Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is a commitment to human rights sufficient for an emancipatory theoretical praxis?

by Kayla Hazell

“They didn’t ask us why we are washing cars. They didn’t ask us anything.”

This essay adopts the position that formal human rights, such as those encoded in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (hereafter, the Constitution), are potentially emancipatory in the sense that they embody our society’s commitments and aspirations with regard to the treatment of individuals and groups. That said, it will be argued that a formal commitment to human rights does not automatically translate into practice and that this has largely been the South African experience. Human rights are subject to constant balancing, particularly where interests conflict, and such balancing occurs according to a particular rationality. It will be contended that, if rights are to become a reality for all, the rationality governing our commitment to human rights in South Africa, currently largely economistic, will need to be renegotiated in light of the fact that our formal rights have stood watch while extreme inequality continues.


It appears that the lesson of an old childhood fable has been lost upon South African society. The fable is that of the mouse and the mousetrap and the message is one of collective individual responsibility. One morning, Mr Mouse emerges from his crack in the wall to find a gleaming mousetrap upon the kitchen floor. In a panic, he scurries quickly to Chicken to tell him of this problem. Chicken listens carefully to mouse’s woes, but when he is done explaining, clucks softly and says, “Mr Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I am afraid we do not have a problem; you have a problem.” Not to be put off, Mr Mouse hurries along to Pig and then to Cow to relay his awful news, but the reaction from both is no different. That night, the farmer’s wife hears the snap of the mouse trap going off and rushes to the kitchen to see what has been caught. Sadly, she does not see that the ensnared is in fact a dangerous snake and is bit. Though the farmer rushes her to hospital, she returns home with a high fever. Desperate to make her more comfortable, the farmer beheads Chicken and boils a foamy chicken soup, yet his recipe is unsuccessful and her condition deteriorates. Over the next few days, as friends flock to stand vigil at her bedside, the farmer decides to slaughter Pig in order to feed the visitors. Alas, the people’s prayers are not enough and, upon the death of his beloved wife, the farmer must butcher Cow to feed the funeral guests. Watching sadly from his crack in the wall, Mr Mouse despairs at what he has seen and the listener is forced to realise along with him that, truly, when a community faces a challenge, it is everyone’s problem. This essay will interrogate a current issue in Grahamstown, unpacked through the testimony of various parties in the conflict, to conclude that this simple lesson is one which urgently needs to be instilled in the rationality governing South African politics and law. Failing this, our discourse of human rights will remain insufficient as an emancipatory theoretical praxis; a formal commitment which fails to translate into genuine rights for all.

The conflict and what it means for human rights on the ground:

Some weeks back, an unauthorised protest took place in Grahamstown during which car washers  and car guards dumped rubbish they had collected along High Street and New Street, in an effort to attract the attention of the mayor. According to a press statement released by the Unemployed People’s movement (UPM), the protesters had been attempting for some time to engage with the municipality over the posting of a sign proclaiming the prohibition of car washing on public roads, in terms of a by-law created in section 9(b) of Local Authority Notice 11 of 2007. The sanction for contravention is a fine of R200 that both the washer and motor vehicle owner may be liable to pay. Failure to pay can result in arrest (Govender, 2013). Although the by-law has been in existence for a number of years already, it is only within the past few months that the authorities have clamped down on enforcement and this had had a significant impact on the young people that have been washing cars in town to earn a living (Fandese, 2013). Two former car washers on High Street, Siyabulela Ntano and Andile Fandese, explained that the law results in their earning less than a fifth of what they used to be able to make on a daily basis and said that this affects their ability to buy basics, such as bread at the end of each day. Both young men live in Hlalani location with their families and both say that the money they make is essential to their families’ ability to survive. That the by-law materially affects the earning capacity of these unemployed men as well as others is beyond question.

