Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Rebellion of the Poor Comes to Grahamstown: A photographic essay on the UPM by Tim Gabb

A protester salutes the cause with a fist in the air.
Outside the City Hall
Protesters from eThembeni gather for a protest the night before municipal elections, to burn tyres and blockade a road.
A protester dances around burning tyres, as the smoke thickens and darkens, and police slowly start arriving, the night before the municipal elections.
Click here to see the rest of the pictures.

The Rebellion of the Poor comes to Grahamstown
Timothy Gabb

Revolutions do not spring out of the blue. Revolutions are organised through the united action of men and women, rural and urban, which spring from their needs. Revolutions happen when ordinary men and women begin to discuss their own lives and their own futures and to take action to take control of their own lives.
Ayanda Kota, UPM

Since 2004, there has been a surge of localised protests all throughout South Africa, to such a vigorous an extent, that our country has been dubbed the protest capital of the world.

This spate of localised protesting has come to be known as ‘the rebellion of the poor’. It has evolved out of a new generation of dissatisfied youth, primarily amongst the unemployed, who, according to Peter Alexander, “have both a shared identity and the time to organise”. The mainstream media has, from its distance, forged the perception that these protests are primarily about service delivery, which is only fractionally true. As Richard Pithouse states, “once all protests are automatically understood to be about a demand for “service delivery” they can be safely understood as a demand for more efficiency from the current development model rather than any kind of challenge to that model. ... But the reason why the automatic use of the term “service delivery protest” obscures more than it illuminates is that protests are a direct challenge to the post-apartheid development model.”

There are many reasons for the protests: unequal and segregated distribution of land in both rural and urban areas; poor service delivery (especially with regard to housing); government corruption (especially at the local level); undemocratic structuring of wards and development forums; top down selection for party positions within the ANC; top down and authoritarian approaches to governance; evictions and forced removals; rampant crime; unemployment; police brutality; and provincial border demarcation issues, to highlight the more grave and generalised of reasons.

In Grahamstown, we have had our own rebellion of the poor, embodied by the grassroots social movement, the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM). It has been active in Grahamstown since 2009, under the chair of Ayanda Kota. UPM fights for the needs and aspirations of the poor and unemployed of the country. In Grahamstown, the unemployment rate is around 70%, whilst in South Africa at large, the rate is just over 40%.

According to Kota, the movement formed largely in reaction to the “oppression at the hands of the African National Congress (ANC) that has driven [them] into the rebellion of the poor.” Their rebellion is one against the robbing of the ruling party of their “dignity, safety and hope.”

The number of dissatisfied, politicised and radicalised poor people is increasing, and movements across the country are combining knowledge and strategies, to form a unified alternative to a political ‘democracy’ of one party authoritarian rule. Movements such as: Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), the Poor Peoples’ Alliance, the Landless Peoples’ Movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, Mandela Park Backyarders, Sikhula Sonke, and the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) are unifying, and standing for the same right to direct participatory democracy. They unite against the centralised and hierarchical culture of ANC; they stand for a living politics – what Nigel Gibson calls “a commitment to a politics that in Fanon’s terms speak in the language that everyone can understand”.

They seek to build alternative spaces where a participatory, democratic, decentralised, and inclusive form of politics is cultivated; spaces that recognise the humanity of all.