Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Spatial reorganisation, decentralisation and dignity: Applying a Fanonian lens to a Grahamstown shack settlement

by Sarita Pillay

  “The divided, Manichaean colonial world and its social relations are manifested in space –one Fanonian test of post-apartheid society is to what extent South Africa has been spatially reorganised”  (Gibson, 2011: 187).
1.   Introduction

In Grahamstown, East and West are not merely cardinal points. East and West are not unbiased references to directional differences. In Grahamstown, East and West are contemporary manifestations of a colonial world that Frantz Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth as “a world divided in two” (Fanon, 1963: 3). East and West are representative of the Manichaean (post) colonial town and its social relations.

Grahamstown West is an area with well-watered green lawns, cafés and a sushi-bar, English-style private schools and a university named after one of Africa’s most reviled imperialists. It is a sector that aptly fits Fanon’s description of the “colonists sector”. It is a sector “of lights and paved roads”, a sector whose “belly is permanently full of good things” – it is a “white folks’ sector” (Fanon, 1963). Grahamstown East, in contrast, is host to the “colonised’s sector” (Fanon, 1963). Grahamstown East is an area of potholed and dirt roads; where many get warmth and light from paraffin; and where not all streets have names. Despite the visible divide between Grahamstown West and Grahamstown East, the binary of the contemporary South African town is slightly more nuanced than it used to be. The township, the “colonised’s sector”, is as much “a famished town, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal and light” (Fanon, 2004: 4) as it is a sector with suburban aspirations, as well as electrified, albeit shaky, government housing. But it is still a colonised sector. This is a contemporary South Africa town divided into black spaces and white (with occasional specks of black) spaces.

The colonised sector and the colonial sector identified by Fanon are both state spaces. Created by the state, divided by the state and regulated by the state. However, Fanon also makes mention of what could be considered a third space, or a sub-space of the colonised sector, the space of the lumpenproletariat –the landless poor of the colonised. It is often an insurgent space, pushing into the colonial town, made of tin and inhabited by the most deplored of the colonised (Fanon, 1963: 111 & 129).

“The constitution of a lumpenproletariat is a phenomenon which obeys its own logic, and neither the brimming activity of the missionaries nor the decrees of government can check its growth” (Fanon, 1963: 129-130).

The spatial manifestation of the lumpenproletariat also obeys its own logic. It is often a space created outside of the confines of the state. That is, until the point that it is incorporated into the state, or smashed through violence. The lumpenproletariat and the shantytown are a people and a space that challenge the “security” of the colonised sector –they are signs of  “the irrevocable decay, the gangrene ever-present at the heart of colonial domination” (Fanon, 1963: 130). This third space is also manifest in, or on the margins of, the post-apartheid/colonial town in the form of the shack settlement. EThembeni, a shack settlement on the outer edge of Grahamstown East, is a contemporary echo of this third space. It is a settlement of mud and corrugated iron homes, straddling the electrified matchbox houses of Extension 7. It is a world away from the cafés, green lawns and private schools.

From Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon consistently used the trope of spatial delimitation and space as an idiom to describe the colonial world in his work (Sekyi-Otu, 1996). Whereas Karl Marx’s used time to describe the oppression of the worker –the quantification of time, the control of time, the dispossession of time—Fanon, although not dismissing the political salience of time, recognised that under the racially divided world of colonialism, the spatial characteristics of oppression are more pronounced  (Sekyi-Otu, 1996). In Sekyi-Otu’s (1996) view, whereas Fanon’s work in the Wretched of the Earth focuses on the spatiality of racial/colonial domination on a juridical, socioeconomic and sociopsychological level –it is Black Skins, White Masks that explores the “geography of domination” psychoexistentially. In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon (1952) relates that in the colonial space, the black man is a slave to his appearance, under the constant gaze of the white man. His discussion of the experience of the Negro in a train (in Chapter 5, The Lived Experience of the Black Man) illustrates the hyper-awareness of self, and of others’ perceptions of oneself, by the colonised. While in A Dying Colonialism, Fanon (1965) describes how the veiled woman and the unveiled woman in Algeria experience a gaze of pity and approval respectively, as they walk the streets of the colonial town. Fanon shows how, under colonial and racial domination, action and self-determination are constrained and withheld – spatiality is transformed into coercion (Sekyi-Otu, 1996). Colonisation was materialised in the physical limitation of space of the colonised, and the making of the colonised into the quintessential evil (Fanon, 2004). Spatial reorganisation is thus seen to be critical to reconstituting the decolonised society. “By penetrating its [the colonial world’s] geographical configuration and classification we shall be able to delineate the backbone on which the decolonised society is reorganised”  (Fanon, 2004: 3).

