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We Are the Poors

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

Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    We Are the Poors
    Book Description:

    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 Poorswas 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-529-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 7-14)

    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,...

  4. 1. Fatima Meer Comes to Chatsworth
    (pp. 15-19)

    Chatsworth came into being forty years ago with the passing of the Group Areas Act. It was laid out on either side of a ridge many kilometers long. There is a never-ending highway and railway line running the length of the ridge on its plateau. There are numberless roads leading down steep slopes on either side of the highway. Each of these side roads, in turn, are intersected by streets that run parallel to the highway so giving Chatsworth its sprawling, elongated feel and creating an urban space that is both like a maze and yet also a grid. Today...

  5. 2. Harinarian “Moses” Judhoo in the Promised Land
    (pp. 20-23)

    After the passing of the Group Areas Act in 1950, thousands of Indians from all over Durban were corralled into Chatsworth’s ten-square-kilometer precincts south of Durban. This “pernicious effort to segregate Indians en masse into special kraals, locations and townships” was a task the Durban City Council undertook with zeal.¹ This was not unexpected given Mayor Percy Osborne’s boast in the 1950s that apartheid itself “was the traditional policy of the burgesses of Durban and their municipal representatives long before the Nationalists came to power.” On a later occasion Osborne explained why he was such a fervent adherent of racial...

  6. 3. How Are These People Even Able to Exist?
    (pp. 24-29)

    In 1964, an economist visiting Chatsworth said he was amazed at “how some of these people are even able to exist” (Daily News, September 10, 1964). In her 1967 presidential address to the Durban Indian Benevolent Society, Dr. Khorshed Ginwala spoke of the “sordid existence” that is Chatsworth: “Indian employees of the municipality, who belong to the laboring class, earn a maximum wage of R36 per month. It costs R49 a month to keep a family at Chatsworth which is about twelve miles away from the city center. Rent, electricity and transport costs alone total R17.72. Groceries cost R18.20; bread...

  7. 4. A Social Time Bomb Starts Ticking
    (pp. 30-34)

    Many of the residents of Chatsworth had come from areas where they had developed a number of social organizations that created a sense of community in a hostile and discriminatory political environment. Geographer Diane Scott has written powerfully of the nurturing of communal bonds in Clairwood based on ties of trust, friendship, sociability, obligation, and mutual support overlaid with a framework of kinship and religious norms. Over decades “temples, schools, halls, clinics, and cemeteries became landmarks in Clairwood and District and symbols of communal sacrifice and solidarity.”¹

    With relocation, thousands poured into Chatsworth and set up home alongside people they...

  8. 5. The Struggle and Its Fruits: From the Militant Eighties to the End of Apartheid
    (pp. 35-40)

    In 1980 an investigation by the Chatsworth Indian Child and Welfare Society found that mass unemployment, runaway fathers of “illegitimate” babies, and an increasing divorce rate were accelerating the number of Chatsworth residents relying on state grants to find their next meal. The investigation found that one in every eight families living in the area relied on some kind of grant. Some families were resorting to adopting children as a means of income as the Department of Indian Affairs paid foster parents R42 per month for every child they adopted.

    The newly inaugurated Chatsworth Housing Action Committee (CHAC) began to...

  9. 6. “We Are the Poors”
    (pp. 41-45)

    It was into this volatile situation that Professor Fatima Meer came in 1999 to share the good news of a better life for all with the people of Chatsworth. Instead, the residents asked her to listen to them. They showed her their dilapidated homes, they showed her their rent slips that contained a baffling myriad of charges, and made their own charge that their lives were steadily getting worse. The local councilors’ only relationship to the community was to encourage them to pay up or get out. As one of the CCG delegation remembers, it was also a challenge that...

  10. 7. Upgrading the Houses and the Return of Relocation
    (pp. 46-49)

    Once the council indicated its desire to expedite the transfer of houses and the leadership of the flat dwellers realized that many people were anxious to own their homes, the demand mutated. Now the emphasis shifted to the upgrading of the hovels. An independent civil engineering consultant was called in by the flat residents’ associations to assess the flats. The report listed the defects found in most buildings:

    1. Water penetration at the junction of the external wall with floor slabs was evident.

    2. Water penetration through the external walls results in ponding on the internal floors.

    3. Roof sheets needed replacing.


  11. 8. Is It Legal to Be Poor?: Evictions and Resistance
    (pp. 50-55)

    So far, there had been two attempts at evictions, one every two years. The new century opened with an assault on what the council called “illegals.” This was to be the discourse cloaking a third round of evictions. There were two kinds of illegals; those who could not pay and those who were “undesirable.” The latter were labeled by Bonhomme as drug lords, shebeen owners and, by a senior official of the council, as “sexual deviants.” Deputy director of Housing Mthembu never explained what she meant although a rather forlorn smile played upon her lips as she made the accusation....

  12. 9. Faces in the Crowd
    (pp. 56-63)

    At almost every mass meeting a young woman would sit impassively with a child on her knee. She never spoke but was ever present. She was always wore a slightly faded blue punjabi. Then all of a sudden she stopped coming. I traced her back to a flat she shared with six other people and asked her to tell me her story. It came pouring out.