Municipalities are empowered by the Constitution to create by-laws which regulate their areas of jurisdiction with a view to facilitating social harmony and order (Report on the Implementation of By-Laws, 2013). Xabiso[1] (2013), a director in the Grahamstown municipality, explained:

“We need to create an environment where people are able to live and work in a manner that is orderly. In our view, a by-law is sort of a social contract between us and the residents where we set certain regulations. Without by-laws there would be a disorderly society.”
The question which necessarily follows, of course, is: what significant social harms are taken to attach to the feared proliferation of rampant car-washing on public roads? The comments of Ntano and Fandese, as well as Director Xabiso; media spokesperson for the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Grahamstown, Captain Mali Govender; local businessman , Larry[2]; President of the Grahamstown Business Forum, Eugene Repinz; and Assistant Director in the Traffic Department, Mr CJ Hanekom, reveal the beliefs held by the various parties in this regard.  Their testimony, which follows below and will largely be allowed to speak for itself, serves to tell much of the story surrounding the prohibition on car washing in Grahamstown. It is submitted that this story reflects the current disparities between South Africa’s formal commitment to human rights and the experience of many of her citizens.

Ntano (2013) and Fandese (2013) agreed on the following:

“They say that the water is breaking the tar, but I don’t know how if the rain doesn’t do that. And they say that we are making a noise for their business so their customers don’t come here.”
Director Xabiso (2013) stated that:

“We have to keep the town in good shape so we can be able to attract investment. The town must be clean and there are regulations prohibiting certain activities. You must also look at it from the point of view of security. Our streets also have to be maintained and hence we introduce these kinds of by-laws.”
To this, Hanekom (2013) added:

“A public road is not a place to conduct a private business. Can you imagine what the town would look like if we allowed everybody to do that?”
While Larry (2013) expanded on his issues with the car washing:

“It is just not a viable option for business in High Street. They are a nuisance, they irritate people, they intimidate people, and they make the place dirty. Besides, the reason car washing [on public roads] is illegal in this country is because the soap damages the tar. So it’s not a personal thing, but we just can’t have it here.”
And Captain Govender (2013) explained the police’s position:

“The car washers come there to wash; they watch, break in, and steal. It’s a very general statement to make, but we have had instances and since they’ve been stopped from washing cars on the streets we don’t have as many complaints.”
One intriguing ostensible consequence was also alluded to by Govender (2013):

“It’s actually a health hazard to just start washing cars on the street. If you are walking in town with your slip slops on across High Street from Dulce’s or the doctor’s surgery and just taking a walk down to maybe the Spur or Steers, you don’t want to walk into puddles of water, maybe in summer, and you don’t know what’s in them.”
The horrors of soapy water aside, these comments cover a range of detrimental effects taken to accompany the practice of washing cars on the town’s public roads. Broadly, the complaints can be summarised as relating to crimes of theft and drug dealing allegedly committed by or under the watch of car washers and car guards; issues of purported harassment and intimidation; unsightliness or untidiness in the public space; and the maintenance of public streets. The common thread through all of these complaints was the injurious impact that the car washers’ presence is taken to have on businesses in the town centre. It is not surprising that it is the Grahamstown Business Forum – constituted for this very purpose – that has been putting pressure on the municipality to enforce by-law 9(b) (Repinz, 2013). Larry (2013) offered his views on this:

“It’s gotten out of hand and we’ve got to get this shit sorted out. And, well, we’ve got to do it because nobody else is going to do it. You can’t rely on anybody in government to do anything in this country – if you want something done, get up and do it yourself. Unfortunately that’s what happens when you live in a third world country.”
Despite Larry’s disparaging remarks, Director Xabiso (2013) similarly ascribes to the imperative of getting car washers off the public streets:

“We have taken a position as a municipality that we are going to enforce our by-laws. We can’t have by-laws that are there in the books, but not enforced. It is like having a dog without teeth. It has to bite, unfortunately. But we are dealing with the livelihoods of other people so we have to be sensitive in the manner we are tackling some of the challenges.”
Repinz (2013) explained that the car washing is bad for business in Grahamstown because customers do not wish to park on High Street. This negatively impacts turnover which, he said, harms small business’s ability to employ staff and leads to retrenchment:

“One needs to think in terms of the bigger picture. We essentially have nine people holding the entire town to ransom.”
This seemed to be the view of all those who spoke in defence of the by-law’s strict enforcement. According to Ayanda Kota (2013) of UPM, however, the picture is far more complicated:

“They [the car washers] are trying to live. They are raising some funds for living, they do not have a stake in the society, they are socially excluded, and they are in a way asserting their presence and humanity. In Grahamstown, the unemployment rate is said to be hovering around 70%, there is an excessive amount of poverty, and these ills push people to desperations: living through washing cars and being car guards. Whose fault is it? They are trying to live; harassing them off the streets is oppressive and is entrenching injustices that we see all over Grahamstown.”
Ntano (2013) and Fandese (2013) agree that the full context of their position has not been acknowledged:

“They don’t know our backgrounds and why we are here in town. They didn’t ask us why we are washing cars. They didn’t ask us anything.”
The picture presented by the above words is thus one of conflicting interests in a deeply divided society. In any nation, competing interests must be balanced against one another and this balancing, facilitated often by legislation, policy, and judicial precedent, takes place according to a particular rationality. A strictly positivist approach to legal questions was largely abandoned post-Apartheid and so, in asking why the by-law must be enforced, the answer “because it is the law” is wholly unsatisfactory. It seems far more constructive to establish why the law is the way it is and this involves an examination of the rationality which has balanced the conflicting rights in this case. It is useful to set such an examination against the backdrop of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (hereafter, the Constitution). Widely deemed to be among the most progressive constitutions in the world and based on the foundational values of freedom, dignity, and equality, this document guarantees both political and socio-economic rights to all and is renowned particularly for the justiciability of the latter category of rights. As a transformative document, the Constitution states that its aims are to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights. The preamble of the Constitution further sets the objectives of creating an open and democratic society governed according to the will of the people in which every citizen is equally protected by law. Moreover, the document commits the nation to building a united society in which the quality of life of all citizens can be improved and the potential of each individual can be freed (The Constitution, 1996: Preamble).

Almost twenty years from democracy, the hopes of the Constitution, though very real for some, are yet to be fulfilled for all. South Africa exemplifies the distinction drawn by Partha Chatterjee (2004: 38) between civil society and political society, a distinction which Michael Neocosmos (2011: 359), from the South African context, retitles civil and uncivil society. The term civil society, though now generally used to denote bodies such as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), churches, businesses, and media houses, classically refers to the space in which all citizens can act beyond the state (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). Part of the idea is that civil society is able to organise itself so as to hold government to account. Civil society is theoretically the space from which rights-based claims can emerge and be heard so that formal guarantees translate into reality. The problem which Chatterjee (2004) and Neocosmos (2011) highlight is that, in fact, civil society is not fully representative. Civil society operates through the law in making claims based on rights and the exclusion arises because the law tends to assume a middle-class subject of sufficient means to function through and within it (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). For those who are not bourgeois, rights or equal citizenship are less actualised. Uncivil society is thus populated by the poor and marginalised. This description of a space in which people are not fully recognised as citizens seems to be present in South Africa as reflected by the sentiments of Kota (2013) above, as well as in the following statement:

“We are not treated as full-blown political subjects, full human beings, and knowledgeable citizens. They think that everything must be left to them and we are just ungrateful bastards who are troublesome. Therefore they can unlawfully prohibit our demonstrations, because we are also a violent species” (Kota, 2013).
Kota’s final words here demonstrate that those who have little choice but to live outside of the law in order to survive (for example, by utilising water and electricity illegally, living in illegal informal settlements, or washing cars on public roads despite a prohibition) are criminalised (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). Larry (2013) demonstrated that this is a commonly held view in South Africa, through both of the following statements:

“Typical South African reaction: they don’t get their own way and they feel that they are entitled to something because they are previously disadvantaged so they are allowed to break the law. Now all of a sudden they’re being stopped from breaking the law so they go and throw a tantrum and throw stuff all over the street and scream up and down.”