Fanon believed that a true decolonisation is possible when the post-colonial society has developed a humanist consciousness. A consciousness based on the recognition of the universality of human experience, founded on ideas and practises of being human –“a new humanism” (Fanon, 1952 & 1963; Gibson, 2011). Further, this consciousness building, and the building of the post-colonial nation, has to involve the thoughts and actions of the everyday masses (Gibson, 2011:13; Fanon, 1963). A successful post-colony is a decentralised post-colony, where the masses are agents of change (Fanon, 1963).  In my view, failed spatial reorganisation in post-apartheid South Africa is a symptom of the failure to develop a humanist consciousness and the failure to view the masses as agents of change. Thus, through a Fanonian lens, this continued spatial divide in South Africa is a sign of an incomplete liberation (Gibson, 2011). It represents the failures of a post-colonial (or post-apartheid) nationalist party and government. It represents the failures of a centralisation of power and a stunted nationalist consciousness. It represents the perils of a tendency to dismiss the citizen, especially the poor citizen, as unthinking, a benefactor, superfluous.

This paper intends to show how the experiences of residents in eThembeni, a shack settlement in Grahamstown, resonate with Fanon’s discussion of a failing post-colony. Further, this paper discusses how attempts by eThembeni’s residents, and other shackdwellers across the country, to reorganise their space are underscored by calls for dignity. Those whose humanness has been denied are appealing to a humanist consciousness that the post-colonial nationalist party failed to develop. For Fanon, practises and ideas of becoming human are essential to any successful decolonisation (Gibson, 2011). Considering this, the calls and demands of the spatially damned of South Africa could represent a move towards a true decolonisation.

2.   EThembeni: “Place of Hope”

EThembeni, meaning hope, or place of hope, was first occupied and established as a shack settlement in the early 1990s.

“We [a group of people] tried to make a squatter camp. We forcibly occupied [ukundlova] this land, without permission.” (LQ, Male, living in eThembeni for 17 years)[1].

For some, settling in eThembeni offered an opportunity for independence, to have a home of one’s own. For others it was a place where they could build a home after having been displaced from nearby farms. For most, it offered the only accommodation that they could afford. But the initial optimism that surrounded the settlement’s establishment has worn off. Incorporated into formal political structures, the shack settlement’s future is dictated by the state and its associated bureaucracy and policies. Despite the community’s efforts at engaging with the state, the area remains without electricity, household water and sanitation services. EThembeni is not like the neighbourhoods in Grahamstown West, or parts of Grahamstown East. It is not “a sector of lights and paved roads” (Fanon, 1961). At night, the settlement is engulfed by darkness.

“Here, you can’t leave your house alone. If you go out, you have to make sure that you are back before dark. It is like having a curfew – you are forced to be in your houses at night” (PB, female, 26).

The darkness is a barrier. A barrier that makes residents immobile, makes them fear for their safety, and makes them unreachable to emergency services.

“…Once someone was in labour, and they had to go to the hospital, but it was dark and the ambulance was far - you could get robbed by criminals. The person couldn’t go, so she gave birth to the child in the house. When the ambulance arrived in the morning, the child was already born. The situation here is very painful” (VM, female, 48)

It is a sector without household water access, without sanitation services and unreliable refuse collection. It is a sector with high levels of unemployment. It is a “disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people” (Fanon, 2004: 4).

“There’s nothing good about living in this place, our mothers get raped here. There’s no sanitation, we dig holes for toilets, and our children have a problem using the toilets. They sometimes fall inside the holes – into the human faeces. This place is a mess”  (ZN, Male, 40).

 EThembeni, and its relation to Grahamstown West, and parts of Grahamstown East, echoes the spatial divide of a colonial and apartheid world described by Fanon (1963) in Wretched of the Earth, a world supposedly left behind.

3. An incomplete liberation: The failure to reorganise space.

Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, yet his description of the colonial city, “a world divided in two”, of the colonists sector and the colonised’s sector, still holds true for many towns in South Africa. As Nigel Gibson (2011: 187) posits, in his work on Fanonian practises in South Africa, “The divided, Manichaean colonial world and its social relations are manifested in space –one Fanonian test of post-apartheid society is to what extent South Africa has been spatially reorganised”. In many respects, South Africa has dismally failed the test. If the transformation and appropriation of space is part of decolonisation, as Fanon seems to suggest, then South Africa is not a decolonised society (Kipfner, 2005).  Rather than being spatially reorganised, the Manichaean world of apartheid South Africa, and its social relations, persist. South Africa is still spatially divided. Although there have been some changes to the hue of the faces that inhabit the “colonist sector”, the “disreputable” “colonised sector” still exists –a sector that is overwhelmingly black and poor. The contemporary South African city is an extension of the colonial city, where society’s most vulnerable are excluded and the bourgeoisie benefit –an exclusion that is still highly racialised (Kipfner, 2005: 720). The city is still characterised by mutually exclusive sectors, where some sectors, inhabited by the damned, are superfluous (Fanon, 1963). For Fanon, the prevailing spatial divide in the post-apartheid city would represent an incomplete decolonisation, an incomplete liberation (Gibson, 2011: 25).

