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David Pottie reviews Mzwanele Mayekiso's "Township Politics: Civic Struggles for a New South Africa". "Township Politics is structured as a memoir of a political activist, grounded in the growth of the civic movement in the 1980s and 1990s, with particular reference to Alexandra township outside Johannesburg.

vol 12 no 1

Review: Promise/Practice: Reviewing township politics
review by David Pottie

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 1, November 1996
Page 31



David Pottie currently teaches at the University of Durban-Westville, South Africa.

Township Politics: Civic Struggles for a New South Africa by Mzwanele Mayekiso (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1996), 288 pages.

Township Politics is structured as a memoir of a political activist, grounded in the growth of the civic movement in the 1980s and 1990s, with particular reference to Alexandra township outside Johannesburg. Mayekiso, a young leader of the "civics," involved especially with The Alexandra Civic Organisation (ACO) and now serving as international representative of the South African National Civic Organization (SANCO) has also contributed to ongoing debates on the role and nature of civil society in South Africa. As a result, this book not only provides a highly politicized and personalized account of those developments, it also carries us forward to the current challenges of the transition in South Africa. In his own preface Mayekiso writes that the book is an attempt to restore a class conscious perspective on civil society from an insider's perspective. In this respect it is a further extension of themes published widely in South African journals and magazines such as Work In Progress.

Mayekiso opens the book with an informal walk about Alexandra township, pointing out the local street gangs, informal traders, polluted river and the general proliferation of overcrowded shacks. Through both style and content, Mayekiso brings us inside the daily rhythm of township life - his familiarity with a rich and varied set of influences on this life a welcome addition to previous works on township struggles. As the book traces the nature of township resistance to changing housing conditions throughout the 1980s, that daily rhythm takes on a fully politicized significance as funerals become charged confrontations with state authorities - when a taxi ride becomes a life and death issue and when community organizing serves as the basis for alternatives to apartheid. This pattern of blending daily life with complex political questions is the basis of this book's appeal.

Seeds of change

But Township Politics is not simply a political biography. It is also a political testament of Mayekiso's commitment to building a working class civil society as a critical step in South Africa's transition to socialism.

His tale of constant neglect in Alex is chilling, particularly as the pattern of neglect shifts from development issues to outright war with Inkatha, hostel dwellers and third force operations through 1991. Moreover, Mayekiso is convinced that there is a connection between the civics and socialism because his experience in Alexandra demonstrated to him that the more the civics made basic developmental demands the more they confronted the need to set up an alternative to township capitalism.

On this count Mayekiso does capture some of the flavour of forging worker-resident, workplace-community links in lieu of race-based opposition to forced removals, rent increases and the like. The civics in Alex appear to have been most successful when the resolutions on building people's power (advocating a wide range of consumer boycotts and rejection of the Black Local Authorities at an April 13, 1986 civic workshop) culminated in the collapse of the Alexandra Council.

Mayekiso claims that such events reflected the ascendance of the political hegemony of the working class in South Africa and a shift from a politics of protest to a politics of development. As further evidence of this he cites the marshalling of large rallies, the organization of street committees and the operation of people's courts. For Mayekiso and others, these activities demonstrate the enormous potential of Alexandra and the organizations that were contributing to the township becoming a liberated zone (he goes so far as to compare Alex to the Paris Commune of 1871). Yet Mayekiso acknowledges the vulnerability of township leadership to repression, and here his own prison experiences stand as a stark reminder of just how close to the edge civic leaders ran.

Mayekiso rejects the view that the civics instilled a culture of violence and non-payment for services in favour of the view that the civics and their objects of struggle were rooted in a clear sense of shifting strategies, organized in the end around a popular program of democratic resistance and development. He writes that, "civics grounded in an ideology of working class civil society can help build a strong socialist movement through experimenting with new relations of production in the future, and by concretely challenging the modalities of capitalism in the present."

This is an especially tall order.

Promise exceeds practice?

Mayekiso's discussion of the history of township resistance, highlighting in particular the important shift from protest politics to the politics of community-controlled development, gives the reader a sense of the urban struggles to realize community control of the local economy. There is, however, a creeping feeling that the promise of Township Politics (democracy building, building new institutions based on the goal of achieving non-racial, non-sexist, economic democracy) exceeds the real impact of the practice it documents. For example, Mayekiso fails to convey exactly which institutional machinery and democratic processes governed the operation of yard committees. To be sure, his list of the key expressions of this civil society is inclusive, but it is also marked with the usual mantra-like recitation of women's groups, youth groups, churches, burial societies and other organizations that represent working class people. What is lacking in this discussion is a more detailed account of the depth and scope of these alliances and concrete evidence of how such linkages were successful in advancing democratic, economic development in the townships.

