Sunday, 7 September 2014

Notes on Praxis for the RGS Panel on the Co-Production of Urban Contestation, London, August 2014

Notes on Praxis for the RGS Panel on the Co-Production of Urban Contestation, London, August 2014

Richard Pithouse

Rigorous ongoing reflection on praxis is an essential practice for all participants in any struggle. There can be no effective emancipatory political action on a sustained basis without this reflexivity. It is simultaneously ethical and strategic work. It is necessary to strive to ensure that this is a collective practice within struggles as well as taking it on as an individual obligation.

An Element of the Contradiction

It is not unusual for academics in popular struggles, or linked to popular struggles, to fail to take full measure of the political weight of their own location. One of the common reasons for this is that academic engagement with popular struggles is often mediated through NGOs, or NGO like formations in the university. Contemporary liberal ideology presents NGO based ‘civil society’ as a democratic and representative space when it is plainly not. In fact civil society is often an acutely raced and entirely undemocratic space that has a far less credible claim to representivity than, say, the African National Congress which, despite all its flaws, is elected. Nonetheless despite the often striking degree to which civil society is a space of (often raced) elite power the ideology that presents civil society as, by definition, enlightened and representative is often strong enough, and sufficiently normalised, to inhibit the development of a sufficiently critical attitude to the NGO form. Academics are also often seduced by fantasies, sometimes acutely narcissistic and driven by a will to their own power, that enable the academic to imagine him or herself as part of an enlightened vanguard - be it socialist, feminist, anarchist, autonomist or nationalist - that has an a priori right to lead, and in some instances, to dominate others in the name of their own emancipation. When this fantasy is materially sustained via privileged access to donor funding rather than popular consent it frequently reinscribes what Jacques Rancière describes as the ‘stultification’ that is consequence to any situation where “one intelligence is subordinated to another”. It can become an instance of the sort of domination that Paulo Freire describes as “Manipulation, sloganizing, ‘depositing’, regimentation, and prescription”. In South Africa it can take the form of a set of practices in which, to borrow a phrase from Steve Biko, there is the sort of “stratification that makes whites perpetual teachers and blacks perpetual pupils”.

In South Africa it has not been unusual for academics who have allowed themselves to succumb to the fantasy that they are a uniquely enlightened vanguard to, consciously or not, seek to delegitimate or even ruin what they cannot rule in order to protect their own hubris against reality. Slander and gossip, often mobilising both colonial tropes and those used by a repressive state (and of course the two frequently intersect), have been deployed from within the academy against both grassroots activists and organisations as tools to police access to the political. This can be an entirely unconscious process but it can also take the form of a deliberate exercise of power.

It is essential that, as Antonio Gramsci puts it, “the philosopher …. not only grasps the contradictions, but posits himself (sic) as an element of the contradiction and elevates this element to a principle of knowledge and therefore action”.

Performance & Politics

Reflexivity is an essential precondition for political action that is effective, and that remains effective on a sustained basis. However the performance of reflexivity is not, on its own, the same thing as effective political commitment in action. The performance of reflexivity can, at times, take a narcissistic form that offers little in the way of political utility. There are cases where the performance of reflexivity by privileged actors, like academics, functions, consciously or not, to operate in a manner that implicitly shows the academic, to be vastly more thoughtful, ethical and so on than the subjects of her or his research or putative solidarity. In some cases this functions to deny what Frantz Fanon calls “the open door of every consciousness” and reinscribes the ontological order that sustains oppressive social relations. This is always classed and it can also be raced and gendered. There are also ways of performing reflexivity that, by positing the idea that different social locations are linked to unbridgeable ontological differences, disable the prospects for effective political action as a result of their inability to imagine or understand what Kristin Ross, in her remarkable book on May ’68, calls “unforeseen alliances and synchronicities between social sectors”, encounters that can be fraught but can also be warm, respectful and joyful, and which are so often present in both formally organised social movements and what Raúl Zibech calls societies in movement.