When the colonial or apartheid city is simply taken over, not reorganised, liberation is incomplete (Gibson, 2011: 25). “To dislocate the colonial world does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way between the two sectors” (Fanon, 2004: 6). This incomplete liberation in spatiality is a characteristic of many a post-colonial city. The colonial world has to be dislocated on a deeper level than simply the formal destruction of borders. The Group Areas Act may be archaic, but the fact remains that particular spaces in South Africa are characterised by particular circumstances, and are for particular people. The space into which one is born is still an important determinant in one’s identity and class (Gibson, 2011: 14). A World Bank report released in 2012 found that the infrastructure and human development levels of the space that a child is born into are likely to affect their chances in life, and later, their employment opportunities as an adult (World Bank, 2012). In South Africa, the apartheid city has been taken over, not reorganised.

This incomplete liberation of space can be framed within Fanon’s warnings in The Wretched of the Earth on the shortcomings of nationalism and a purely national consciousness in the post-colony. Fanon (1963) acknowledges the importance of nationalism under colonialism in rousing the masses into struggle, but he warns that more often than not this nationalist consciousness falls short of realising a changed society in the post-colony. In the postcolonial society, nationalism is often appropriated by an elite, and is utilised in an exclusionary and chauvinistic manner –removed from the daily struggles of the everyday person (Fanon, 1963). For Fanon, nationalism needs to be deepened and enriched, it needs to become a social and political consciousness, geared towards the formation of a “new humanism”: “If we really want to safeguard countries from regression, paralysis and collapse” (Fanon, 2004:142). Fanon is critical of a post-colony where one oppressor, the colonist, is simply replaced by another, the native elite or bourgeoisie, who dictates an incomplete and exclusionary national consciousness. For Fanon, the move towards the post-colony, a political and social consciousness, and thus a new humanism, can only be achieved with the active involvement of the masses, particularly “the damned” of the post-colony, in response to their daily challenges (Gibson, 2011: xii-xiii; Fanon, 2004: 143). Rather than an elite project, the post-colony should be built through the involvement of the masses, particularly those “from…the spaces of struggle against ‘living death’” (Gibson, 2011: xi-xiii). In a post-colony where a political and social consciousness is not pursued, where a new humanism is not in the making, where the “damned” are not active participants, it is unlikely that progressive and effective spatial reorganisation will take place.

In the South African context, the African National Congress has failed to enrich and deepen national consciousness in the post-colony. A nationalist party headed largely by a native bourgeoisie has succeeded in appropriating and moulding a national effort in its favour and at the expense of the country’s most vulnerable. The ANC has emphasised and nurtured the development of a wealthy black middle-class, while the gap between the South Africa’s rich and poor increases dramatically (Freund, 2007). The poor have been conveniently sidelined from the post-colony and the “national effort” (Fanon, 2004: 143). Money and the political state, rather than human needs, largely determine the production of space in contemporary South Africa (Gibson, 2011: 25). The production of space is framed in technocratic and bureaucratic terms, in the realm of experts and influenced by the logic of capital and private sector concerns (Gibson, 2011:19; McDonald, 2008). This is contrary to what Fanon considered to be the appropriately constructed (in the figurative and literal sense) post-colony. In Fanon’s view, the post-colony should be built through dialectical engagement with the masses, particularly “the damned”, as decision-makers and idea-formulators (Fanon, 2004; Gibson, 2011: xii-xiii). Fanon emphasised the importance of decentralisation in building a post-colony. More than simply the decentralisation of the nationalist party, he calls for the involvement of the masses in the running of their lives, thus facilitating a move towards a national consciousness of humanism (Gibson, 2011: 13). “The citizens should be able to speak, to express themselves and to put forward new ideas” (Fanon, 1963: 195).