“They are criminals. Through and through they are criminals and I don’t care how badly off you are, there is no reason to become a pain in my life because of it”.
Due to this criminalisation, the actions of the car washers are seen as illegitimate and it would seem as though this supposedly partially absolves the state of the duty to engage with them. Chatterjee (2004: 38) argues that while a certain relationship exists between the state and political society, mediated primarily by elections and related campaigning, the relationship is far from that envisioned by the Constitution. He says that those living in political society “are only tenuously and even then ambiguously and contextually rights-bearing citizens.” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38) Neocosmos (2011: 3745) adds to this idea by saying that those in uncivil or political society do not have the “right to have rights”. The population is not seen as one body of individuals possessing equal rights, but as a collection of different groups of people who must be dealt with differently in terms of policy and the law (Chatterjee, 2004: 36). This is despite the constitutional guarantee of a common citizenship in which all are equally entitled to the rights, privileges, and benefits of citizenship and equally bound by all the attached duties and obligations (The Constitution, 1996: Section 3). The result of this division is that legal title grants rights, while those without this can make claims based only on entitlements that do not demand the same level of respect from government (Neocosmos, 2011: 375). Ntano (2013) revealed this in the statement:

“The municipality has not recognised our rights because they just talk about the law. They don’t tell us that, okay, the law says this and this, but you can do this. They know that we need the money we get from this for our homes. They must take us away from the streets and build us something stable”.
The municipality has been careful to stress that, despite the initial issues around non-engagement that led to the rubbish bin protest, the car washers have since been involved in conversations relating to alternatives (Director Xabiso, 2013). In discussions about rights and entitlements, however, the insights of the people at grassroots level may often be marginalised (Englund, 2006: 71). Harri Englund (2006: 71) argues that human rights are exclusionary because of the belief that they must be enforced by experts and professionals in the form of, for example, NGO workers and lawyers. These people are deemed exclusively capable of fulfilling this role, revealing that, in many instances, the starting point of engagements around rights and entitlements is not in fact one of equality (Englund, 2006: 72). This can be seen in the fact that initial talks around the “problem” of car washing in Grahamstown were held between the municipality, police, and businesses (Repinz, 2013). Though the car washers themselves have subsequently been involved in meetings, their presence from the outset was not sought and the process of consultation continues to be divided, with the municipality meeting with businesses and police separately from the car washers (Director Xabiso, 2013). Neocosmos (2011: 359) agrees with Englund, saying that the poor are often not recognised as knowledgeable and rational authorities on their own experiences. They are also not seen as capable of acting to claim their own rights. Rather, they are viewed as victims who require saving by the law and those that guard it, including the government and NGOs (Neocosmos, 2011: 363).

This victimisation constitutes a process of depoliticisation in which formerly radical subjects are sent like damsels in distress to wait in darkness until their newly elected princes deign to slay the dragons breathing fire at their doors. These damsels, confined to socially allotted places that in reality are far from fairy tale castles, are constructed, according to Neocosmos (2011: 363), by the fact that legal recourse is seen as the only acceptable form of struggle. Director Xabiso said that:

“We cannot have a situation where entrepreneurial activities are not regulated. There is rule of law in this country. Much as we sympathise with the people, everything has to happen within the provisions and the prescriptions of the law”.
Those who are unable to act within the law must simply wait or have their complaints conveyed by agents who do have a voice in civil society (Neocosmos, 2011: 376). Thus, while human rights may facilitate access to resources and opportunities among those in civil society, for the excluded masses they amount to little more than claims on government’s kindness (Neocosmos, 2011: 381). One could argue that it is the people’s rights, and not Director Xabiso’s unenforced laws, that are rendered the dogs, as it were, with no teeth.