The A Priori Attitude

Academics who are participants in popular struggles need to be reflexive with regard to both their academic work and their political work. In his first published essay, The North African Syndrome, Fanon examined how French science, medical science, approached the North African migrant with “an a priori attitude” that, crucially, is not derived “experimentally” but, rather, “on the basis of an oral tradition”. He observed that: “The North African does not come with a substratum common to his (sic) race, but on a foundation built by the European. In other words, the North African, spontaneously, by the very fact of appearing on the scene, enters into a pre-existing framework”.

Today struggles organised by the urban poor, and in particular struggles by people who have been raced, are often, via implicit recourse to what Michel-Rolph Trouillot terms “an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants”, subject to forms of representation, including in the academy, that are mediated via an a priori attitude.

In contemporary South Africa the political agency of the urban poor is frequently read in terms of external conspiracy, criminality or some sort of intersection between ignorance and thuggery across a range of sites of elite power. It is an undeniable fact that the left in the academy and in NGOs has often reinscribed this. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa. Peter Hallward has pointed to a very similar experience in Haiti and Raúl Zibechi has done the same with regard to Latin America.

In The Dignity of Resistance, an account of women’s activism in public housing in Chicago, Roberta Feldman and Susan Stall offer some useful thoughts on the politics of representation. They note that it is widely presumed that “low-income people, and especially public housing residents, are incapable of forming and participating in active, productive communities”. Writing against this consensus they argue that it is particularly important for academics to pay attention to two modes of agency: “ongoing efforts of everyday resistance in the expanded private sphere [i.e. from home to community] and the extension of these efforts into transgressive resistance in the public sphere”. In other words it is necessary for the scholar to be simultaneously attentive to both what Ranajit Guha calls the “politics of the people”, a subaltern sphere of political thought and action, as well as to Rancière's sustained demonstration that people move between their allocated spaces and that moments of mass political insubordination are frequently characterised by a disregard for allocated places, for métier.

Interdependence & Reciprocity

Feldman and Small also stress that their approach, which they describe as feminist action research, is with and for people rather than on people. The resonance with the Abahlali baseMjondolo slogans ‘talk to us, not for us’ and ‘think with us, not for us’ is clear. For Feldman and Small the critical aspect of this is what they, citing Stephen Small, describe as “the interdependence between the researcher and those researched”. Both the process of translating subaltern knowledge and experience into the academy and the translation of academic knowledge into popular intellectual spaces are grounded in this interdependence. What Gramsci called the philosophy of praxis is complex terrain but at its heart, ethically and epistemologically, is the idea of reciprocity – pithily summed up by Gramsci as follows: “every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher”.

What Feldman and Small don’t discuss is the reality that the personal outcomes from participation in this sort of interdependent intellectual work are, in most but not all cases, very different for the person located in the academy and the person who begins this process from within an oppressed community. In the almost ten years since Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed, many of the people who, in their twenties or early thirties, founded and built the movement are dead. Others have succumbed to addiction, depression and, as a result of sustained repression, paranoia. My involvement in the movement has had certain costs and has subjected me to certain risks but I have a job, a rewarding job in which I am respected, that enables me to provide for my child’s material needs and to enjoy an openness to the future.

The ethical weight of this reality has to be taken on with the utmost seriousness. At the heart of that seriousness has to be a commitment, a serious commitment, a practical and effective commitment, to justice and to the attainment of justice via a process in which the dignity and agency of the oppressed is central. In Playing with Fire Richar Nagar adds a crucial point, ethical rather than narrowly epistemological in its import, to the discussion about the interdependence of some kinds of knowledge production. She insists that: “Theory of collaboration is generated as praxis; that is, what matters in this intellectual and political journey is not just theory-as-product but also the activity of knowledge production, especially as a site for negotiating difference and power”.