A common condition of the post-colony is that the nationalist party dismisses the masses. Those who drove the movement toward liberation are now not needed, are no longer engaged with, and no longer viewed as agents of change –but rather as the passive unknowing  (Fanon, 1963). In South Africa, the centralised and disengaged attempts at reform are driven by a focus on cost-recovery, “efficient” public administration, and the valorisation of technical knowledge (Heller, 2001). Local governments’ attempts at spatial reform are thus “subverted by market forces and attendant managerial ideologies”, “bureaucratic” and driven by a “commandist logic” (Heller, 2001: 134 & 146). This has meant that efforts at reorganising space are largely “reactive” acts, not realised through engagement, or driven by a political and social consciousness. These efforts are what Sekyi-Otu (1996: 96) calls “botched acts of transcendence in the context of life lived in captive space”. Drawing on Fanon, the ideal reorganisation of space would be one that is democratic, inclusive, achieved through dialectical engagement with the masses, and based on the needs of all (Gibson, 2011: 19). This approach to organising space links to the work of Marcelo Lopes de Souza (2000), who suggests that socio-spatial development should be guided by the parameter and principle of autonomy. Drawing on Cornelius Castoriadis’ conceptualisation of autonomy, De Souza (2000: 191) suggests that people themselves should define socio-spatial development.  If not,  “…urban development can only be, in the best of all cases, mitigated social oppression and inequality: a kind of modernisation- cum-reduction of poverty and environmental damage, conducted by enlightened ruling elites.” (De Souza, 2000: 190).
The experiences of eThembeni’s residents reflect a socio-spatial development that is far from autonomous or decentralised. Local municipal planning officials tend to believe that the plans and ideas for the development of eThembeni are outside of the ambit of residents. Not only are residents by-passed in decision-making or communicating plans (or non-plans) for their settlement, they are largely considered to be “uninformed” and to not understand the technicalities of urban planning and development. At present, the municipality is undertaking a host of feasibility tests to determine whether eThembeni can be upgraded in situ. The community has been told little, if anything, about this process and the possible formalisation. In October 2012, an environmental expert was sent to eThembeni to perform an Environmental Impact Assessment and his visit caused a great deal of confusion in the community. Only once the individual had been confronted by residents and asked questions about his presence, did the municipality take steps to inform residents about the feasibility tests. The local municipality engages with poor residents on a superficial level, if at all –they are spectators rather than participants in the organisation of space. This echoes a national tendency to view citizens, especially the poor, as passive “beneficiaries”, to whom goods are delivered, rather than as political subjects and stakeholders with agency and ideas (Gibson, 2011: 36).

One resident, a member of the Grahamstown-based Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), related an incident where a group of residents, who had become frustrated with the poor levels of engagement with the municipality, made a suggestion to improve communication with the Mayor and his/her office.

“We thought we came up with a better way of communicating with the Mayor.  But he let us down after suggestions were made to appoint an interim committee of five representatives who were to work closely with the Mayor. They [the committee] were tasked [with working] together with the Mayor to try and resolve all our problems…When they went to go meet with him, they were made to wait for a long time and ultimately the Mayor did not even attempt to speak with them. Instead, he sent someone else to go meet with them. Despite all he had promised, he gave a message that he was busy and had to leave then.  So, people have lost hope and given up, it’s of no use to try any form of communication with the local government who is failing them.” (NN, Female, resident for 19 years)

Not only does the local municipality provide evidence of a highly centralised and exclusionary government, driven by a national party that has sent the masses “back to the caves” – it is also evidence of a national consciousness that is not social and political. Human needs and “the general context of the underdeveloped countries” are not prioritised in decision-making by the local government (Gibson, 2011; Fanon, 1961). Planning officials in the municipality admit that decisions that they make around land-use have to balance human needs with cost-effectiveness – the pressing needs of locals with increasing economic investment and tourism.

In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon says that “citizens should be able to speak, to express themselves and to put forward new ideas”, to be political subjects, who realise their power, influence and responsibility in building the post-colony (Fanon, 1963: 195). Only through the involvement of “the damned”, says Fanon, of the poor and the vulnerable, is a post-colony effectively conceived (Gibson, 2011: xii-xiii). Only when a national consciousness is deepened into a social and political consciousness; responding to and based on human needs and experience; on ideas and practises of “becoming human”; only then will a post-colony be effectively realised (Gibson, 2011: 12; Fanon, 1961).

 4. Experiences of space: Coerced, ignored, betrayed and othered.

“The peculiarity of the colonial condition of being-in-space is that whatever the relative material size of the space assigned to the subjugated, the colonized must remain absolutely fixed in this space, separated by an unbridgeable chasm from the “others,” compelled to renounce the “self”, the individuality which is normally validated in the body’s spatial strategies” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 83).

