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  • We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa
  • Gorm Gunnarsen
Desai, Ashwin . 2002. We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press. 153 pp. $19 (paper).

Ashwin Desai is an organic intellectual who consolidates the experiences of local social movements. His insights often stem from inside observations. In We are the Poors, he describes and affirms the forming of a group identity for poor people involved in the struggle for decent housing. He does not limit his account to a generic struggle of the poor: the book is multifaceted in its ascription of agency to multiple bodies in the selection of somewhat composite narratives. Desai jumps freely among biography, policies of the local state, and the initiative of local labor and community movements. The last is most difficult to grasp, as it "is impossible to chronicle how disillusionment turned into dismay and finally to antagonism." Desai anyhow uses his empathetic listening to give useful hints: "At first, people say they felt utterly alone and leaderless. Some spectators tried to resist but were easily driven off by police. Others discussed the evictions wherever they could, trying to provoke in others the outrage they felt. Bus stops and washing taps became centers of lamentation for weeks after the first evictions" (p. 38).

The primary focus here is on the collective response of poor people in Chatsworth of Durban Metro, South Africa, to evictions from homes and disconnections of water and electricity. This reader is not entirely convinced that the present stage of South African grassroots struggles "began in Chatsworth and spread from there" (p. 142); however, there is no doubt that the commitment and engagement of the people of Chatsworth [End Page 114] stand as a powerful example to poor people all over South Africa. They were widely reported, and helped inspire other organized groups grappling with their increasingly divided loyalties between the ANC in power and the poor people.

The ANC in power has increasingly turned to eliminating the culture of nonpayment among people with hardly any income, while the growing wages of ANC-connected bosses in the private and public sectors are financed through retrenchments. Ashwin Desai is unimpressed with the social policies of the ANC: he lambastes the ANC's culture of nondelivery to the poor.

The use and response to the water meters of an increasingly privatized water supply is a central issue. Interestingly, the making of the poor into customers of community services prevents them from becoming consumers of necessities. If they have unpaid bills on electricity or rent, their water will be disconnected, leading them to neighbors, who might develop unpayable bills from fulfilling other people's basic needs, and eventually to the contaminated water of streams in the vicinity Thulisile Manqele's legal battle illustrates how the legal system has managed to dodge the limited social rights entrenched in the South African Constitution, thus replacing constitutionalism with "executive sovereignty" and "the ideology of the market" (p. 72).

The local acts of solidarity with the evicted and the disconnected have increasingly turned to extralegal direct action, such as the collective eviction of evictors, and the protective popular shield around reconnectors of water and electricity. The community organizations evolving around these forms of collective action have also turned to other forms. Two of the collective actions that Desai highlights could be useful pointers to the paths that collective action for basic social rights will take in the future.

In one case, that of the response to a disconnection in Soweto, protesters decided to use the same means against Amos Makondo, Mayor of Johannesburg. They marched to Makondo's plush home, where his bodyguard shot at them. Despite the wounds received by two protestors, they managed to disconnect the mayor's water. The police arrested and charged all protesters with malicious damage to property and let the sniping bodyguard go (pp. 147-148).

In another case, that of Hammarsdale's township Mpumalanga, which was an epicenter of the civil war in Natal around 1990, the dissent of the poor people assumed a different character. Faced with exorbitant debts to be paid before they could receive their...


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pp. 114-116
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