The New Apartheid
Desai's critique of neoliberal policies is not imposed, ill fitting, on the lives of "the poors" but rather flows, weeping, from the people Desai introduces to us through the book--families "with biographies disfigured by poverty." For instance, we learn that many mothers have lost their child-support grants, through stories of 12-year-old girls who need to go looking for "sugar daddies" to put them through school. And we meet 13-year-old Valentino Naidoo, who was beaten, stripped and arrested for stealing a toothbrush. (He told the police that his mother couldn't afford to buy him one, and the kids at school made fun of him for having bad breath.)
South Africa is under real pressure from international financial markets to introduce austerity policies, Desai acknowledges, but he also insists that President Thabo Mbeki has cooperated with an unseemly enthusiasm. For instance, when the WTO gave the South African government twelve years to phase out protections for its national garment industry, the ANC chose to complete the project in eight years. "In the first six months of 1999 alone," Desai writes, "just over 10,000 jobs were jettisoned in and around Durban. Hidden behind the bald statistics lay a lot of ruined lives."
Desai is a controversial figure in South African politics precisely because he places no filters between a law written in Pretoria and the effect of that law on a family in Soweto or Chatsworth. Nor does he pay the slightest lip service to "difficult choices" or "good intentions"--just the results. For instance, describing the state's response to anti-eviction activism in Chatsworth, he notes, "It took the City Council two years of democracy before they called upon the chief constable, once again, to fetch the police dogs from the kennels and reach for the tear-gas canisters in the Old Fort Road armory."
When Desai writes about the ANC, his rage is so raw that I found myself holding the book with clenched fists. But many more times, when he is writing about mounting community resistance to these policies, what one feels emanating from the page is pure tenderness. For Desai, this largely spontaneous, slightly mysterious new movement is "something special and encouraging...something precious and precarious."
The book shows Desai's preoccupation with how the liberation movements of today can learn from the mistakes of the past, how they can avoid the strategic errors that made it possible for ANC politicians, once elected, to turn their backs on the people who spilled blood to put them in power. For Desai, anyone who thinks that left politics can look the same as it did during the apartheid era--with highly centralized parties, armies of followers treated as "cannon fodder" and stale political dogma--is more a hindrance than a help.
What is needed instead is new tactics, new identities, a new irreverence toward would-be leaders--and a language of resistance that is more hip-hop than Trotsky, "attitude rather than ideology." According to Desai, what connects the militant community mobilizations springing up across South Africa is not ideology but need: for water, medicine, electricity and land. If there is a guiding theory joining them, it is not an abstract belief in nationalism, liberation or even explicit socialism. Rather, it is a gut instinct that human needs should take precedence over the demands of the market and, more to the point, that any direct action taken by ordinary people to meet those needs is not only justified but heroic.
The leaders of today are not the larger-than-life preachers and prophets of the past but organizers and doers: "struggle electricians" who reconnect their neighbors' cut-off power; 70-year-old "grannies" and "aunties" who blockade narrow flights of stairs in their tenement buildings to prevent cops from carrying out evictions; residents in Cape Town who move neighbors back into their homes after the police have thrown them out; entire communities that react to the arrival of new water meters by revolting, smashing the meters and chasing away the installers.