One of Fanon’s (1963:15) most well-known descriptions of the colonised’s experience in space is made in The Wretched of the Earth: the colonial subject as “a man penned in”. Ato Sekyi-Otu (1996: 83), expands on this description, positing that under a colonial condition, “the colonised must remain absolutely fixed in his space”. The colonised is unable to freely be or move in space. The colonised is limited in acting out her self. Ato Sekyi-Otu (1996) calls this experience of the colonised a “coercion of space”. The colonised are restrained by the state from using their space, and constrained to using their space in a manner that they have not freely chosen.

 As outlined previously, despite the initial occupation of eThembeni being an act of insurgency, the area soon came under official state control.

“When you come as a group and occupy land, there are people in the government who see that there is a group of people living in this place. That’s when they decided to come and check, and give numbers for the sites.” (LQ, Male, 47).

The area is part of a formal ward with a ward councillor, and has community representatives on the local ward committee. According to residents who moved to the area after the initial occupation, the assistant to the ward councillor was in charge of allocating land. Integrated into the official state sphere, residents are restricted and constrained in their space. They are reliant on the state for the shaping of their space, or else face possible repression or dispossession. EThembeni’s residents are thus a people coerced in space. They are constrained to using their space in a manner that they have not freely chosen, and feel as if they have no control over. They are constrained to building makeshift pit toilets in their backyards. They are constrained to collecting water in plastic containers for bathing and drinking, from public taps that sometimes don’t work. Further, due to the tedious processes and cumbersome laws of land development and planning –eThembeni’s residents have been restrained from using their space to build more solid, permanent structures.

“We know that things take time to happen – they happen step by step – but if they could give us fixed plots then we’ll know we won’t have to move again. It is a waste accumulating money to build yourself a house, and when the place is going to be formalised they tell you to destroy it” (MM, Male, 50).

 EThembeni’s residents are a people coerced in space by state policies and attitudes that exclude and marginalise the poor.

In “post-apartheid” South Africa, not only are the poor viewed as unthinking, passive benefactors by party and government officials –they are often treated as superfluous people, or not people at all, in a superfluous sector (Fanon, 1961; Pithouse 2012; Mbembe, 2011). For Achille Mbembe (2011), humans taking on the form of “waste”, as something other than human, is a constant theme of the trajectory of race and capitalism in South Africa. Black lives were treated as waste under apartheid and colonialism, while today, for Mbembe (2011), it is capitalism that dictates that poor black lives be treated as waste. “Today, this logic of waste is particularly dramatized by the dilemmas of unemployment and disposability, survival and subsistence, and the expansion in every arena of everyday life of spaces of vulnerability. Despite the emergence of a solid black middle class, a rising superfluous population is becoming a permanent fixture of the South African social landscape with little possibility of ever being exploited by capital” (Mbembe, 2011). Shack-dwellers constitute part of this “superfluous population” –treated as “waste” by the state (Pithouse, 2012: 7; Mbembe, 2011). This attitude translates to whose livelihoods matter, and whose voices are worth listening to. Many of eThembeni’s residents felt as if their livelihoods were viewed as unimportant by the state and local government –they felt, quite simply, as if they were being ignored.            

“What we notice here in eThembeni is that we are ignored –even if we do complain to our Mayor.  He just ignores us, and sometimes we go and complain to the municipality but we get ignored there as well.  So, we just have to endure the present situation…and it’s quite painful” (AD, elderly female, living in eThembeni).

This is a contemporary reverberation of a colonial attitude, except that in the “post-colony” the poor are suddenly remembered and recognised when the time comes to vote (Gibson, 2011; Wei Ngiam, 2006).

“The only important thing to them [ruling party of local government, ANC] is when they enter every house canvassing and convincing everybody to stand up and vote to keep them in power.  Only to thereafter forget about the people and all that they had promised them (NN, elderly female, living in eThembeni for 19 years).

Despite being established for approximately 20 years, eThembeni has received little to no attention from the local municipality. Seven communal taps, and numerous false promises, are all that is testament to years of residents’ attempts at communication and becoming visible. Local politicians and municipal officials have treated residents offhandedly and insolently. Not only are they ignored and considered to “not understand” –residents of eThembeni have been treated as “figures on a chessboard”, lied to and deceived over the years in their quest for decent living conditions (Huchzermeyer, 2009).

“We have been told lies a lot here in eThembeni by the [municipal] officials; they are number one in lying. They promise but don’t fulfil the promise.” (WJ, Male, 72).

