Political Agency in South African Shack Settlements

Pithouse, Richard Michael (2012) Political Agency in South African Shack Settlements. In: Presentation to the Panel on Subaltern Urbanisms, Conference on Urban Revolutions in the Age of Global Urbanism, Jakarta, 17-20 March 2012. (Unpublished)

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(From the introduction) In 2004 Mike Davis asked whether or not what he called 'the informal proletariat' could attain historical agency. The question posed by Davis sparked a largely speculative discussion in the radical edge of the metropolitan academy that often paid scant regard to the many careful studies dealing with the political agency of shack dwellers. The debate about the political capacities of the urban poor stretches back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose views on the matter are well known, and Mikhail Bakunin who sustained their objectification but inverted its logic to conclude that “in them and only in them [the lumpen-proletariat ], and not in the bourgeois strata of workers, are there crystallized the entire intelligence and power of the coming Social Revolution”. In Africa the rational discussion of this question begins with Frantz Fanon who,dying of leukaemia and dictating his words from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis in 1961, insisted that “Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.” One of the many ways in which he stretched the Marxism in the air at the time was to take the view that the lumpen-proletariat, as a sociological category, had no fixed political meaning. People who had been 'circling the cities' hoping, he said, 'to be let in', had sometimes offered their services to colonial oppression and had sometimes joined the revolution against colonialism. Moreover he argued that in the colonial context the urban poor, living outside of the “world of compartments”, did not only become a “gangrene eating into the heart of colonial domination” as an unintended consequence of a desire to survive, of a “biological decision to invade the enemy citadels”, but that some amongst these people would assume explicit political agency and that it is: “in the people of the shanty towns and in the lumpen-proletariat that the insurrection will find its urban spearhead.” In reaching this conclusion, and in insisting on this particular stretching of the dominant currents of the Marxism of the time, Fanon was sustaining a fidelity both to the actually existing politics that he had witnessed in various African countries as well as to his founding ethical axiom - to recognise “the open door of every consciousness.”

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords:political agency, colonialism, colonial oppression, shack settlements, shacks, Marxism, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Mikhail Bakunin, Frantz Fanon, Africa, urbanism, shanty towns
Subjects:D World History and History of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, etc > DT Africa > South Africa
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions (Africa, Asia, Australia, etc) > Africa
Divisions:Faculty > Faculty of Humanities > Political Studies and International Studies
ID Code:3478
Deposited By: Roelien Clarke
Deposited On:22 Sep 2012 15:34
Last Modified:22 Sep 2012 15:40
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