    Shoba was 22 years old. Her son was born when she was 14. She was raped by the son of her mother’s new lover. Nobody wanted to listen. Periodically her rapist would return to...

  13. 10. Working Life: From Rags to Tatters
    (pp. 64-66)

    Over the years, a large number of men and women from Chatsworth have found work in the clothing and textile industries. For women it was a source of liberation as they broke the taboo on working outside the home and confronted the tradition that assigned them the role of housewife. But it was a double-edged sword. At work they had to labor under the brutal gaze of the male supervisor who acted much like the father-in-law they thought they had escaped. And at home they still had to do the cooking and other household chores. As the cost of living...

  14. 11. Thulisile Manqele’s Water
    (pp. 67-76)

    Sometime in February 2000, former Minister of Water Affairs Kader Asmal heard that he was to receive an international award for his heroic efforts to bring water to the poorest of the poor in South Africa. The financial reward was in the region of $150,000. At the same time during a lull in the eviction mobilizations Thulisile Christina Manqele, an unemployed former domestic worker, was preparing to go to court for a different kind of award.

    Thulisile Christina Manqele was jubilant when she received notice that she had been allocated a flat in Chatsworth. The year was 1992 and Christina...

  15. 12. A Revolt Grows in Isipingo
    (pp. 77-81)

    In the flats of isipingo, barely a stone’s throw from Durban International Airport, people had taken heart from events in Chatsworth. Here too eviction notices had been received. Water and electricity cutoffs were already taking place.

    A civic organization was already in place—the Isipingo Development Forum (IDF). Preggie Naidoo, a former teacher and union official in the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) affiliate, started working in and revitalized this more or less dormant organization. Naidoo surrounded himself with a particularly strong “executive committee” that functioned formally, met regularly, and painstakingly...

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  17. 13. Mpumalanga’s New War
    (pp. 82-90)
    Heinrich Bohmke

    If you drove along the N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg during the winter of 1987, about 30 kilometers out of Durban, just after passing by a road-sign that read Peacevale, you would see clouds of black smoke over the horizon on the left of the road. This smoke did not come from the annual sugarcane plantation burnings or a random veld fire. These were homes and cars and shops and people set alight in a mini civil war in the township just outside the industrial node of Hammarsdale. The protagonists were the comrades and “young lions” of the ANC...

  18. 14. Fighting Neoliberalism in Soweto and Tafelsig
    (pp. 91-99)
    Peter van Heusden

    It was not only in durban that resistance to the new government and its policies was being bred. Struggles led by independent community-based organizations flared up all over South Africa. Those closer to the action in Soweto in Gauteng and Tafelsig in the Western Cape are better able to make sense of the dramatic developments in these areas. But in the townships of Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg the issues were the same: cost recovery was causing government to attack its own citizens in ways reminiscent of the apartheid days.

    Trevor Ngwane, a resident and activist from Pimville in Soweto,...

  19. 15. Labor and Community: The Volkswagen and Engen Strikes
    (pp. 100-115)

    Given the scale of their contribution to the struggle against apartheid, one would expect the unions to lead the fight for social justice in the new South Africa. This is not the reality, however. As the story of the strike at Volkswagen shows, the big trade unions are part of the bulwark that is preventing autonomous and radical resistance developing against the ANC and its neoliberal policies.

    The stage was set for the strike when VW, sensing the government’s commitment to liberalizing the economy and the offer of attractive incentives for exports, started to make substantial new investments in their...

  20. 16. Chatsworth Reignites
    (pp. 116-119)

    At about the time that the strike at Engen began, Chatsworth residents heard that the Durban High Court had effectively ordered that Thulisile Manqele’s water be disconnected again. The battleground was moving from the courts and back to Chatsworth. But now more innovative and direct forms of action began to unfold. Responding to electricity and water cutoffs, residents of the council flats met to plan. After a heated meeting, they moved en masse to the home of a local DA councilor and disconnected his electricity and water, a tactic that was later also dramatically used by Soweto residents against their...

  21. 17. Global and Local: The World Conference Against Racism and the Durban Social Forum
    (pp. 120-139)

    The concerned citizens’ forum, from its modest beginnings in Fatima Meer’s initiative to draw Chatsworth voters toward the ANC, soon grew to include more than 20 new community movements from all over kwaZulu-Natal. The inner life of these militant community movements could be described, if they were a single person, as being manic-depressive. Brief spurts of intense activity ahead of, say, an eviction, give way, when the danger is over, to weeks in which more mundane concerns of life and love take over. Besides bonds of friendship and dealing with the debts incurred each time buses are hired, there was...

  22. 18. Building a New Movement?
    (pp. 140-149)

    I think of anneline ganesh’s fragile body ran over by a hundred frightened kids at the Throb nightclub in Chatsworth in March 2000, her side ripped open and her leg hanging limp. She is a prisoner of her third floor flat. She was abandoned by her father at birth. Her mother, Sherene, toils in the clothing industry. But if the clothing industry continues its trajectory of shedding jobs, Sherene will be condemned to unemployment. Anneline does not realize that soon her family will be involved in a struggle to hold onto her little prison room.

    I think about Emanuel Mhlongo...

  23. Appendix: Durban Social Forum Declaration
    (pp. 150-153)