This deception relates to what Wei Ngiam (2006) calls a “democratic betrayal”, the result of dismissing the masses as superfluous (Fanon, 1961). “Betrayal is a complex moral sentiment, quite different from sheer disappointment, frustration or even indignation. It comes from broken promises and broken faith” (Wei Ngiam, 2006). Many residents discussed the broken promises and deception within the context of a supposedly “new” South Africa –the treatment at the hands of the local government is part of a larger democratic betrayal. 

“We’re told we have freedom, but we are still not free here in eThembeni.  Living in these kinds of conditions make us feel we are still more oppressed!  So, I see nothing that this government does for me under this terrible situation.  I would not be living in these miserable conditions if I were free.  That is why I stopped voting and will never vote again...The only place that this government fixes is the town and not where we live” (NN, elderly woman, UPM member)

“Those who are enjoying this moment of freedom, they are those who have not fought for it – and yet they are in big positions, misusing the money and forcing us to do things that we shouldn’t do in this Democracy.” (LQ, man, 17 years in eThembeni).

“…When we vote someone into power, they forget about those who voted for them and just fill their stomachs and those of their children.” (NM, male, 50).

In the post-colony, there should be dialectical engagement with the masses, especially the damned –they, after all, are the decision-makers and idea formulators (Fanon, 1961). In an incomplete liberation, in the post-colony that Fanon (1961) warned of, the nationalist bourgeoisie and technocrats are the self-imposed decision-makers, the only one’s that can think. In an incomplete liberation, the nationalist party and the government are highly centralised and authoritative. In an incomplete liberation the poor citizen is ignored and betrayed by the government, and when she walks the street she hears sniggers.

“Colonisation…invades the ‘natives’ space, body and motion” (Gibson, 2011: 187).
The black person who enters the colonial sector is made hyperaware of her blackness and her otherness –her position as a deviation. In a different context, but with equal resonance, the shack dweller is made hyperaware of his belonging to a deplored sector when he walks in the coloniser’s sector or the lit and tarred parts of the colonised’s sector. A resident of eThembeni described how, when he walks in the street, he is made hyperaware of his otherness, his life and his experience as a deviation from the norm.  

“When we walk in the streets, we can’t say anything because others will [tease us and] say that we are from the “chocolate houses” [term used to describe mud houses]. Even if you had to take a girlfriend home, she would be shocked, saying, ‘I didn’t know that you were living in a place like this’” (SG, male, 25 years old).

This experience of shame and embarrassment about where one lives, a hyperawareness of one’s position as an “other” is part of what Loic Wacquant (2007) calls “territorial stigmatization”. In the contemporary city, the “colonised’s sector” is represented worldwide by the banlieu, the ghetto, the shack settlement. These places are “a blemish of space”, and, for those who come from them, stain their perception of self (Wacquant, 2007: 68). According to Wacquant (2007), often, residents of these places are embarrassed and ashamed about where they live, may not invite family or friends to visit, and may even deny their residence. The poor person from a “blemish of space” carries a mark of difference that taints their sense of self and interaction with others. They are othered by society, they are treated as waste, and they are ignored. They are the colonised continued.
5. The struggle: Spatial reorganisation and dignity

Since the other hesitated to recognize me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known” (Fanon, 2008: 87).
“All I wanted was to be a man among men” (Fanon, 2008: 85).

As hotbeds of political activity in the 1980s, many shack settlements in South Africa came under ANC local governance and party structures post-1994 (Gibson, 2011). However, as seen in eThembeni, the residents of these shack settlements felt the effects of the incomplete liberation most profoundly –a people once essential to the struggle against apartheid, were now treated as dispensable. Over the past decade there has been a dramatic increase in local protests by those frustrated by broken promises and failing elected leaders (Gibson, 2011: 14). These struggles over (and for) urban space emanate mostly from poor neighbourhoods, by those “stigmatised as marginal, criminal and ‘lost’” (Gibson, 2011: 14; Pithouse, 2011). These protests have been characterised by two central demands: that the people make decisions about where they would like to live, and that they co-determine development as active participants (Pithouse, 2011: 138; Alexander, 2010: 36).  These are demands for a true spatial reorganisation, which have been acted out in ways that make known those ignored. Popular forms of political action include mass meetings, petitions, marches, election boycotts, road blockades, and setting up barricades (Alexander, 2010: 26).

