Political Polemics, Local Practices of Community-Organizing and Neoliberal Politics in South Africa

Sophie Oldfield, Kristian Stokkeso
Contesting Neoliberalism: The Urban Frontier, 2006

Urban activism was instrumental in bringing about South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and continues to play an important role in post-apartheid social and political transformation (Habib, Valodia, & Ballard, 2006). Yet, different visions of the role for activism and civil society and the direction of urban politics and governance divide theorists and practitioners across the South African political spectrum. All conceptualize civil society as necessary and good, as an instrumental element of post-apartheid development and democratization (Johnson, 2002), but quite contradictory assumptions are built into this promotion of civil society. Radical ‘anti-neo-liberal’ critics, on the one hand, frame South African urban politics in a discourse against neoliberalism, particularly as an oppositional polarization between the neo-liberal state and popular interests and movements in civil society (Bond, 2000a, 2004; McDonald, 2002). ‘Liberal’ thinkers from a range of political perspectives, on the other hand, emphasize governance and participatory models through which civil society must work with the state (Parnell, Pieterse, Swilling & Wooldridge, 2002). This has yielded polarized political polemics regarding the role and dynamic of postapartheid civil society (Habib & Kotze, 2003),1 with President Thabo Mbeki joining the fray in his castigation of radical critics as an ‘ultra left’ force pursuing a political project of ‘disunity’.

Framed by a global discourse about neoliberalism, South African debates on ‘progressive’, ‘adversarial’ and ‘emancipative’ urban social movements within the radical camp and on ‘voluntary’, ‘constructive’ and ‘capable’ civic associations and community representatives among liberals speak at cross purposes, especially in relation to analyzing local political practice. Both readings of urban politics frame community organizing in South African cities in monolithic, simplified hues. In this chapter, we contrast this polemic with the practices of community-based organizations that make up the Western Cape Anti- Eviction Campaign. We argue that these binaries do not do justice to the realities of community organizing: in other words, polemical political discourse does not reflect the complexities of political practice. In everyday initiatives to get access to public services, or to protect those that already exist, community organizing crosses the boundary between engagement with the state and opposition to state programs and policies. Analyzing urban political practices at the community scale highlights the presence of a diversity of political issues, strategies and arenas, rooted in historical and geographical differentiation within and across cities. In the discussion of the Campaign (and the diverse political practices of community organizations operating within it) that we draw on in this chapter, political action and community organizing are grounded in local everyday life and local political spaces, yet they are also framed by and partake in the contestation of political decision-making and discourses operating at city and national scales. The multiple positions and strategic engagements adopted by urban community-based movements, combined with the complex character of neo-liberal policies, produce often contradictory and always uneven politics that at times resonate with critiques of neoliberalism, but also articulate as locally specific issues. These politics and their complex articulations remain under-theorized in academic and policy debates on local civil society in the context of neo-liberalism.

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