Thursday, 14 October 2010

Building unity in diversity: Social movement activism in the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

by Sophie Oldfield & Kristian Stokke, 2004

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign is a movement of community organisations from poor, marginalised areas of Cape Town that formed in February 2001 to fight against evictions and water cut-offs.  A diversity of issues lies behind the emergence of the Campaign, although the initial impetus was Cape Town City Council-led evictions of families from two areas of state-owned flats in former coloured group areas. Across the Campaign, activists and organisations share threats and experiences of water cut-offs and evictions, collective discontent with postapartheid polices of cost-recovery on basic services, and dissatisfaction with local political representation (Leitch 2003). Through involvement in the Campaign, tactics
and strategies have been shared and activists have been empowered in their everyday community-based activism. An important oppositional voice in local politics in Cape Town, they have joined together to intervene, and often disrupt, citywide policy and public discourse on equity and socio-economic rights. The Campaign has given force as well as shape to a discourse on justice and the imperative to challenge postapartheid service delivery and cost-recovery policies.

This collective experiential and discursive unity builds, however, on real diversity. Rich relationships that have evolved between activists through involvement in the Campaign cross many differences, and provide the energy that in part has catalysed activists to build a united, citywide movement. Activists and organisations live in diverse conditions, work from different histories of struggle and relationships with the state, and ground their activism in often-divergent politics. The potential strength of the Campaign builds on its diversity and its common community-based identity. Yet, at the same time, a real tension exists between the diversity that constitutes the Campaign and the unity required to fight for socio-economic rights, and against state policies and actions. Only by accepting diversity could the Campaign’s unity be built. Yet, paradoxically, the same diversity makes organising the Campaign challenging and produces tensions that at times have splintered and diffused its vision, and politicised its actions and constitution.

Click here to download this paper in pdf.