In my own experience it is very difficult for academics to attain this sort of reciprocity when they engage a poor people’s movement or struggles via an external organisation with its own agenda. This is not just true of academic projects set up and managed outside of the control of popular struggles. While there are some NGOs in South Africa that think deeply about praxis, and have engaged popular struggles in a respectful and enabling manner, as comrades rather than bosses, it is more common for NGOs to seek to manipulate and control movements rather than to engage them on the basis of equality. NGOs have often conflated themselves with the demos via the profoundly undemocratic (and frequently raced) idea that conflates NGOs with civil society and civil society with the people as a whole. In South Africa it is also the case that would-be Leninist vanguards sometimes have a base in donor funded NGOs. This can enable them to exercise real power over popular movements and struggles with donor rather than popular consent. Grassroots activists and organisations that have chosen to keep their autonomy from both liberal and socialist NGO networks have often been subject to unconscionable slander, sometimes acutely raced and often complicit with the discourses mobilised by a repressive state, from within these networks.

I have been struck by the extraordinary resonance that Hallward’s important account of the exercise of NGO power in Haiti has with the South African experience. He shows that in Haiti NGO power is frequently racialised: “the provision of white enlightened charity to destitute and allegedly ‘superstitious’ blacks is part and parcel of an all too familiar neo-colonial pattern”. He also notes that left NGOs tend not to “organize with and among the people …. In the places and on the terms where the people are strong” but prefer “trivial made-for-media demonstrations …usually attend by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people”. 

Importantly Hallward’s critique extends beyond NGOs and includes the small political organisation Batay Ouvriye, a tiny political organisation that is, “like any number of neo-Trotskyite sects …. militant and inconsequential in equal measure”, but has nonetheless been prominent on the international left and which produced slander against popular forms of political mobilisation in Haiti as virulent as anything produced by the right. Again there are some striking resonances with the South African experience.

For Fanon, the vocation of the militant intellectual is to be present in the real movements that abolish the present state of things—to be present in the “zone of occult instability where the people dwell”, in the “seething pot out of which the learning of the future will emerge” and, there, to “collaborate on the physical plane”. He is clear that the university-trained intellectual must avoid both the inability to “carry on a two-sided discussion,” to engage in genuine dialogue, and its obverse, becoming “a sort of yes man who nods assent at every word coming from the people”. Against this, he recommends “the inclusion of the intellectual in the upward surge of the masses” with a view toward achieving “a mutual current of enlightenment and enrichment”.

Dogmatic ideas about politics – whatever they are, anarchism can be every bit as disabling as Trotskyism – can also be a real barrier to attaining ‘a mutual current of enlightenment and enrichment’. Fanon warns against the modes of militancy that aim to “erect a framework around the people that follows an a priori schedule” and intellectuals that “come down into the common paths of real life” with formulas that are “sterile in the extreme”.

There is a fundamental difference between engaging in dialogue with people involved in a struggle on the basis of an investment in theoretical abstractions developed outside of the situation inhabited by the people in that struggle and doing so on the basis of a good understanding of that situation and in fidelity to the actually existing people that must make their lives and struggles within that situation. Developing an adequate understanding of that situation requires sustained presence and very careful listening. But solidarity does not only require that, as Paulo Freire insists, “one enter into the situation of those with whom one is in solidarity”. It also requires that situation to be the primary site for intellectual work. It must be here, and not in the academy, that the value of political ideas is determined in so far as they relate to that situation.

Diverse Modes of Academic Solidarity

Attempts to theorise the role of the university trained intellectual in a popular struggle tend to assume that the work of the university trained intellectual should be primarily intellectual and, in some cases, largely theoretical. In fact, as most of the post-grad students that have come to work with (or on) Abahlali baseMjondolo over the years have discovered the work that they have been asked to do is often largely practical – e.g. to drive to a settlement in which there is a crisis after the taxis have stopped running, or, before smart phones became a common presence in shack life, to take photographs – and that when it does have an intellectual dimension, such as taking down an affidavit, providing a clear summary of a policy document or an academic paper written on the movement, it is often not work that requires overtly theoretical engagement. This kind of work is also not, at all, about giving leadership to a movement. On the contrary it is generally a mode of labour that is largely technical in character and that is carried out under the direction of the movement's elected structures.

