, the participatory democratic processes described in this case study are ethnic based. This may limit their capacity to address broader working-class issues that committees like the Thembelihle Crisis Committee address.

Note of caution

We end on a note of caution. None of the ostensibly post-capitalist regimes established since 1917 from the Soviet Union to Cuba has managed to find a way to sustain mass democratic forms of governance. A single-party system has emerged, shielding the government from popular concerns and demands, and curtailing public political debate.

Ngwane is very much aware of this dilemma and stresses the need for accountability of leaders to their constituency. But reassurances from participants that they trust their leaders are not enough. The book says very little about how amakomiti choose their leaders, and how ongoing participation will be assured.

As he observes,

demanding and enforcing accountability is easier when one can point to procedures and processes that have been agreed upon and are known by all. (page 64)

The events surrounding COVID-19 brought to the fore, the book concludes,

the power of local organisation, as the amakomiti in the shacks and activist organisations in the towns and townships organised local food supplies, took care of the old and stood against the excesses of the army … The bonds nurtured through the long years of neo-liberal ANC rule once more became the line between survival and death. (page 162)

Whether the book has romanticised the organisation and movements of shack dwellers or identified a neglected radical social force remains to be seen. What is clear is that South Africa’s future remains open-ended, and the book has identified one possible scenario.The Conversation

Edward Webster, Distinguished Research Professor, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand and Bukiwe Tambulu, Research Assistant of Southern Center for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.