Ashwin Desai’s “We Are the Poors” is one of the best books yet on globalization and resistance. Its secret is that it barely mentions globalization, instead weaving together richly told local stories that bring this grand and bland subject vividly to life.
Most books on corporate globalization (and I admit that I am a terrible offender) attempt to be global themselves. In the process, they can seem as placeless and generic as their subject: Specificity is lost and analysis can seem as free-floating as a currency trade. “We Are the Poors” takes the opposite approach: Desai, a well-known South African activist and academic, lives in the Durban area, and that is where most of this book unfolds, with a few side trips to Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Desai’s task is simple: to describe how residents of some of the poorest townships and settlements in South Africa are struggling to hold on to their homes, their jobs and their scarce access to water and electricity in the face of privatizations and mounting state repression. What emerges is a devastating account of the African National Congress, a party that still insists it is synonymous with “national liberation” and brands its critics “counterrevolutionaries”–even as it cuts off the water of its former “comrades” and slips eviction notices under their doors.
Desai is part of a growing movement of South African liberation fighters who have refused to stop fighting just because the ANC and the world community say the struggle has been won. How could it be, they ask, when unemployment among black South Africans is at more than 40 percent? When 40,000 households lose access to electricity each month? When more than 100,000 people recently contracted cholera in Kwa-Zulu Natal from drinking contaminated water after their taps were turned off?
There is a growing body of work exposing the ANC’s scandalous track record on wealth redistribution in postapartheid South Africa, and considerable groundwork for “We Are the Poors” has been laid by Patrick Bond, of the University of the Witwatersrand, among others. What sets this book apart is the way the story is told. Desai understands that resistance movements need their own folklore: their own stories, myths and heroes. It is in this context that “We Are the Poors” sets out not just to marshal evidence of government malfeasance but also to begin to build a modern resistance culture that will fuel a powerful new movement, one that Desai is convinced is already taking hold.
The author succeeds brilliantly, largely because he, unlike so many political writers, genuinely appears to like the people he is writing about. That means that the township families losing their homes and having their water and electricity cut off emerge not as anonymous victims but as a crew of ribald, courageous and unique characters–from a local rapper named Psyches, whom Desai describes as “a human pamphleteer,” to the elderly “Aunty Girlie,” who gave Desai the name for his book.
The phrase “we are the poors” comes from a standoff between a local ANC politician and a group of mostly Indian residents of Chatsworth who were being evicted from their homes. When the politician accused the crowd of wanting special treatment because they are Indian, Girlie Amod’s now famous indignant reply was: “We are not Indians, we are the poors.” Desai defines “the poors” as the “unemployed, single mother, community defender, neighbour, factory worker, popular criminal, rap artist and genuine ou (good human being).” He takes Amod’s phrase and runs with it, using “the poors” as an elastic, nonracial, nondogmatic identity for the swelling ranks of South Africa’s dispossessed.