The economistic rationality currently governing our human rights discourse

Why is this so? Lewis Gordon (2006: 42) argues that, even if they will not admit it, rich people hold greater power in society due to the fact that they have wide spheres of influence and the capital to back their claims. Negotiations are never undertaken in conditions of equality between the parties (Englund, 2006: 70). Neocosmos (2011: 363) contends further that the interests of the state are generally aligned with the interests of those who have a major stake in civil society. This is revealed by Director Xabiso’s (2013) statements above about the importance of attracting investment to Grahamstown. Resultantly, businesses have a significant impact on legislation, policy, and regulatory frameworks and Neocosmos goes as far as to say that the distinction between the state or public interest and capital or private interest has collapsed (Neocosmos, 2011: 370). What he means to say is that the government, held in check by money power, may not be fully accountable to the people. Their ability to dictate the common good may not be entirely autonomous (Neocosmos, 2011: 370). Anna Selmeczi (2009: 1) asks how it is that states formally committed to nurturing their populations seem to continuously exclude large portions of society from their care. Her answer is that such exclusion is in fact inscribed into the economistic nature of states’ governing rationality and the practice of viewing citizens as populations, which Chatterjee (2004: 41)) calls “governmentality”. Selmeczi (2009: 1) argues that this exclusion amounts to a decision between who will live and who will die. This she terms “biopolitical abandonment” and it is a consequence that she believes flows from governments’ treating people as populations to be managed so as to allow for maximum economic benefit. In such a context, the individual is superfluous if they are not an economic contributor (Selmeczi, 2009: 14). The unemployed, such as the car washers in the present case, fall outside of any relevant group in the population in terms of their economic contribution and so they are seen as beyond the count and thus of minimal value to the achievement of the state’s overall goals (Selmeczi, 2009: 16). The comments from the municipality and traffic department reveal that economic concerns are certainly relevant to the authorities and this economistic mentality is espoused by the business sector as well. Larry (2013) allows us to notice this by his response to questioning in respect of possible alternatives for the displaced car washers:

“That’s not my problem. Go and speak to the government that they voted in power. All I’m concerned about is protecting what’s mine and if they’re breaking the law and jeopardising my business they must fuck off”.
That said, it is not all business people who feel this way. Local beautician, Jessica Delport, showed this by saying:

“I don’t think there’s been a good engagement because they’ve now told them they’re not allowed to wash the cars in High Street, but I feel the Municipality should come up with a compromise to say, look, you’re not allowed to wash your cars here, but let’s give you another designated area so there is some kind of solution to the problem. They have taken their income in the end and they should do something to help out”.
Nevertheless, Selmeczi’s question is an excellent one. One wonders, for example, how it is that the above statement by Larry could be understood as anything but entirely unacceptable, yet, although some may think it fairly perverse, many would consider it a legitimate view. Grant Farred (2004: 592) argues that the transition to democracy in South Africa brought with it a formal equality that in reality acts only to shift social hierarchy from the terrain of race to that of economics, while failing to provide any tangible improvement in the quality of life of the marginalised. This reflects the skewed economistic “rationality” that this essay holds falls short of adequate reason. Using the term nomos to denote the common sense or governing sensibility of society, Farred (2004: 595) suggests that domination in a different mask has continued into the present regime as that between the rich and the poor. This new form of domination is not recognised as such in the same way that racist oppression came to be, however, because inequality between the rich and the poor is still taken to be acceptable. Furthermore, the new Constitution and supposed commitment to human rights by the state grants it a legitimacy that hides continued oppression and makes it very difficult to challenge (Farred, 2004: 595). The fact of our being a constitutional democracy based in human rights gives the state legitimacy and often situates it beyond criticism (Neocosmos, 2011: 361). Particularly being a liberation party, the African National Congress (ANC) is able to construct themselves as beyond evil – a feature attached solely to past regimes (Neocosmos, 2011: 369). This is dangerous because it means that acts of oppression or illegitimate violence by the state may be rationalised, rather than criticised and called to account. Conflict in which the poor stand as a counter-partisan to the rich is not yet seen as legitimate because we currently exist in what Farred (2004: 595) calls a “zone of indistinction”, where this conflict is not considered a political one.

