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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
By Dale T. McKinley & Ahmed Veriava*
(Published in Business Day on 1st October 2007)

In August 2004, as if moved by the force of a repressed trauma returning to settle its claim on the present, something shifted on the arterial line that connects the metropolitan centres of Johannesburg and Durban. From one of the far flung places forgotten by the transition, places most of us only ever pass through on our way to ‘somewhere else’, thousands of protestors descended on the N3 highway to unsettle the fragile mythologies of the ‘miracle nation’. Armed with placards and song, the protesters charged that after ten years of democracy not much had changed for the country’s poor. The “better life for all” that had been promised in 1994, and repeated with each successive election, had not arrived. The state’s response was unequivocal, and in violent scenes reminiscent of our not so distant past, shotgun-wielding policemen fired live ammunition at fleeing protesters. When the enforced calm finally returned to the ‘sleepy’ Free State town of Harrismith/Intabazwe, sixteen year old Tebogo Mkhonza was dead, with many others nursing their wounds. Those identified as the leaders of the protest were rounded up and charged with public violence and, for the first time in post-1994 South Africa, sedition.

It is in these, the forgotten places of the transition, that the trauma at the heart of a new South Africa is forcefully highlighted in the challenges of everyday life. The small Northern Free State community of Rammolutsi, where we recently spent time collecting stories about people’s lives since 1994, is such a place. It is in places like Rammolutsi where people are constantly told to be ‘patient’ while the elusive dream of ‘a better life’ is deferred to the rhythms of local level finances and institutional delivery and investment mechanisms; the kind of place that is necessarily repressed in nationalism’s priestly caste narratives of the nation, it’s people, and ‘the long way we have come’. As long as people play to this script there is nothing to report or comment on, nothing to see, precisely because there is no societal-institutional recognition of anything that is ‘out of the ordinary’.

What has been naturalised, however, is the generalised acceptance of a state strategy that is based upon an abdication of its social responsibility vis-à-vis a macro-economic programme in which social inclusion is increasingly made contingent upon local capital investment. The dark core of this strategy becomes all too apparent in a community like Rammolutsi, where the only existing form of meaningful capital investment, has either left in search of more profitable locations, or, as is the case with commercial farming, is increasingly shedding jobs as it speeds-up mechanisation in order to enhance its global competitiveness. In the context of a policy perspective that increasingly sees integration into wage labour as the conduit for social citizenship, the reality of its 80%+ unemployment rate is that most adult residents of Rammolutsi are unlikely to see their shacks transformed into formal housing or their children escape the unyielding grip of a life of poverty.

The ironic outcome of this strategy is a community which fits neatly into Mbeki’s proverbial ‘second economy’, where unemployment and poverty become structural and, in the President’s own words, “act as a fetter on the further development of the first economy”. The ‘developmental’ logic flowing from this is the reduction of entire populations to bare life, made to subsist within the meagre network of grants with minimal access to basic services governed by a rigid system of ‘lifeline’ allocations. Where meaningful community development is deferred to the flow of market forces, state development initiatives become increasingly cosmetic in character, the classic examples being the shiny new municipal buildings that are erected, or the few main roads that are newly paved.

People in Rammolutsi told us that the only official - post-1994 - visit to their community by a senior government politician (former Vice-President, Jacob Zuma) was limited to the one main (paved) road running through Rammolutsi where most all the formal housing is located. The thousands of makukus (shacks) that dominate the majority of Rammolutsi, and which represent the most direct manifestation of poverty and lack of development were conveniently bypassed as the official motorcade steered clear of the maze of gravel roads that lead into the heart of the township. If something is not seen then, for all intents and purposes, it becomes ‘invisible’, and that includes people themselves.

In circumstances where the continued and often deepening immiseration of people, whether in Rammolutsi, Intabazwe or hundreds of others places like them across South Africa, becomes an ‘ordinary’ and acceptable feature of a society, politics can gravitate towards a mode of entrepreneurial engagement. Being effectively cut-off from the politico-institutional and socio-economic mainstream of society, the vast majority of those who inhabit makukus in poor communities such as Rammolutsi have, for example, adopted an understandable (but ultimately disempowering) position that links the possibilities of getting an RDP house to their own political connectedness. It is such a connectedness that would allow access to the networks of patronage and corruption that so clearly characterise much of the local levels of the state and party. Several of our interviewees went so far as to say that having an ANC membership card is the necessary first step to accessing these networks.

Outside of such engagements however, and because the political rationality underpinning the South African state’s macro-developmental approach is fundamentally one of non-negotiability, the contestation of the conditions of life confront the disciplinary and juridical power of the state directly; the naked figure of sovereign power. Witness the character of the Intabazwe confrontation alongside the thousands of other service delivery protests that have taken place over recent years. Depending on the ‘outcome’ of such attempts, which have so regularly resulted in increasing frustration and anger, this trajectory can lead to a longer-term disinvestment in the ideal of an active, democratic citizenry.

People, and no more so than the poor, have to be seen - whether by government, the media, civil society organisations, political parties etc. – in order to get political recognition. Thirteen years on in South Africa’s transition, it seems that the only way in which the poor can be seen is by creating an out-of-the-ordinary localised ‘crisis’ that has the potential to draw the gaze of the national state – and other players within the system - onto the developmental failures of the local state and its individual actors. But is anyone paying attention?

* The authors are presently conducting research entitled – ‘Forgotten Voices in the Present: Post-1994 Oral Histories from Three Poor Communities in South Africa’ – through the South African History Archive. This is the second of three articles emanating from the first phase of this research project.



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