Sometimes it is useful to have people around who count for more than others in the economy - classed, raced, gendered and increasingly ethnicised too - of how people are valued in South Africa. In Durban it might be useful, for instance, to have a white or Indian voice phone the fire brigade if there is a shack fire. Sometimes it is useful to have someone around who is an outsider not implicated in dynamics internal to a movement – visiting students and academics have often been asked to count the votes in elections held within Abahlali baseMjondolo. It might also be useful to have someone with an American accent phone a police station and say that they are from a university in the US and are concerned about the well-being of a person being detained in the police station. Of course it might be equally useful, or considerably more useful, to have a member of the movement who works as a cleaner in that police station give regular reports on what is happening inside the station and, perhaps, to carry information to and from someone in the holding cells.

Discussion of issues of importance within a movement does not necessarily require the kind of learning that one gains from a university. None of the key political concepts that emerged in Abahlali baseMjondolo – ‘a politics of the poor’, ‘living politics’, ‘shack intellectuals’, ‘the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo’ etc. were developed by a university trained intellectual. Moreover people in a movement like Abahlali baseMjondolo draw on a rich array of sometimes intersecting experiences - churches, trade unions, the anti-apartheid struggle, associational life in rural communities etc - to frame and structure discussions. For instance the camps, all night meetings, that the movement has used as a space for discussing matters of importance in the context of embodied forms of solidarity are drawn from the churches. But there certainly have been many instances where university trained intellectuals have made important contributions to various kinds of discussions within the movement. However it is important to stress that they have done so in the movement’s own spaces, spaces where it is strong, and on its terms and at its invitation. Busing grassroots activists into a university for ‘political education’, a common and inevitably dismal practice in South Africa, creates a fundamentally different pedagogical and political context to the mode of engagement that Abahlali baseMjondolo has always insisted on, a situation where university trained intellectuals participate in the movement’s own spaces, at its invitation and, although sometimes via translation, in the languages best understood by its members.

The White Agitator

My historical research on the enduring presence of the urban land occupation as a site of politics, and the occupier as a subject of politics, in Durban has allowed me to understand that from the 1870s to the current moment there has been a constant and overwhelming tendency for various elites to ascribe the struggles for access to urban space and power by black people to white agency. This trope that ascribes black dissent to white agency spanned the whole colonial world - Trouillot gives a good account of its ideological function in the context of the Haitian Revolution. Recent comments about the role of ‘outside agitators’ in the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri and the fascination with the ‘white widow’ on the part of the British media indicates that it is not only in South Africa that this colonial trope endures into the present.

In South Africa this ideology has retained its power to silence and denigrate popular black political agency through the colonial and apartheid periods, and it is actively exploited in the current conjuncture by actors ranging from the state to the authoritarian left (nationalist and socialist) that has long operated in the nexus between the academy and NGOs and, now has a presence in parliamentary politics too. It is usually presented in terms of the malevolence of the imagined white agitator but it can also be presented in terms of the perceived moral nobility of the actually existing white activist. In both cases this takes the form of a fantasy that functions to deny the agency, and capacity for an ethical orientation towards the world, of people who are poor and black.

I have always thought it important to acknowledge that I am a participant rather than just an observer in Abahlali baseMjondolo. But I have generally avoided foregrounding my own participation in Abahlali baseMjondolo, or other popular organisations and moments of struggle – even in the face of considerable provocation from various sources. I have, for instance, been subject to all kinds of slander including being identified as an agent of a foreign power by the state. A range of actors have ascribed all kinds of decisions taken and positions adopted by various grassroots militants and organisations to myself when in fact I have had no role at all in taking these decisions and adopting these positions. In some cases I have supported these decisions and positions, in others I have not.

When I have made interventions in the academy or in the elite public sphere I have generally preferred to try and write (or speak) in a way that seeks to illuminate the agency of people who are not assumed to have a right to presence in the agora, people whose appearance in the agora is read as, to borrow a useful phrase from Lewis Gordon, fundamentally illicit. Moreover I have generally preferred not to perform my own reflexivity about my own praxis in a context in which there is a systemic a priori denial in a range of elite publics with regard to the capacity of people who are poor and black to engage in careful ethical reflection.

