11/15/2010 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barefoot or Branded Politics?

In South Africa, there is nothing so rewarding for politicians as the poor. Especially come election time, when vague trumpeted promises of basic human rights such as access to housing and water are made thanks to bottomless budgets that magically disappear when voting fever is over.

But in SA there is a twist: the formal alliance comprised of the ruling African National Congress (ANC); the Congress of the South African Trade Union (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP), have professed not only to speak on behalf of the poor, but to speak as the "poor," the oppressed, the millions of shack or slum dwellers. The best of them, like our current President (a former peasant and ANC freedom fighter who was genuinely poor for most of his life), take on a very distinct left-leaning hobble, just enough injury to appeal to their fellow injured. But the narrative of representation (defined and defended by politicians, speaking on behalf of those without the resources to collectively mobilize and be heard) is very often an exclusive one, a formula devised to capture power using the language of 'barefoot' politics, feigning the harsh lived experiences of those without. Thanks to massive exemptions granted to wealthier supporters, the government has multinationals free-ride before shifting their profits offshore, and the poor are forced to subsidize exemptions through systems like "cost recovery" -- a fiscal policy shifting the financial burden of "welfare" to zero-income groups. As an example, electricity for corporations is the world's cheapest, and as revealed during a campaign against the World Bank's loan for a coal-fired power plant in April, two firms -- BHP Billiton and Anglo American -- receive a kilowatt hour for less than $0.02, a fifth the amount paid by the poor.

Let Them Drink Rights?

This was the case when the country's worst cholera outbreak, beginning in Kwa-Zulu Natal before spreading to nine provinces, occurred a decade ago: increased water pricing schedules resulted in mass cutoffs for taps that people could ill afford to use. The country's famed "right to water" was further delimited in September 2009 when the country's highest court dismissed Soweto activists' request -- won in a lower court -- that 50 liters of water be provided free each day, and that prepayment meters be banned.

Meanwhile, the loot and plunder faction that got a major boost under President Zuma's rule have begun passionately beating the nationalization drum as the political means of freeing the country from gross poverty and inequality. But under the surface, most observers agree the reason is that since the recession, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) deals have been going belly-up. BEE, of course, was a crucial part of the considerable economic capitulation negotiated between the ANC and multinationals such as Anglo-American: by transferring small portions of "ownership" while preserving the worst excesses of apartheid, in the process creating a small uber-wealthy elite, the ruling power assured business-as-usual.

Due to the deeper economic crisis, BEE deals decreased by some R85 billion ($12 billion) from 2007-2009; i.e., while 2007 evidenced 111 deals, 2009 produced just 3. Even Zuma's left leg, ever pivotal for the election machinery -- Cosatu, descried the cancer of "political hyenas," predatory politics, and crude looters aggressively vying to capture the center of the ANC. Not unusually, when forced to engage with the usual actors (including NGOs, academic institutions, municipalities and ministries) the poor begin to interpret their reality using the vocabulary of the powerful, internalizing the identities and strategies created for them. Its understandable: perceived as a choice between moving forward or not moving at all. But are they really moving backward, and are the politicians found only in the annals of government -- or do they prowl academic and non-profit hallways too?

Sadly, many NGOs, social movements, etc, have begun to campaign using the same rights narrative as the politicians. One movement, sometimes labeled liberatory and radical, Abahlali base Mjondolo (ABM), SA's largest movement founded in 2005, is portrayed as vehemently against the ANC's exploitative framework. At what point, however, are the good intentions of movements like ABM (and the effectiveness of such movements) diminished by the commodified rights-based strategies and the simultaneous loss of genuine community power?

Prying Open Closed Doors

A piece recently published in The Africa Report (for which I also write) has stirred up something of a hornet's nest amongst certain social movements already known for their sharp sting. Independent researcher Heinrich Bohmke charged that the academic work on a particular social movement, Abahlali base Mjondolo, suffered so heavily from romanticization that a considerable portion of it had become out and out fabrication.

