The New Apartheid | The Nation


The New Apartheid

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According to Desai, the greatest flaw of South Africa's liberation struggle was its near-religious faith in a small group of leaders, a faith that led millions to trust that everything would be OK once Nelson Mandela and the ANC came to power. In contrast, Desai quotes Maxwell Cele, one of the community activists who fought the installation of water meters in Mpumalanga, saying, "No one is in charge of the protests, except the anger and hunger in every person."

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Desai also points out that while traditional left thinkers have tended to put the factory at the center of their vision of revolutionary change (forever waiting for the workers to seize the means of production), today's movements revolve around the neighborhood. This shift has changed not only the tactics of resistance but, perhaps more significant, its culture. Unlike the factory, which is largely a one-dimensional site of production, communities are by their very nature multidimensional and multilayered. Neighborhoods are not just sites of work but also of love, childrearing, illness, celebration, mourning, cooking and praying--not to mention crime, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and isolation. Out of this complexity, political tactics emerge that are themselves multilayered, as much about building connections to one's neighbors as they are about staging confrontations with the state (though they are about that too).

Desai's favorite example of this merger of politics and culture is how Diwali, the annual Hindu festival of lights, was celebrated in Chatsworth. When Diwali rolled around two years ago, the community decided to adapt the traditional holiday to their modern reality of evictions and electricity cutoffs by holding a Festival of (No) Lights, casting the local City Council as a satanic villain pushing them into darkness.

Musing on the differences between these community-based movements and the political, party-based struggles of the past, Desai writes that today, "one didn't need to be glum and driven and Jehovah Witness-like, ever trying to win recruits among those sinfully enjoying themselves in shebeens, on the soccer fields, playing cards, or making out in the alleys where the lights are dim." Quite the contrary: A true community-based movement would never see expressions of community as distractions from "real" politics but rather as part of the very goal of struggle, victories in themselves.

In the final chapters of "We Are the Poors," Desai zooms out to bring in the wider world: The local township struggles against neoliberal policies begin to link up with the global movement fighting neoliberalism around the world, from Buenos Aires to Genoa to Seattle. This globalization takes place not because Desai leaves his own backyard but because a global movement arrives, quite unexpectedly, in Desai's frontyard, in the form of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism.

In response to the ANC's leading role in the UN conference, "the poors" who populate this book decided it was time to expand dramatically the government's narrow definition of racism to include the structural policies that keep people poor: debt, landlessness, privatization, unemployment, occupation and so on. Community antipoverty groups from across South Africa formed a national network called the Durban Social Forum and, during the conference, played host to activists fighting for the same basic rights around the world.

Desai admits that plenty of meetings and events around the conference were hijacked by "some global conspiracy theorists and Muslim chauvinists." But he argues that the lasting significance of the Durban conference was the opportunity it provided to connect immediate local issues to a global economic agenda. He quotes Tracey Fared describing the thrill of an early organizing meeting: "Suddenly so many things made sense. Why our water was getting cut off and our people thrown onto the street. Why our children had to pay school fees or else... why the youth of the North are also out on the streets and why our Minister of Finance hates them so."

For Desai, this process is not about local struggles being absorbed into some homogenous, monolithic global movement. Rather, it is about local communities, which hold on to their specificity, their myths and their stories, connecting to a global web of similar communities with stories and myths of their own: a world of Chatsworths. The forces weighing down on these communities may be hugely powerful and global--from international financial markets to multinational water corporations to the World Trade Organization--but the fights against them still take place in stairwells, kitchens and on street corners. These struggles for basic rights, Desai writes, "in Soweto, Zimbabwe, Bolivia and Genoa," are being waged through a global network of engaged neighborhoods, and to "the poors" of South Africa, they seem "somehow very near, almost local, and inspiringly winnable."

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