Of course my own agency must be as liable to critical scrutiny as that of any other actor. I am not averse to publicly discussing my own praxis, and reflecting critically on it. But I do not wish to do so in a way that foregrounds my own agency, and capacity for strategic and ethical reflexivity, in a manner that, implicitly or explicitly, functions to reinscribe the systemic denial of the agency and capacities of others. With that caveat I would like to respond more concretely to the invitation to make some comments about my own praxis.

Remarks on Praxis

The three university trained intellectuals who first engaged Abahlali baseMjondolo, myself, then Fazel Khan and Raj Patel, and then a little later on David Ntseng and Richard Ballard, were all clear that we would work in such a way that the movement could, at any point, choose not to work with us. In fact where possible we actively worked to make ourselves redundant. With the exception of a couple of unfortunate but always brief encounters with activists who arrived in Durban assuming, quite possibly on the back of a long history of colonial ideas about Africa, that their role would be to lead and educate most of the university trained intellectuals that have engaged the movement since then done have done so on a similar basis.

The first point that I wish to make about my own choices is that, for many years now - and predating my engagement with the struggle out of which Abahlali baseMjondolo emerged, I have not, as a matter of conscious choice, participated in any formal or informal attempts to exercise power over movements that are constituted outside of a movement’s own structures. In other words the movement’s own meetings, and processes, are the only site in which I participate in any attempt to make decisions about or related to the movement. This means that I do not engage movements from within any location in an NGO, the sort of academic project that takes on some of the features of an NGO, or another political organisation or informally constituted network. It also means that I never act for a movement, or in relation to a movement, outside of its structures without a clear mandate from it. This includes requests to participate in discussions like this one.

I have also ensured that, contrary to the usual arrangements, I play no role in mediating access to money. It is common practice for donors to relate to popular organisations via a middle class intermediary – and this is often acutely racialised. Such people, whether operating independently or via a position in an NGO or academic project, often have considerable control over financial resources and are therefore able to access forms of power that are not democratic. I refuse to play this role. Abahlali baseMjondolo (which has always had far less money than is widely assumed) raises its own money, makes its own decisions about how to use its money and makes its own annual reports to its funders. I do not participate in these activities. When requested to do so I have been willing to make introductions but once these are made I step aside.

The movement has always sought to be honest in both its internal and external communications. But this does not mean that it is not sometimes necessary to think carefully about how to best communicate a complex and dynamic context that may not be familiar to external allies of the movement. For instance the risk of political violence at the hands of a local party structure may be perfectly obvious to the movement’s members. But it may be far from obvious for someone in, say, a legal NGO in Johannesburg or a church in Berlin. When asked to do so I have, particularly in moments of crisis, been willing to participating in strategizing within the movement about how to best communicate with its allies but not in a way that positions myself in a mediating role.

I have also been happy to make introductions to people like lawyers, journalists and so on but I do not mediate these relationships in order to ensure that there is no dependency. Once the connection is made I step aside. When approached by NGOs, journalists, churches or other middle class activists who want to engage the movement in some way I will always refer them to the relevant structure in the organisation. Where ever possible I refer invitations to myself to participate in the elite public sphere to elected or otherwise mandated representatives of the movement. Where this is not possible I do not accept such invitations without a mandate from the movement. In most cases that mandate would include some discussion about what needs to be achieved from the engagement. Depending on the circumstances this can range from a long and careful discussion at a general meeting of the movement to a phone call with one of its (elected) leaders.

It has been important for the university trained intellectuals that have worked with the movement to ensure that, while technical support has been offered with regard to some of the means of communication (i.e. a website and email list), and while university trained intellectuals have often (although not always) participated in the processes by which the movement develops its press statements and other accounts of its positions, the movement itself always retains full control over the production and distribution of these statements. When there has been participation in these processes by university trained intellectuals it has always been at the invitation of the movement.

I have also avoided any situation in which I would be paid to do political work. I have sought to have an income that is not dependent on my political work. Of course my political work has fundamentally shaped both my approach to teaching and research in the academy but my position in the academy is not dependent on my political work. I have always made sure that I stay up to date in at least one field that is independent of my political work so that my livelihood in the academy is not dependent on that work.

