Building Unity in Diversity: Social Movement Activism in the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Sophie Oldfield, Kristian Stokke
Voices of Profest: Social Movments in Post-Apartheid S. Africa, 2006

Formed in February 2001, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign is a movement of community organisations from poor, marginalised areas of Cape Town. Campaign activists and organisations share threats and experiences of evictions and water disconnections, discontent with state policies of cost recovery on public services, and dissatisfaction with local political representation (Leitch 2003). An important oppositional voice in local politics in Cape Town, they have joined together to resist disconnections and evictions as well as to intervene in city policies pertaining to housing and public services. The experiential and political unity that has built the Campaign overlies real diversity. Activists and organisations operate in diverse conditions, work from different histories of struggle and relationships with the state, and ground their activism in often-divergent politics. The strength of the Campaign derives from its common community-based identity. Yet, real tension exists between the diversity of community issues, organisations and strategies and the unity required to fight for socio-economic rights and against state policies and actions. Recent experiences highlight that only by accepting its diversity can the Campaign’s unity be built.

This chapter analyses the building of the Campaign’s ‘unity in diversity’. After a brief discussion of public service delivery and cost-recovery policies, we examine the centrality of the Campaign’s identity as a community-based movement and the inherent diversity embedded in this identity. We explore the ways in which local contexts shape diverse political practices, while also coalescing as particular modes and repertoires of protest in the Campaign. We also examine the dynamics in which 139 Campaign leadership has emerged and attempted to negotiate and build from its diverse base. We then turn to legal and research initiatives that have brought activists and organisations together in strategic and creative ways. The analysis is concluded with a brief comment on the political significance of the Campaign.

The research has been conducted as a partnership with the Campaign’s Community Research Group. While this collaboration is part of a broader agenda of breaking the boundaries between university- and community-based research and researchers, it also facilitated access and richer relationships that were critical to our analysis. With emphasis on in-depth interviews and focus groups with Campaign activists, the research methodology was designed to explore the history and dynamics of the various organisations and areas that are part of the Campaign. Two case studies were also conducted to focus on legal strategies and research capacity building through the development of the Legal Co-ordinating Committee and the Community Research Group respectively.

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