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The Politics of Necessity

Community Organizing and Democracy in South Africa

Elke Zuern

Publication Year: 2011

The end of apartheid in South Africa broke down political barriers, extending to all races the formal rights of citizenship, including the right to participate in free elections and parliamentary democracy. But South Africa remains one of the most economically polarized nations in the world. In The Politics of Necessity Elke Zuern forcefully argues that working toward greater socio-economic equality—access to food, housing, land, jobs—is crucial to achieving a successful and sustainable democracy.
    Drawing on interviews with local residents and activists in South Africa’s impoverished townships during more than a decade of dramatic political change, Zuern tracks the development of community organizing and reveals the shifting challenges faced by poor citizens. Under apartheid, township residents began organizing to press the government to address the basic material necessities of the poor and expanded their demands to include full civil and political rights. While the movement succeeded in gaining formal political rights, democratization led to a new government that instituted neo-liberal economic reforms and sought to minimize protest. In discouraging dissent and failing to reduce economic inequality, South Africa’s new democracy has continued to disempower the poor.
    By comparing movements in South Africa to those in other African and Latin American states, this book identifies profound challenges to democratization. Zuern asserts the fundamental indivisibility of all human rights, showing how protest movements that call attention to socio-economic demands, though often labeled a threat to democracy, offer significant opportunities for modern democracies to evolve into systems of rule that empower all citizens.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xiv

This book investigates the creation of democracy from the perspective of the ordinary people who helped to bring it about by organizing, protesting, and demanding a wide range of rights. The initial idea for the project developed during my work interviewing volunteers with theWits/Vaal Regional Peace Secretariat in mid-1994, just after South Africa’s historic democratic...

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pp. xv-xvi

This book would not have been possible without the contributions of many South Africans who shared their experiences of struggle and their expectations for democracy. Mzwanele Mayekiso first introduced me to civic organizers and members in Alexandra and beyond. As the interviews snowballed, so did my debts. Donovan Williams, Mike Tofile, Ntsokolo Daniel Sandi, Maynard Menu, Emmanuel Tseleii, Ali Tleane, Philemon Machitela...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xvii-xix

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pp. 3-21

In the early 1980s a flier proclaiming “Asinamali Masinhlanganeni [We are poor—let us unite] . . . Organise or be homeless” called upon local residents to form a civic association in an impoverished community in the Vaal region, south of Johannesburg. In another township, this one outside Durban, protesters donned red T-shirts, which loudly and simply proclaimed, “Land! Housing!” once again demanding that...

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1. Community Organizing in South Africa

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pp. 22-41

South Africa is widely known for its history of popular struggle. Thousands took to the streets in waves of protest that spanned more than four decades of apartheid rule. Several of these protest actions are well known internationally, such as the 1960 antipass demonstration that ended with the Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 student-led Soweto...

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2. Material Inequality and Political Rights

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pp. 42-67

During a 1999 protest in Westcliff, outside Durban, local government councilors told angry residents that their housing demands were unreasonable. Ashwin Desai chronicled the exchange that followed: “[A councilor:] Why were Indians resisting evictions and demanding upgrades? Indians were just too privileged. One elderly aunty, Girlie Amod, screamed back: ‘We are not Indians, we are the poors.’ . . . Bongiwe...

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3. Power to the People!

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pp. 68-97

Social movements do not necessarily promote democracy. They constitute a challenge. This challenge may be to an established authority such as a state or regime, to commonly accepted ideas and beliefs, to powerful nonstate actors such as international organizations or corporations, or to other social movements. They draw on, redefine, and also create collective identities to bring about some form of change or to resist the...

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4. Disciplining Dissent

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pp. 98-132

The frustration expressed by a civic leader in the Eastern Cape three years into South Africa’s new democratic dispensation was often repeated by supporters of local civics and ordinary citizens: their new democracy was not sufficiently accountable or responsive. People were asked to attend meetings, but their inputs seemed to be ignored. Democracy was not offering citizens the participatory and inclusive system of...

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5. Contentious Democracy

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pp. 133-167

Democracy in South Africa brought all adult citizens the right to vote, but at the same time that political and civil rights expanded, envisaged socioeconomic rights seemed to contract. A policy of cost recovery was introduced, reducing subsidies and requiring consumers, even in desperately poor communities, to pay close to the full cost of services such as electricity and water...

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6. Substantive Democracy

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pp. 168-187

Claude Ake offered this prescient warning in the early 1990s, a time of great enthusiasm for a new wave of democracies on the African continent and beyond. His argument cuts to a central challenge commonly overlooked in discussions of democratization: when ordinary people mobilize for democracy, they often demand a very different system from that which domestic elites, dominant international organizations...


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pp. 189-206


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pp. 207-234


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pp. 235-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780299250133
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299250140

Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 704292687
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Politics of Necessity

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Subject Headings

  • Basic needs -- Government policy -- South Africa.
  • Community organization -- South Africa.
  • Poverty -- Political aspects -- South Africa.
  • South Africa -- Politics and government -- 1989-1994.
  • South Africa -- Politics and government -- 1994-.
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