Tokyo Sexwale recently announced, in Brandfort, in a performance carefully choreographed to be rich with the symbolism of a once insurgent nationalism, that Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela will lead a new government task team on informal settlements. "She will", he said, "help us develop informal settlements because we cannot solve it without the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela motherly heart."
In the national imagination Brandfort is the feminine version of Robben Island, a site of internal exile from which, as in so many myths, a return, triumphant and redemptive, is eventually made. Winnie Mandela's banishment to Brandfort is recalled as a time in limbo, a time of waiting to return to the fullness of life in Johannesburg and then, after a further wait, to enter the freedom of life after apartheid.
Internal exile and limbo, the place in the old Catholic imagination where the dead, neither damned nor redeemed, must wait for the resurrected Christ to open the gates of heaven, are tropes that often come up in poor people's accounts of their lives. Brandfort, with its connotation of all this being tied to a national drama heading resolutely to its final redemption, is a powerful albeit implicit metaphor for talking about poverty as suffering with meaning, meaning as movement into the embrace of the nation.
Politicised motherhood has often been an insurrectionary force giving women a strong sense of a moral right to rebel. But it has also been mobilised for authoritarian projects. In fact it's always, subordinated to masculine authority, central to any form of state led authoritarianism from Stalinism to fascism. And, from figures like Madikizela-Mandela herself, to Indira Gandhi, there's often been the same authoritarian underside to the idea of an iconic mother of the nation that has been present in ideas of national fathers.
When states offer parental care to the dispossessed there is usually an implicit infantilisation in which reward is tied to obedience with the actual extent of the former generally being a lot more modest than the displays of the latter. In South Africa, poor people are routinely treated as children when they accept the authority of elites in the state and civil society. But poor people that refuse or resist this authority are, with equal regularity, pathologised and criminalised.
The demonisation of the disobedient poor tends to reach its paranoid crescendo in response to the public exercise of independent political agency by people who are supposed to know and to keep to their place in political as much as in geographic space. Amongst other assumptions implicit to all of this is the idea, often adhered to with a striking fanaticism, that society is just and that the real problem lies with the people that have been rendered poor by the same economic and political arrangements that have enabled others to become rich.
Nationalism can legitimate top down social control and popular insurgency. Nationhood is often an attractive idea to people who are included in a society in principle but excluded in practice. It holds out the possibility of a shared identity that, as well as being an end in-itself can also enable substantive inclusion to be leveraged. This hope can be entirely perverse, as when it takes a xenophobic or ethnic form, or when it is assumed that people need to demonstrate their moral worthiness to politicians by performances of subordination and often-gendered forms of social conservatism authorised in the name of culture. But a shared investment in nationalism can also be the ground for a democratic demand for inclusion - economic, spatial and political - the basis for asserting demands and rights against the state and the political class that wield it.
It's become a truism to observe that in South Africa the human rights and lofty aspirations enshrined in some of our laws and policies are often not realised in practice. Now that its become equally obvious that the ANC is moving towards a greater centralisation of power in a state that has clearly predatory, authoritarian and socially conservative currents the hope that a progressively unfolding programme of democratisation will steadily extend the reach of rights out of the bourgeois sphere is more than a little threadbare.
The housing crisis has been a significant factor in popular dissent. Given the situation this is hardly surprising. Evictions and disconnections are rampant, conditions in shack settlements are dire, housing projects are routinely captured and distorted by local party elites for their own financial and political advantage and the technocrats have generally succumbed to an anti-political logic that has often led to the ANC reproducing neo-apartheid spatial planning.
The root of our failure to make a serious impact on the urban crisis inherited from apartheid lies in a lack of political power on the part of poor people. This is why laws and policies are not implemented, people elected to represent the poor so often start working for the rich and there has been no serious attempt to put the social value of land and housing before their commercial value and to re-imagine our cities as open and democratic spaces.
Considerable effort has been made to entrench this systemic lack of political power by subordinating civics to top down party structures and holding out the promise of development for shack dwellers that affiliate to NGO authority allied with the state. Attempts to organise within and outside of the party have generally encountered a mixture of co-option and repression.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, the most significant popular attempt to organise against evictions and for decent housing, democratic modes of development and a meaningful right to the city, has suffered sustained repression at the hands of the ANC. This culminated in an armed attack on the movement's leaders in the Durban suburb of Clare Estate in late 2009 that resulted in the malicious arrest of some of its members, the ongoing and brazen destruction and looting of the homes of its leading activists for months and an explicit attempt, led by top figures in the provincial ANC and the police, to 'disband' the organisation in the area.
One consequence of the legitimation crisis that popular mobilisation and repression created for the ANC in Clare Estate and nearby suburbs like Sydenham and Reservoir Hills is that in the recent local government elections middle class councillors were replaced with shack dwellers. But Themba Mtshali, the newly elected ANC councillor for Reservoir Hills, recently reassured the rich in the pages of a local newspaper that they shouldn't worry too much about legal protection for shack dwellers getting in the way of the evictions that they are demanding, through ratepayer's organisations, to protect their property prices: "Thirty-eight shacks were removed from Pridley Road a week ago. At night, you can also do it. You have the police with you. And I give you my word that I will be there to support you." Voting, on its own, is not going to solve anything.
If neither the law, policy or the vote are offering a decisive resolution to our urban crisis that's producing ever more gated MacMansions for the rich and evictions to tiny and poorly built houses and concentration camp style transit camps for the poor, usually in the middle of nowhere, it's clear that something else needs to be done.
Tokyo Sexwale is, given his telling silence in response to the blatant repression of Abahlali baseMjondolo, clearly no democrat. But while the offer of maternal care by a national icon mediated through the state may feel like a more kindly prospect than the explicit and often security driven authoritarianism of his predecessor it is not what is required. Poor people, like all people, need to be engaged as citizens, not children.
Madikizela-Mandela was in Clare Estate on Friday last week. She could have chosen to express solidarity with organised shack dwellers who have faced serious repression there. But she chose to use the occasion to speak in support of Malema, who she called her grandson.
The next day, in a vastly better attended event, Abahlali baseMjondolo slaughtered a cow to celebrate the sixth anniversary of their movement. "The struggle for human dignity", they announced, "is still at large." If Sexwale was a democrat he would have posed this reality, and the prospect of the systemic political empowerment of shack dwellers, via their self-organisation, against the vested interests that are flourishing while millions sit out their lives in limbo.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.