It is thus argued that the rationality at work in the by-law under discussion, deeply imbued with the alleged logic of modernity and development, is that of the rich, still primarily white classes. It is essential to take seriously the challenges posed to such laws by the experiences of those such as the car washers, in order to note that this rationality may not necessarily be reasonable. The assumptions upon which many of our theories, laws, and policies are based may be so pervasive and seemingly natural that they appear unquestionably good and are seldom criticised, but this can be dangerous (Neocosmos, 2011: 361). Democratic freedom brought about a new political order, but the change did not fundamentally alter the oppressive structures of South African society (Mbembe, 2002: 250).

Towards an inclusive rationality

According to Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995: 93): “White hegemony is natural and taken for granted, any alternative is still seen in the domain of the unthinkable.” Similarly, Gordon (2006: 8) argues that whiteness is commonly taken to be universal and normal, while blackness is seen as representing the exceptional, abnormal, or particular. This is so regardless of actual demographics. Citing W.E.B Du Bois, Gordon (2006: 6) describes how black people have been seen as problematic using the metaphor of theodicism. He explains how, in politics, society is taken to fill the role of God in theodicy – the state is all-powerful and all-perfect and evil experienced by people within it is explained either as being the result of a failure by those people to fully understand the systems of that nation, or as the result of flaws and weaknesses inherent to the people themselves. It is largely black, poor people who experience the evils of modern society and it is these people who are thus seen as problems in themselves (Gordon, 2006: 8). The logic of the state, taken to be unquestionable, thus creates a distinction between those that can live under it and those who cannot. The first class of people live lives that are inherently justified due to their position within the law, while the second class must live in a manner that the system can never consider legitimate (Gordon, 2006: 8). This situation is untenable. According to Gordon (2006: 43), it is only a fool who clings to theories which defy existence and reality. He argues that “the black world realises that the domain over which truth claims can appeal is much larger than the white world is willing to admit.” (Gordon, 2006: 9) The truth represented by a white perspective in South Africa is limited in racial misanthropy. Such limitation may be revealed by black experience and contradictions to the system must be taken seriously. We need to renegotiate reason so that it accounts for everybody (Gordon, 2006: 47).

A failure to rise to this challenge will result in the continuation of what appears to be a mentality that is very much in Sartrean bad faith (Sartre, 1945: 13). Concern with the face that Grahamstown presents is, of course, explainable by reference to an admittedly significant dependence on tourism (and would be said to be justified by some trickle-down philosophy). However, the obsession with aesthetics appears to go further than this, almost to the point of denying the fact that, for the majority of citizens here, clean streets, quaint Victorian buildings, and leafy suburbs are not the reality. There is a distinct attitude that Grahamstown starts and ends with the Central Business District and concerns do not appear to extend to fears that Raglan Road or any part of the location might be rendered dirty or unsafe by the proliferation of unregulated car washing. There can be no doubt that Grahamstown continues to display the colonial divisions of space described by Fanon (1961) in terms of a Manichean contrast: the wide, clean, well-lit streets of the oppressor standing starkly alongside the dark, dirty lanes of the oppressed. When thinking in terms of the need to attract business and investment, “Grahamstown” is clearly taken to be Grahamstown West – that part of town mostly beyond the reach of poverty where the middle-class, denying the facticity of their situation in the ‘Third World’ and the transcendence of those they still take to be somehow different from themselves, can play the first class city. Though it is not overt, there seems to be a desire to contain the effects of poverty and unemployment within Grahamstown East. Those who are associated with this poverty are expected to remain in their place, allowed into the wealthier parts of Grahamstown ‘proper’ only in so far as they leave the symptoms of their impoverishment behind them(Gordon, 2006: 23). Kota (2013) reflected this:

“They (the car washers) are poor blacks, they are polluting the space of whites and the black elite; therefore they must go and eat at the dumping site like others have done. I think this was the message”.
Prioritising the appearance of the town not only represents a questionable ranking of concerns in line with a very limited rationality, but also constitutes a failure to acknowledge that Grahamstown East and West are inseparable: concern with the appearance of the town cannot be claimed unless that extends to the town in its entirety.

What can practically be done?

