We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa

We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa

We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa

We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa


When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, freedom-loving people around the world hailed a victory over racial domination, injustice and inequality. The end of apartheid did not change the basic conditions of life for the majority of oppressed South Africans, however. Material inequality has deepened and new forms of resistance have emerged in commnities that have discovered a common oppression and solidarty and forged new and dynamic political identities.

Desai's book follows the growth of the most unexpected of these community movements, describing from the inside the process through which the downtrodden regain their dignity and defend the most basic conditions of life. His book begins with one specific community, with local government enforcing cut-offs of water and electricity, and evicting families from their houses whose breadwinners have lost their jobs. As the Chatsworth community begins to organize and discover leaders among its ranks, so their example spreads to other communities in Durban and the KwaZulu-Natal region, and their struggles build links with those in other parts of the new South Africa.

We Are the Poors was a major event in the life of the South African Left when the first edition was published there in 2000. This new edition follows the ongoing course of events to the present.


The story told in this book begins in Chatsworth—a township on the outskirts of Durban, the largest city on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. It describes an ongoing spiral of struggle against market-driven measures to make residents of poor communities become paying customers in a capitalist society supposedly made non-racial by the defeat of apartheid and by the embrace of the free market in its place. This struggle has spread from Chatsworth to other poor communities around Durban, and to other parts of South Africa. To say that this struggle begins in Chatsworth is a kind of shorthand, which saves the trouble of explaining each time that, like all revolts that grow, it has many beginnings. It could surely have been traced back to other sources. Even so, there are good reasons to begin in Chatsworth.

When I started writing this story, Chatsworth was both a place and a struggle. It should become apparent as the story unfolds that Chatsworth has also become a politics. Race and class, the old chestnuts, still loom large. But new political variants have emerged, happily immune to infection by Robben Islanders, exiles, and ethnic entrepreneurs; the ruling postapartheid political faction. Unemployed, single mother, community defender, neighbor, factory worker, popular criminal, rap artist and genuine ou (good human being). These constructs have all come to make up the collective identities of “the poors.”

The struggle in Chatsworth helped to ignite rebellions in other areas, and to illuminate struggles already happening elsewhere. These struggles, at first conducted in isolation from each other, have begun to jump the firebreaks of race and place. Will they continue to do so, and incinerate the fetters of old political allegiances and class compromise that have so immobilized us these last ten years? Or will the multitude be confined to the outer reaches of society doused by brigades of politicians, past masters of turning on and off the taps of struggle and expectation? Or will they stand side-by-side and in so doing light the way to a new society?

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