Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The "Dialectics of Toil": Reflections on the Politics of Space after Apartheid

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The "Dialectics of Toil": Reflections on the Politics of Space after Apartheid

Article excerpt


Sixteen years since the end of the liberation struggle South Africa's cities have become crucial spaces of self-determination and lively community democracy. Yet their form has changed very little instead highlighting the persistence of poverty (and racism) within neoliberal, post-apartheid capitalism that the transition promised to end. This article explores the enduring quality of deep economic and social marginalization, specifically in the context of Cape Town's informal settlements, which reflect both collective desires for "rights to the city" and their denial. [Keywords: South Africa, cities, Cape Town, informal settlements, neoliberalism]


Where the shanties of migrants sprout next to the mansions, factories, and skyscrapers of industrial-state capitalism, new kinds of citizens engage each other in struggles over the nature of belonging to the national society.

- James Holston (1999:10)

Drawing on Lefebvre's proposition that substantive political change is necessarily as much a matter of politics as it is a matter of space (Lefebvre 1995), in the course of this article I reflect on the relationship between South Africa's democratization and the reconfiguration of the city after apartheid (Smith 1992a, 1992b; Mabin 1992). Specifically, I argue that the country's urban peripheries, which were most often illegally settled by migrant workers arriving from the rural areas under apartheid, today, notwithstanding efforts to deliver infrastructure, housing, and services, reflect hardening relations of inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. Under apartheid, migrant workers were generally prohibited from permanent settlement in urban areas. Instead they lived on the move-very often traveling repeatedly between town and country-given strict controls on African urbanization. Yet many African migrants and their families chose to remain in the cities where they worked on contract, building informal shelter in the squatter camps that proliferated on the cities' edges during more than four decades. To the degree these were spaces of refuge, they constituted mere accommodations of the system, but as spaces of opposition and subterfuge, they hinted at the possibility of linking practices of place-making to a much broader process of social transformation. That migrant workers found creative alternatives to the system of contracts that consigned them to a life of work in the city and domesticity in the countryside (Bundy 1979, Murray 1981), their efforts to build lives inclusive of family in the urban areas, in contravention of the Native Urban Areas Act (1923), signaled the emergence of a politics that would ultimately redirect the course of apartheid policy. It would also change the national map.

Now while squatter communities previously symbolized collective resistance to apartheid, what they stand for today is rather different. Despite government efforts to redress the historic problem of homelessness, the persistence of the settlements, and in some instances their growth and expansion since the mid-1990s (consider the case of Khayelitsha, originally a small informal settlement established in 1983 and today a township with an estimated population of 400,000), has been a source of outright sanction, often leading to the forced removal of those settled illegally on the city edges. National reconstruction, though a corollary of liberation, has been much complicated by the liberalization of markets in the past decade or so, fostering the conditions for perpetuating rather than eradicating inequality. Forced removals are a case in point: once a municipal function, privatized removal companies have emerged to fill a gap in public services. More ironic still is that removals persist if only to satisfy private landowners on whose land squatters may have settled over and above the old imperatives of apartheid segregation and influx control that stipulated the removal of Africans to the homelands. …

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