Over the past few years, eThembeni’s residents have embarked on action to demand attention and a reorganisation of space. Much of this collective action has been initiated by residents and facilitated by the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), a Grahamstown social movement formed in 2009. UPM seeks to represent those who, according to spokesperson Ayanda Kota, are “socially excluded” and “treated by society as a waste” (Kota, 2012). The movement has a presence in a number of Grahamstown’s poorer communities, and its initiatives are driven by community members and their particular concerns. Other than numerous marches, two of the most significant of their initiatives included a boycott of the local elections, as well as the occupation of the Cathedral Square in the Grahamstown CBD, both in 2011. Both of these acts were a response to an elected leadership that had failed, corruption, unfulfilled promises, and being ignored. In both instances, residents of eThembeni were among the participants. These acts succeeded in making eThembeni temporarily visible, prompting a visit, and a promise of change, by the mayor at the time. This turned out to be only the latest of a host of broken promises. In September this year, eThembeni’s residents were among those who embarked on the groundbreaking “Occupy Bisho” protest organised by UPM. Three buses, filled mainly by residents from Grahamstown’s poorest areas, took their concerns and their presence to Bisho, the home of the Eastern Cape provincial government. The decision to “occupy” Bisho represents an unwavering commitment to decolonising space by Grahamstown’s poor –they have thrown down the gauntlet.

“I am a person of action – the only way to sort out all of this is to toyi-toyi!  Talking to the people at the top does not help, as they don’t listen. They don’t keep their promises and no action gets taken to improve our living conditions.  There should be a revolution to frighten them to stop making empty promises and for them to quickly pay attention to our appeals”  (NN, elderly woman, member of UPM, living in eThembeni for 19 years).

Under colonial and race oppression, in the colonial sector, Fanon (1952: x) relates: “I [as a black man] was expected to stay in line and make myself scarce.” The same is true of the poor in contemporary South Africa –they are expected to make themselves invisible and accept the oppressive status quo. When eThembeni’s residents attempt to make themselves visible they are ignored. If still they persist, they may be violently silenced. Movements in shack settlements that have decided to decolonise their spaces and make them autonomous, are seen as a threat to hegemonic local structures and the ruling party. Many have faced political harassment, repression and criminalisation (Gibson, 2011: 170). UPM has not been immune to this tendency.

“There are lots of challenges that UPM is faced with in eThembeni.  For example, there is a lot of conspiracy, intimidation and condemnation by the opposition.  They tell us not to trust and not to listen to the UPM members because they are deceivers…They say UPM members are there to disrupt people’s lives in eThembeni.  As a result, there are attempts to chase the UPM members out of eThembeni”  (NN, elderly woman, member of UPM, living in eThembeni for 19 years).  

When the colonised of contemporary South Africa dare to challenge the boundary dividing the world in two, when they dare to make themselves known, when they dare to reorganise space –the post-colonial nationalist party responds with derision, and sometimes, force. As they assert their place as agents of change, as thinkers, as human –the colonised move toward a true post-colony. Beyond the struggle for a house and land, this is a struggle for dignity.

But of course, the poor cannot possibly be making moral claims and be asserting their right to dignity. The mainstream discourse has confined these actions in the townships and shack settlements of South Africa to “service-delivery protests”. The struggles of the damned in post-apartheid South Africa to reorganise their space and reassert their humanity are popularly framed, simply, as the struggle for material goods. Once again, the poor are positioned as unthinking, passive beneficiaries. The simple use of the term “service-delivery protests” represents a continued colonialism. Agency is shown to be in the hands of the resourced (Butler & Philpott, 2012). The struggles of the poor are depoliticised, and their moral claims that underscore their material claims are obscured by the media’s images of burning tyres and blockaded roads (Wei Ngiam, 2006). Despite its absence from mainstream discourse, in shack settlements across South Africa, residents have framed the spatial struggle as part of a wider struggle for accessible democratic spaces and a society that recognises the humanity of all (Gibson, 2011: 202). From the pavement dwellers in Symphony Way in Cape Town, to the shackdwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, the struggle for homes, electricity and water is underscored by a struggle for dignity. Conway Payn, a resident of Symphony Way, put it quite simply, “I am a human being and each human being should be treated like a human being and not a slave” (Symphony Way Pavement Dwellers, 2011: 121). The struggle of Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban is not reducible to wanting things, but wanting “to be recognised as human equals” (Gibson, 2011: 18). “It is more about justice, it is more about moral questions…is it good for shackdwellers to live in the mud like pigs, as they are living?” (Zikode in Wei Ngiam, 2006).

Like in other shack settlements across South Africa, the spatial struggle in eThembeni –for land, structurally sound housing, for household water, and for electricity— is also a struggle for dignity, to be recognised as human. Their material claims are attached to their claims to humanity.

“I am also a human being and I will fight for this land – this land belongs to our forefathers and mothers. I will die fighting for it” (ZN, male, 40).

“We must sometimes stand up and take action – to let the government know that we are also human and that we want to have a good life.” (LQ, man, living in eThembeni for 17 years).