Bohmke noted how a small group of academics came to dominate knowledge production about this movement, run its website and, over time, play a damaging role in shaping its politics. He also described the way academics built their careers on this movement but were responsible for systematic misinformation. His allegations -- as a former ally and supporter of ABM -- were backed up by a fair amount of detail. He noted, for instance, how Abahlali's politics has drifted from direct action into legalism structured around self-defeating systems -- precisely the kind of co-option that ABM has always claimed to be conscious of.

In another piece that received mass ire from certain groups, Bohmke described a turn to alleged thuggery, in which two community residents were murdered a year ago and the movement's leadership was, hours later, evicted from its base in Kennedy Road by an angry mob of 40 people. He noted that with a claimed membership of 30,000 in Durban, ABM should easily have returned in force if they were truly as popular and blameless as those who wrote about them held out.

Bohmke went on to predict that his criticisms would not be responded to on their merits. I tried to obtain comment from Abahlali and the one academic most closely associated with its representation in the academic literature, Richard Pithouse, a lecturer at Rhodes University. I looked forward to their rebuttals, as the issue raised -- the legitimacy and substance of ABM's narrative -- was important. Certainly if he was mistaken in his views, these needed to be challenged in a public forum rather than behind closed doors as had been previously done. ABM's recent calls for public debates fueled my conviction that they would certainly speak on behalf of themselves interrogating relevant points. Sadly, Bohmke's prediction seems to have come to pass.

Taking credit from the poor

The line put out about Bohmke by those against his position is that his criticisms have absolutely no merit and that he makes them because of a blind opposition to the movement. Pithouse's emails, in particular, are very instructive: Though his letters will remain confidential, much of the content was slanderous in intent and language. Pithouse has written to others in these terms, in crowded email lists to those viewed as sympathetic. One email sent to a mailing list on August 2010 revealed: "His recent articles are out and out slander, dishonest and malicious at very turn, and have been recognized as such by all of the people -- from all over the world... Bomkhe's attack on the movement has been endlessly shifting over the years -- he's just looking for something, anything that will stick. He has now descended to outright and public support for the ANC/state position on the movement."

I requested Pithouse to place his statements on record that we could challenge these issues in a public forum. There was no response. Pithouse and Abm go back a long way -- he was the first academic to write articles about them (including 13 of 40 articles published by ABM -- five more than ABM's head S'bu Zikode) and is described as a member of the shackdwellers movement despite being a white, middle class academic who does not live in shacks himself. This point is crucial when taking into account the fact that Pithouse has criticized others for engaging in precisely the same behavior: championing (or using) the poor to develop their own academic ambitions, activist personae etc.

This was apparent during a controversial episode in 2006 were ABM stormed/intervened in, a gathering of other social movements at Social Movements Indaba, held at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The Indaba secretariat described the scene to a newspaper as "mob invaded, took over our meeting for three hours, using abusive language" -- alluding perhaps to the kind of authoritarianism identified by Bohmke.

One of the main demands put by the ABM group was that three academics sympathetic to them who had been dismissed from the Center for Civil Society (CCS) (where I am a visiting scholar) be reinstated. Indeed Pithouse had left the CCS under a cloud at around about that time. But what Pithouse does not seem to have communicated to those protesting on his behalf (why they were protesting against fellow activists in a similarly distressing situation is a mystery) was that he was facing looming grievance and possible disciplinary action against him flowing from an investigation into serious complaints by several colleagues of harassing and undermining behavior related to strikingly similar issues. Of the two other ABM-approved academics, one left the country to get married where he remained (now managing the website), while another was offered considerably better academic employment at the same university and continued working with ABM. No academic approved by ABM had been dismissed for political reasons.