A return to the allegory of Mr Mouse is instructive at this point. If we are to change the rationality which governs our legal and political frameworks, which this essay claims we ought to do, the change will have to be widely accepted and absorbed to be effective. Engaging with these issues forces one to realise the value that lies in being able to convince – let us choose the most radical position – Larry that his opinion is not beyond criticism. Theorising such change must thus be done in conversations that are able to persuade even those who would be loath to step beyond a system which entrenches their property rights and privilege. How, then, do we convince the current elite that a refusal to recognise the full agency of the marginalised as rational political subjects, coupled with an unquestioned prioritisation of capital over basic human interests, is not only inconsistent with our constitutional commitment to dignity, freedom, and equality, but is also volatile and unsustainable?

One answer, perhaps, is that the story of the mousetrap shows that any problem which confronts a community inevitably confronts each of its individual members as well, even if this appears not to be the case. The appeal need not be to some communitarian conception of the good, which may appear threatening to those concerned for their property interests (Chatterjee, 2004: 45). Rather, it can be argued that we need a more holistic, human approach to the socio-economic challenges which drive the unemployed to ‘illegal’ activities in order to survive. The car washing conflict clearly demonstrates the limits of the lines drawn between Grahamstown East and West. Recognising that they themselves will be affected by the problems of poverty, depoliticisation, and oppression encountered by Grahamstown’s poor may lead the Business Forum to the conclusion that adopting a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude may be better directed at pressuring the municipality to conceptualise a suitable alternative for car washers, rather than pushing for the strict enforcement of the letter of the law. Similarly, a possible argument lies in asking Mr Repinz of the Business Forum whether his trickle down theory cannot be understood in reverse as well: when property and the interests of the rich trump all else, a detrimental socio-economic impact on the poor, propertyless, and unemployed trickles round through society and returns to the doors of the wealthy in the form of nine desperate car washers attempting to make a living and apparently harming business on the sidewalks of High Street. The question, perhaps, is not where the metaphorical buck stops, but where it begins its journey and why it starts walking. This is a question which can only be answered by deconstructing the rationality which we currently take as given.

A number of solutions present themselves in the current matter. The first, and that which has been suggested by both the car washers as well as the municipality and business, is for the municipality to organise a suitable alternative location at which the car washers can conduct their business legally (Xabiso, 2013; Repinz, 2013; Ntano, 2013; Fandese, 2013). It is agreed by all that this location would need to be sufficiently central and appropriate in order to facilitate good business. Another solution, argued for above though apparently not widely supported by those involved, is that businesses themselves could take on some responsibility for the establishment of such a formal location. Many businesses in Grahamstown East are already involved in mutually beneficial partnerships with businesses in Grahamstown West (Repinz, 2013) and it is not unthinkable that a similar partnership could be formed with the car washers. A third alternative, reflective of measures that have been taken to regulate car guarding in an attempt to decrease criminal activities (Govender. 2013), is that the car washers could be regulated and granted permission to work on High Street. The service they provide is certainly useful to many, particularly students who may be unwilling to spend large sums of money to have their cars professionally washed. Furthermore, registration would allow for the regulation needed and inevitably reduce the likelihood of any criminal activity (if such allegations are in fact justified) by introducing a degree of accountability. This has been seen to be the case with the introduction of something of a system for car guards – notably, also a technically illegal activity (Govender, 2013; Repinz, 2013; Director Xabiso, 2013). Such a formalisation of the system could be adopted at the level of policy as was seen with Durban’s adoption of an Informal Economy Policy to regulate informal trading in public spaces. It will be important to ensure that the implementation as well as formulation of whatever solution is chosen is conducive to fostering the experience of human rights in practice.