“We have told ourselves that whenever there is a march again to the town hall, we will be there and show them that we are the youth of eThembeni. When we get there we will do whatever we please to show them that we also want to be like other people” (SG, male, 25 years old).

Despite oversimplification in mainstream discourse, the collective action and protests over space that have erupted across South Africa in the past decade have explicit moral underpinnings. They can be located within a wider universal struggle for dignity by the damned of the earth. It is a politics that John Holloway calls the “other politics”, global struggles for mutual recognition and respect –a politics of dignity (Holloway, 2010: 46).

“Dignity is the immediate affirmation of negated subjectivity, the assertion, against a world that treats us as object and denies our capacity to determine our own lives, that we are subjects capable and worthy of deciding for ourselves” (Holloway, 2010: 39).

This “other politics” is an assertion of one’s own dignity, as well as the recognition of the dignity of others (Holloway, 2010: 39). It is not an eventuality, something that is worked towards, instead, it something that starts now –recognition immediately (Holloway, 2010: 39). An immediate mutual recognition of people as people, not abstractions, not means towards an end, not “embodiments of labels”, but people (Holloway, 2010: 39-40).

The politics of dignity has an unequivocal Fanonian resonance: “…a free people living in dignity is a sovereign people. A people living in dignity is a responsible people” (Fanon, 2004: 139). Without dignity, without recognition of one’s humanity, a “free” people remain colonised. The assertion of agency, and mutual recognition, which Holloway (2010) speaks of, are both tantamount to a Fanonian conception of human liberty. In the conclusion of Black Skins, White Masks Fanon declared, “I am my own foundation”. In spite of history, rejecting the gaze of the coloniser, the black person, the colonised, needs to recognise and assert his/her agency now (Fanon, 1952). Self-consciousness –asserting one’s humanness, challenging and breaking down the identity given to oneself by the other— reverberates throughout Fanon’s work (Gibson, 2011: 14-15). As does the mutual recognition of consciousness. Fanon (1952) famously declared human liberty and freedom as recognition of “the open door of every consciousness” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 80). In this view, human liberty arises in the mutual recognition of the humanity and subjectivity of every consciousness. It is a move toward a true, new, universality of human experience, a “new humanism” (Fanon, 2008:xi & 2004:172).

Fundamentally, for Fanon, successful action against colonialism and neo-colonialism is contingent on ideas and practises of “becoming human” (Gibson, 2011: 12). Where “becoming human”, and developing a humanist consciousness, underpins action against a system of oppression, it is headed on a path towards justice. The Achilles heel of the post-colonial nationalist party is its failure to extend its national consciousness to a humanist consciousness. But strength of the struggles of the spatially excluded in South Africa may be its ability to do what the post-colonial party has failed to do. For residents in eThembeni, the frustration around life in the settlement is not simply about lacking adequate access to services, amenities and infrastructure; it is equally about not having their dignity and their humanity recognised. It is a yearning and a struggle to be treated with the same respect as everybody else, to have electricity like everybody else, to be able to work and earn money like everybody else, to buy shoes like everybody else. To be a human like any other.

6. Moving forward: Toward decolonisation (of space)

“We must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new man” (Fanon, 1963: 315).

Fanon’s work provides a useful lens to interpreting the spatial divide in Grahamstown, and South Africa, as a sign of an incomplete liberation. More significantly, his work also provides a directive towards a reorganised space, a decolonised world, and human liberty. A development of a humanist consciousness is fundamental to Fanon’s conception of liberty (Gibson, 2011: 12). A failed reorganisation of space in the post-colony is part of a failure of consciousness building. A failure on the part of the nationalist party in the post-colony to extend its national consciousness to a humanist consciousness. The result is a centralisation of power and consigning the masses to the caves. The result is a failure to recognise the masses as idea-formulators and agents of change. The result is botched, reactive and uninformed actions. A reorganisation of space, successful action against colonialism, is contingent on practises and ideas of “becoming human”, on the building of a “new humanism” that recognises the “open door of every consciousness” (Gibson, 2011; Fanon, 1952 & 1963). When every person is recognised as a person, as an agent, who matters, and has ideas –then we on our way to a human liberty, a true post-colony, a reorganisation of space. Today, now, the spatially excluded across South Africa are demanding that recognition and a contemporary decolonisation. Once again, Fanon’s past observations are shown to have a modern resonance:
“It is within this mass of humanity, this people of the shanty towns, at the core of the lumpenproletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead.”


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[1] All quotes are from interviews conducted with 25 residents in eThembeni between May & August 2012. Only their initials, sex and age are used, to protect their identities.