True, these links were critical in mobilizing township residence and in ensuring the representation of the community's needs and interests. This was not always an easy task - Mayekiso explores more than a few wrenching contradictions in township politics for us to know that such solidarity was not easily achieved. And here I fully agree with Mayekiso that "the organs of civil society must be considered in the context of the base from which they emerge." And yes, this evaluation requires a class analysis as an important vector of a full analysis. My main problem is not with class analysis but with the way in which, despite his rich account of the township struggles for liberation, Mayekiso's generalizations tend to outstrip his evidence. Township Politics evokes working class society as exemplified by the struggles for community control of capital which took place, but hasn't actually shown us working class society in action.

Mayekiso's story is worth hearing, and since, by his own admission, the leadership layer of the civic movements was so thin and vulnerable to state repression, it is important to evaluate just how deeply embedded were the emergent civic traditions. Mayekiso's inside view would be very helpful here, especially in putting to rest those with scepticism or outright hostility.

In and out of prison through the 1980s, Mayekiso is particularly effective when he is writing about his prison experiences. Here the strength of this inside view is demonstrated in his discussion of community building and political education inside the prisons. For example, Mayekiso and the other prisoners developed cleaning routines, shared their meals equally and formed study groups, all in an effort to restore a sense of normal patterns of life inside the prison. For Mayekiso, these years stand as living proof of the concept that the self-organization of the working class was a crucial aspect of liberation politics. These examples, along with his discussion of civic consumer boycotts and actions against the apartheid local government begin to demonstrate how the politics of anti-apartheid protest began to move beyond resistance to become the basis of the politics of reconstruction through working class, community controlled development.

Still, somehow the immediacy of these accounts is lost when we look for the actual institutional and organizational linkages that one might expect to find. These shortcomings make it difficult to evaluate Mayekiso's broad argument about the pervasiveness of working class civil society.

Solidarity forever and the civics

My misgivings are reinforced when Mayekiso turns to explore the tensions in the period since the unbanning of the ANC and other national liberation organizations in 1990, tensions that would indicate difficulty in transforming the civic movement into a "watchdog" role for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Mayekiso informs us that, in keeping with its grassroots orientation, the Alex Civic Organization (ACO) wanted direct community involvement in negotiations around municipal services, thereby retaining affordability as a prime issue. However, Mayekiso argues that even as the civics were responding to the pressure to shift from protest to development, the preoccupation with nationally based negotiations threatened to erode the leaderships' connection with communities. Formalized negotiations, Mayekiso seems to suggest, threatened to push to the background community based struggles so important throughout the 1980s and still key to the politics of reconstruction and development.

The position of the civics becomes even more complicated in the post-election period, but Mayekiso argues that the civics will still have an important role to play in post-apartheid South Africa. Their primary role will be to serve as watchdogs over state policy, political parties and local government. Their agenda must include challenging the government's "market-centred development" and continuing to counter this with a strategy of "community-driven development." Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that the civics have measured up to their role as efficient watchdogs in this period. Recent issues of SAR have also shown how housing advocates have struggled to keep even a modestly transformational interpretation of the RDP housing program on track (See SAR vol. 10 no. 3, March 1995 and vol. 10 no. 5, July 1995). I don't doubt that the civics might have a role, but more evidence of their post-election record would help to cement Mayekiso's argument that a strong working class civil society can weather the shift to electoral participation and party politics.

If Mayekiso has failed to settle the question of civil society in South Africa he has nonetheless made an important contribution to keeping the issues on the table. In particular, as an exploration of Mayekiso's own experience with consciousness building and political activism, Township Politics is an important addition to our understanding of urban politics, development and the ongoing struggle for South Africa's national liberation to deliver a measure of redistribution of wealth and new social relations.

And as a polemical text, Township Politics is unflinching in its belief in the strength of grassroots political organization. At one level arguments about the nature of civil society will be as perpetual as those on the nature of socialism. The civics in South Africa are not inextricably bound to the transition to socialism. Those links have to be made and remade. At the book's closing, Mayekiso demonstrates his optimism in this project by briefly citing a round-up of civic organizations around the world. He sees them as promising signs for a global dialogue on development and ultimately, as laying the groundwork for a global working class civil society.

As an agenda for action for the civics, Mayekiso raises key strategic points. While he may not firmly demonstrate the role of civics in this process, Township Politics certainly sets an agenda for engaging in the reconstruction process in the post-elections period. Calls to organize against the corporate agenda that appears to now be steering much of what passes for RDP implementation can hardly be sneered at.

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