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.
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.
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.”
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.”