I have also refused to mediate my political work through the ‘community engagement’ programme at the university where I work. This means that I am solely accountable for my political actions to the political organisations with which I work and that if these organisations were to choose not to work with me my obligations to my own family would not tempt me to contest this. It also means that I can withdraw from involvement in an organisation, or engagement with a political organisation, if I feel that its politics have become problematic.

I only attend meetings when invited to do so, always listen far more than I speak and generally don’t speak unless I am asked to do so. I have contributed to all kinds of practical work undertaken within Abahlali baseMjondolo and I have participated in its own intellectual practices. There have been instances, and many of them over the last nine years, where my academic access to information and ideas has been useful for the movement. But it is also the case that my own ethical and intellectual orientation to the world has been profoundly shaped by my participation in popular struggles. When people note points of congruence between my own thinking and some of the ideas developed in Abahlali baseMjondolo, and some of the positions taken by the movement, and assume that this indicates that I am giving direction to the movement they fail to understand that I, like many other participants in the movement, have been transformed in many ways by the experience.

I would like to conclude by giving one concrete example of how this mutual transformation can operate. In late 2012 a legal NGO approached Abahlali baseMjondolo wanting to run a workshop. There is always a flurry of NGOs wanting to run workshops as the end of the year approaches. They have budgets to spend and workshops seem the easiest way to spend money and to get a result that can be reported to a funder. Sometimes they are useful and sometimes they are not. Abahlali baseMjondolo has never accepted the usual paternalism that goes with these relationships and has always maintained the right to reject invitations to NGO workshops (which it often does) and to negotiate with NGOs on the content of workshops. The movement also often negotiates with NGOs to have one day with a programme set by the NGO and a second day with a programme set and managed by the movement and both days funded by the NGO.

I was asked, by the movement, to present at this workshop in late 2012. The request came out of a discussion at a meeting about what people would like to have discussed on the second day which was to be managed by the movement. I was asked to facilitate a conversation on Marxism, socialism and communism. I agreed and, at the movement's request, the NGO flew me to Durban from Grahamstown where I teach. In order to prepare carefully I asked to be briefed on the nature of the interest that had been expressed on this theme. The answer was very interesting. I was told that the idea had first been proposed by Mariet Kikine, a women in her late fifties who has been waging a long battle against both the threat of eviction and her exclusion from local housing projects. In 2007 she was shot in the back with six rubber bullets at close range by the police. Her concern, shared by enough other people to be chosen as the topic of discussion for the day, was that whenever people like themselves asserted themselves as political actors they were disciplined, not just by the simple exercise of violence, but also by a set of ideas that were presented to them as being ‘real politics’ understood by ‘political experts’ and which always presented ‘the living politics’ of the movement, as it was termed in Abahlali baseMjondolo, as objectively reactionary or misguided. Marxism and communism were central to this discursive policing by the ruling party and the state and Marxism and socialism were equally central to the discursive policing by the left in the NGOs and universities.

My presentation followed the logic of Alain Badiou’s idea of the communist invariant – anticipated by Gramsci’s, unfortunately gendered, assertion that:

Thus do ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty frequent among men, among those strata of mankind who do not see themselves as equals nor as brothers or other men, nor as free in relation to them. Thus it has come about that in every radical stirring of the multitude, in one way or another, with particular forms and ideologies, these demands have always been raised.

I argued that communist ideas appear across time and space and have to be rethought in each time and space. I argued that Marx did not invent the communist aspiration and that it had existed before him – this point was made via Gerrard Winstanley given the sometimes astonishing resonance of some of his ideas with some of those produced in the movement. I then argued that Marx’s great contribution had been to try and think communism for the time of the factory (in Europe) and showed how others had tried to extend that vision, to include women, the colonised etc. I noted that the idea that the oppressed should liberate themselves was central to this vision, and to every great mobilisation. I also noted that, in the political language of the movement, when ideas that emerged from a ‘living politics’ were fixed and turned into dogma, into the property of experts, they could be misused to contain rather than enable popular initiative. I argued that the task of the movement today was twofold – (1) to rethink the communist aspiration for the time of the shack settlement and a widespread absence of formal employment and (2) to ensure that this process was always kept open and open to all. We dedicated the rest of the time to discussing this. This analysis was received, with some excitement, as enabling rather than constraining. It is precisely because of this experience that I have grappled with these ideas in my recent academic work. In May this year this academic work was presented back to the movement, via an oral presentation to more than two hundred people (it is also available to anyone who wishes to read it in the movement’s library). The point of this anecdote is to show that one of the questions that has recently occupied me as an academic comes directly from the movement, and my attempts to think it through, rooted in a considerable degree in my participation in the movement, have been formally returned to the movement.