All these solution and others that are imaginable can only be effective if considered and applied according to the sort of renegotiated rationality that this essay considers necessary. The prohibition on car washing in Grahamstown is but one example of the imbalanced way in which formally equal rights are experienced in this nation. Analysis of the present socio-economic and political conditions in South Africa necessitates the conclusion that the rationality with which we apply and balance our constitutional rights presently is skewed towards the already privileged and limited by this imbalance. Due to this, our commitment to human rights, though potentially emancipatory, has been insufficient as an emancipatory theoretical praxis. It is argued that the contradictions posed by the marginalised in society should induce reconsideration of our governing rationality such that it better reflects reality for all South Africans. As per Farred, one way in which this can be done is to recognise the massive division between rich and poor as fundamentally illegitimate so that political conflict on this basis can occur. Such conflict is necessary given that the problems related to poverty and inequality inevitably affect all in this country, with the marginalised unjustifiably bearing their fullest weight. Should the sort of shift in rationality for which Farred argues not occur, the present generation may one day find themselves answering for why they did not do something, when it became clear that something needed to be done.

Bibliography of References

Partha Chatterjee, 2004, “Populations and Political Society” in The Politics of the Governed (Permanent Black: Delhi).
Harri Englund, 2006, “The Hidden Lessons of Civic Education” in Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights & the African Poor (University of California Press: Los Angeles).
Frantz Fanon, 1961, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin Books).
Grant Farred, 2004, “The Not Yet Counterpartisan: A new politics of oppositionality” in South Atlantic Quarterly, 1 (4): 589-605.
Nigel Gibson, 2011, “Amandla is Still Awethu: Fanonian Practices in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, in Fanonian Practices in South Africa (UKZN Press: Pietermaritzburg).
Lewis Gordon, 2006, “African-American Philosophy, Race and the Geography of Reason” in Not Only the Masters Tools (Paradigm Publishers, Boulder).
Achille Mbembe, 2002, “African Modes of Self Writing”, Public Culture, 14 (1): 239-274.
Michael Neocosmos, 2011, “Transition, Human Rights & Violence: Rethinking a liberal political relationship in the African neocolony”, in Interface: a journal for and about social movements 3(2): 359 – 399.
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1945, “Existentialism is a Humanism” found at http://www.ap-english.com/home/Exist._files/sartre%202.pdf (Accessed on 24 May 2013).
Anna Selemeczi, 2009, “’… we are being left to burn because we do not count’: Biopolitics, Abandonment, and Resistance”, Global Society, 23 (4): 1-25.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1995, “An Unthinkable History” from Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon Press).
Report Dated 5 April 2013 From the Director: Community and Social Services to the Senior Management Team on the Implementation of By-Laws.
Government website for Durban City, Informal Economy Policy, accessed at http://www.durban.gov.za/City_Government/Administration/Area_Based_Management/South_Durban_Basin/Partnerships/Economic/Pages/Informal_Trade.aspx (Accessed on 19 May 2013).
Rubert Fitchet, 2013, news feature for JMS 3 television journalism assignment (unscreened). Accessible via the TV Journalism DFS.
Source List
Interview with Siyabulela Ntano, car guard (former car washer), 20 May 2013.
Interview with Andile Fandese, car guard (former car washer), 20 May 2013. Cell number: 0742989312.
Interview with Grahamstown businessman Larry*, 21 May 2013.
Interview with Media Spokesperson for the Grahamstown South African Police Service (SAPS), Captain Mali Govender, 21 May 2013.
Interview with Jessica Delport, Beautician at Salon Gavroche, 21 May 2013. Cell number: 0846940984.
Interview with Ayanda Kota, Unemployed People’s Movement, 22 May 2013. Cell number: 0786256462.
Interview with Municipal Director Xabiso*, 22 May 2013.
Interview with Assistant Director Traffic, Coenraad Hanekom, 22 May 2013. Email: coenraad.hanekom@makana.gov.za.
Interview with Eugene Repinz, President of the Grahamstown Business Forum, 23 May 2013. Cell number:  0827847685.
*These individuals were only prepared to be interviewed on the assurance that their anonymity could be maintained. Their names, contact details, and precise affiliations have thus been excluded, but it is declared that all information and quotes attributed to them is correct and that the interview recordings are available if necessary.

[1] Name has been changed.
[2] Name has been changed.