Naming Claiming Gaming

The movement's response to these concerns have been unsatisfactory. ABM's head of communications informed me that he could not comment on whether he understood the reasons why Pithouse did in fact resign. Fair enough. But the same ABM official easily declared that Bohmke was a man "playing dirty games, serving something behind him, writing about the movement in a bad way." The official stated in his personal capacity that Bohmke tried to control ABM through financing their music group (the award-winning Dlamini King Brothers), was rejected, and thereafter vowed to destroy them. This claim has long been in circulation, including direct statements from ABM's head S'bu Zikode: "Ever since his (Bohmke) offers of money to us and to the Abahlali baseMjondolo isicathamiya choir, the Dlamini King Brothers, were refused in 2006 he has been attacking our movement and all those who have spoken up in support of our struggle."

Yet, Zikode's brother-in-law (name disclosed to editor), who acted as a co-producer, provided an entirely different story: "We were both trying to help the band, Heinrich and I. There were no motives involved except to help record some tracks at studios, get word out about them to anyone who might be interested." The funds were not, as stated by ABM, rejected; rather, funds were used to arrange and record CDs at SABC studios. Nor was the band, a crucial part of the community's socio-cultural fabric, politically inclined as was repeatedly mentioned to me. A member of the band (name disclosed the editor but kept out for source's safety) revealed, "He tried to help us and only seemed to have good intentions. We are from, and formed in, an informal area, without funding and opportunity. Many of have families to support, many have no money. It was a good thing for us."

The above mentioned reveals a strategy similar to that of Pithouse: claiming and gaming to justify certain stances. The ABM official declared that a debate with Bohmke would not be of any use as sometimes those who are good at debating would win, even if the truth was in their (ABM's) corner. This was somewhat mind-boggling given the exceptional level of debate that ABM has displayed on its own website, not least the profound speeches authored by ABM's head. "Who will lose," he said, "if we don't debate him? We are concerned about where people will live, housing, water and electricity. This is what matters." Powerful words. Had they directly addressed the content of Bohmke's article, they might have found it related to just that -- and that Bohmke, a labor-law trainer with much experience in 'legalism,' hit the nail on the head.

Barefoot or Branded Politics?

In the same letter quoted above, Zikode states, "We have not only been sentenced to physical exclusion from society and its cities, schools, electricity, refuse removal and sewerage systems; our life sentence has also removed us from the discussions that take place in society."

Yet when requested to engage in discussions directly concerning them in a pan-African media magazine, the public platform repeatedly extended to ABM was refused. ABM's leaders, particularly Zikode, have in fact been covered very extensively from Le Monde Diplomatique to national newspapers such as the Mail & Guardian. Unlike Bohmke, others that question are very wary of the whisper campaigns that will be created about them by the few academics whose body of work directly depend on ABM's purist narrative. I welcome evidence to reconsider the issue which can be emailed through to the editor. But thus far, after exploring the attacks on Bohmke's character, a means of eliding the issues raised, I have found nothing of substance.

There is a real danger that when movements become brands bestowing cultural and political capital both on the their leadership elite as well as their academic supporters, that any tough criticism of these brands will be met with immediate attack in defense of the brand. Meanwhile, the actual movement suffers from degeneration. Critics are discredited. Private slanderous emails are sent around and issues are ducked. Narratives are colored by fiction. (This was particularly evident when ABM's official spokesman informed me he had never head of Alain Badiou, the professor and philosopher whose work is central to Pithouse's narrative, same philosopher described by Pithouse as having significantly influenced ABM's leaders.) There are too many loose threads to list, and this article is meant neither as a critique of ABM nor Pithouse's beautifully composed, if embellished, narrative.

No doubt, ABM has created, through their own efforts, the kind of collective voice that is capable of catalyzing great change. What matters is that legitimate engagement with the organization was shunned, going against ABM's own anthem (speak to us, not for us). Academics, activists and intellectuals should not be influential in defining the boundaries of disputes with enemies by settling personal scores through political issues. ABM's activism, resistance and website have created for them an active and bold presence.The challenge now is for the movement to clean their pipes, control their voice and revive the spirit and level of organization that once existed, especially in their former community. This time around keeping gatekeepers in check.

*This article was updated Nov 15 to further clarify certain points.

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