Over the course of fifteen years (1994-2009), Elke Zuern has interviewed civic and social movement leaders, local government leaders, members of NGOs and other community organizations in South Africa. In her new book, The Politics of Necessity,* she compares these movements in South Africa to those elsewhere on the continent (Benin, Botswana, Nigeria), and beyond (Argentina, Chile, Mexico). We definitely recommend The Politics of Necessity. Below follows an excerpt from the introduction to the book:

From apartheid to democracy, South African movements have drawn connections between material necessities, stark inequality, and basic rights. Through popular protest they have constructed their understandings of what democracy must entail. South Africa under apartheid offers one of the clearest cases of cumulative inequality: poverty, race, and a complete lack of political rights all overlapped. Like Brazil (and the United States among advanced industrialized states), South Africa has long stood out for its high levels of income inequality. Similar to those in Brazil, South African survey respondents have expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with their democracy. In the Afrobarometer surveys conducted from mid-1999 to mid-2001 in twelve largely English speaking African countries that had undergone some degree of political and economic reform, South Africans expressed the highest levels of dissatisfaction with their democracy (44 percent of respondents were “unsatisfied with democracy”), followed by Malawi and Zambia (Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi 2005, 83). This is particularly striking when contrasted with external perceptions of South Africa as one of the strongest and most vibrant democracies on the continent. Countless analysts have lauded the rights and freedoms enshrined in South Africa’s new constitution; Freedom House (2010) has given South Africa high scores for both political rights and civil liberties. In South Africa, in contrast, less than half of the survey respondents defined themselves as “very satisfied” or even “fairly satisfied” with democracy in 2008 (Afrobarometer 2009a). Since 1999 this dissatisfaction has increasingly been seen on the streets. During the 2004/2005 financial year, almost six thousand protest actions took place across the country (Atkinson 2007, 58). In 2009, protest actions once again reached new heights as citizens demonstrated their frustration with the government by marching, submitting petitions, and at times destroying government property (Sinwell et al. 2009). Clearly those who praise the extent of South Africa’s democracy are missing something to which both the survey respondents and the protesters wish to draw attention.

South African respondents stood out across the surveyed African countries in that they expressed more substantive understandings of what a democratic regime should entail by including socioeconomic conditions in their definition of democracy. They also demonstrated a greater readiness to engage in protest actions. This led Michael Bratton, Robert Mattes, and E. Gyimah-Boadi (2005) to suggest that South Africa may be exceptional as a product of its apartheid past and its recent liberation. However, if one approaches the case of South Africa with an eye to the experiences of Latin American states, South Africa appears as much less an outlier. Growing dissatisfaction with democracy and high levels of protest action, often in response to poor living conditions and services, seem to be correlated with a perception of relative deprivation and high levels of inequality. In fact, given South Africa’s significant political and economic reforms as well as its urbanization, processes that all African countries are struggling with in different ways, the South African experience may well be an indicator of challenges that other states and societies will increasingly face. Just as apartheid was an extension of the broader politics of colonial rule rather than an exception (Mamdani 1996), South Africa’s current challenges and its citizens’ discontent are a product of severe inequities that are felt across the continent and around the globe.

Over a decade after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, addressing the material poverty of the majority remains a stark challenge. Government development indicators show persistently high unemployment rates. According to the narrow definition of unemployment, which includes only job seekers who looked for work in the four weeks before the survey, unemployment declined slightly from a high of 31.2 percent in early 2003 to 25.3 percent in mid 2010 (SSA 2010, xii). In the broad understanding of unemployment also presented in government indicators, 36 percent of South Africans remained unemployed in 2010 (Economist, August 23, 2010). South African survey data from 1993, 2000 and 2008 show a substantial increase in inequality, both within the population as a whole and within the African population (Leibbrandt et al. 2010). In 2009, the government reported that income inequality still had not been reduced despite years of economic growth (RSA, Presidency 2009, 25). Although the indicators do show some growth in the incomes of the poor, the rich have gained at a faster rate.

Poverty remains pervasive. Government indicators report only a slow decline in poverty since 1993. By 2008, 22 percent of the population (the “hard core” poor) continued to live below the very low international poverty line of $1.25 a day, or R283 per month (RSA, Presidency 2009, 27). Afrobarometer’s 2008 survey offers indicators of “lived poverty”: 42 percent of adult respondents said they “went without” food at least once in the past year (down only 1 percent from 2004); 36 percent said they went without clean water (the same as 2004); 52 percent went without electricity (up from 47 percent in 2004); 53 percent went without a cash income (down from 60 percent in 2004) (Afrobarometer 2004, 2009a). While stark, these numbers may still underreport indicators of lived poverty, due to the difficulty of reaching the country’s poorest citizens (Cape Times, March 11, 2005). They do, however, demonstrate the impact of state interventions: the decrease in people without a cash income is a product of the increase in social grants, and the increase in people without electricity is at least in part due to disconnections for nonpayment.

These grim realities are a product of South Africa’s past as well its present. A few statistics, while offering a partial and vastly incomplete picture of the brutality of apartheid, demonstrate the great challenges that postapartheid governments have faced. In 1946 white per person income was more than ten times that of African income (L. Thompson 2000, 156). Between 1960 and 1983, an estimated 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes and communities to the overcrowded and impoverished “homelands” far from urban centers and jobs. In 1975–76, an astounding 381,858 Africans were arrested for violating the pass laws, which were designed to keep them out of white areas where they sought to find work. Even after a considerable increase in the number of African children enrolled in school by 1978, the apartheid government still spent ten times more per white student than it did for each African student (L. Thompson 2000, 193–96). The legacies of racial discrimination in education and job opportunities, the removal of so many people from their homes and communities and the impact of a migrant labor system that separated families are profound and daunting. As Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass argue: “No other capitalist state (in either the North or South) has sought to structure income inequalities as systematically and brutally as did South Africa under apartheid” (2005, 2).

These hardships have led to what is termed here a “politics of necessity,” where engagement in the public sphere is defined in an environment in which many struggle just to get by: to feed their families, to maintain a home, and to obtain basic access to health care, education, and paid work. In certain circumstances, these needs lead to community organizing and concerted efforts to bring material and broader demands to the attention of government. The politics of necessity is not exclusive to South Africa. In their discussion of Latin American social movements, Sonia Alvarez and Arturo Escobar have referred to a “politics of needs” mobilizing popular struggles (1992, 320). In Mexico City, Miguel Díaz-Barriga found a discourse of necesidad among urban movements; grassroots activists defined their goals in terms of necessities that included land, education, and basic services such as electricity, potable water, streets, and medical clinics (1998, 257). Around the globe, the absence of what people locally define as basic necessities can translate into movements that work to bring the private struggles of marginalized individuals and silenced communities into the public discourse with potentially profound implications for democracy.

* Published by the University of Wisconsin Press and the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.