There are, of course, serious challenges to sustaining good praxis when movements begin to develop their own bureaucracies; when people become habituated to the brutality with which the state and private actors sustain an exclusionary urban order; when people are exhausted; when activists confront personal crises; when they come under intense pressure from their families to translate their political commitment into a livelihood; when movements have to operate on a terrain of more or less constant crisis; and, in particular, when they confront serious repression. The paranoia that can accompany the experience of repression is particularly damaging.

Just as there are examples of positive and sometimes extraordinarily thoughtful and democratic praxis in Abahlali baseMjondolo there are also numerous examples of possibilities that have not been realised, or compromises that have been made. This is often, although not always, exacerbated in moments of crisis. I have been as complicit as anyone else in these moments. Sometimes circumstances are such that it seems much better to act in a way that doesn’t accord with the best praxis that has been attained in the movement rather than not to not act at all.

There have, for instance, been periods, and in particular the period following the repression in 2009, when the intellectual work that has been done in the movement is simply repeated rather than renewed to the point where it is in danger of becoming a fixed dogma rather than a living practice. There have been times when twenty people have participated in the drafting of a press statement and, in recent years, times when, consequent to various pressures, as well as bureaucratisation, only two or three people have directly contributed to this work (but generally a statement will still come out of a meeting called for the purpose of drafting it which could include ten or more people). There have been moments when bureaucratic processes rooted more in representative than direct democracy have displaced some processes from control via direct democracy in open assembly. But while this should be noted so to should the practical difficulties in sustaining directly democratic practices beyond both a certain scale of organisation and a certain degree of political intensity.

But Abahlali baseMjondolo has, despite the severe repression it had to face in 2013 and in 2009, and the internal lines of fracture that emerged after both periods of repression, retained real, and, in fact, growing popular support and a remarkable capacity to hold regular open and democratic meetings, sometimes including hundreds of people, in which ideas are freely and thoughtfully debated. It remains a space that is more conducive to thinking critically and, crucially, to thinking in community and from within the situation inhabited by the oppressed, than the university. It remains the primary ground for my own intellectual work in and out of the academy. It remains the primary space in which I try to take measure of the value of political ideas.

Popular movements more or less invariably collapse or degenerate after some time. An enduring commitment to people and to principles should not be confused with the reification of a particular organisation. If the experience of other movements in post-apartheid South Africa is anything to go by Abahlali baseMjondolo is already living on borrowed time. Whether or not it will be able to endure through the years to come, and to sustain the best of what it has achieved, in the face of violent repression at the hands of the state and the ruling party, various kinds of hostile external machinations, including scurrilous behaviour from the authoritarian left, and the intolerable circumstances through which its members must make their lives, is an open question. But it is just one wave on an incoming tide of struggle. If it is destroyed, or if it becomes something quite different to what it has been at its best, it will, like the struggles before it, leave plenty of what Rosa Luxemburg called “mental sediment” for new struggles to draw on. 

If the academy is not to be another site of elite power from which the actually existing struggles of oppressed people - actually existing confrontation with oppressive social relations that carry real risks and costs - are policed in the name of what are imagined, a priori, to be higher ideals and more sophisticated tactical nous, the academic must begin with a recognition of ‘the open door of every consciousness’ now, in the past and in the future. Moreover she will also have to think from within the lived experience of struggle. There can be no effective opposition to oppressive social relations that accepts, as much academic radicalism does, the ontological order of oppression while developing critiques, valuable as they may be, in the realms of economy, policy or even the political that are not grounded in the lived experience of struggle.