The party question

Marcel Paret’s book, "Fragmented Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa after Racial Inclusion," tries to make sense of politics in South African urban informal settlements.

Aerial picture of Somoho, Soweto. Image credit Impact Hub Global Network via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

In December of 2007, delegates of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), gathered in the midsize city of Polokwane in the far northeast province of Limpopo. The city of a little more than 100,000 residents had been called Pietersburg for much of the 20th century, named after an Afrikaner “voortrekker” leader in the late 19th century. The city had once been home to a notorious British concentration camp of some 4,000 Afrikaners between 1899 and 1902. Now, under a democratic dispensation inaugurated by the first non-racial, universal elections in 1994, the city has been renamed in Sotho to mean “place of safety.”

The ANC delegates gathered in Polokwane were there to make a decision that many observers perceived to be reckless or, at the very least, pregnant with the contingency of any historic turning point. By the time the conference closed on the 20th day of the month, the party had elected its new president. The delegates’ choice, Jacob Zuma, had risen from a poor, rural, self-educated background during apartheid to become a political prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and the head of intelligence in the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

When Zuma won the ANC party presidency in 2007 and the national presidency a year and a half later in May 2009, his victory was cheered by the country’s powerful trade union movement and by a range of populist forces whose members had felt shut out by the perceived elite-oriented rule of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki had been the figurehead of what is often understood as a neoliberal turn in postapartheid policy. This entailed a shift away from post-1994 policies such as the direct provisioning of collective goods like housing and the developmental intervention into the commanding heights of Africa’s most industrialized economy. Mbeki’s presidency, which began in 1999, was marked by the expansion of tenets of the Growth Employment and Redistribution policy framework—known by its acronym, GEAR.

During this period, the first significant winds of postapartheid social protest began to blow. Notably, in informal settlements in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) emerged in the 2000s to challenge the market-based pricing of water and electricity. The APF had begun to link together a number of communities under the banner of a common programmatic agenda in opposition to the outright policy legitimacy of the ANC. But by the ANC’s Polokwane conference of 2007, this challenge to political power had been hobbled by internal conflict, failing to make a meaningful dent in policy change.

Zuma’s subsequent rise was marked by folksy rhetorical flourishes and ebullient political rallies. In 2009, I was working as a reporter for a daily South African newspaper when I attended Zuma’s final “Siyanqoba” (victory, in isiZulu) preelection rally in the Ellis Park stadium in central Johannesburg. Though the rally was being held in the urban heart of the country, the imagery was an appeal to Zuma’s rural upbringing. The stadium was packed with attendees wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Zuma’s face and a slogan rich with rural ethnic appeal: “100% Zulu Boy.”

The event was one of Nelson Mandela’s final public appearances. The elder statesman appeared onstage in a wheelchair and sat silently while his prerecorded message was broadcast from the stadium’s jumbotron screen. The crowd was reverent, if somewhat reserved in its reaction.

When Zuma took the microphone, he gathered his political allies onstage, many of whom had felt shut out by the cultural globalism and economic inequality of the Mbeki years. Zuma leaned into a familiar, full-throated rendition of an anti-apartheid anthem of the armed struggle, “Mshini Wam”—“bring me my machine gun.” The stadium rafters shook as attendees danced and sang along with the putative populist prophet.

Shortly after Zuma took office as president, the streets of South Africa’s informal settlements caught fire. For almost every day of the past ten years, somewhere in South Africa, a community has been protesting. And for every day of the past 28 years, the African National Congress has held national power. In the politics of the street, South Africa is the protest capital of the world. In the politics of the ballot box, it is also one of the most stable. In a country whose struggle for democracy once inspired the world, how could both of these facts possibly be true?

This question lies behind Marcel Paret’s long-awaited first monograph, Fragmented Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa after Racial Inclusion, published in early 2022 by Cornell University Press. Paret has spent the past decade producing a prolific stream of peer-reviewed ethnographic and survey-based studies on the evolution of protest in urban South Africa. He is a sociologist at the University of Utah with a long-standing research association with the University of Johannesburg’s Center for Social Change. In part drawing from Paret’s collaborations with several eminent researchers at the University of Johannesburg, the university’s Center for Social Change has established itself as South Africa’s premier center for the study of the country’s seemingly impenetrable fog of intense social protest amid formal political stasis.

In his extremely readable, deeply researched, and theoretically thoughtful book, Paret brings to life South Africa’s peculiar brew of upheaval in the streets and stability at the ballot box. The book is a landmark contribution to the contemporary study of urban protest and democracy in South Africa and across the globe. The heart of the text consists of four case studies of informal settlements in the Johannesburg metropolitan region. These case studies all share similar degrees of vulnerability associated with informal residential life in cities in South Africa, and, indeed, most of the urban world. These include risk of eviction by private and public landowners and marginal access to basic public services like water and sanitation.

Paret is primarily concerned with explaining why high degrees of local mobilization in these settlements have added up to so little in terms of their political effects. The thing to be explained, in other words, is in the title of the book: why, if popular protest in South Africa is so active and plentiful, is it also so “fragmented”?

The answer is in the subtitle. To protest amid the persistent political dominance of the African National Congress is too “precarious” a proposition.

Paret uses his deep ethnography of four informal settlements to study the effects of the ANC’s domination of grassroots civil society. Two of these settlements—Motsoaledi and Tembelihle—are within the municipal boundaries of Johannesburg. A third, Tsakane Extension 10, is within the boundary of the adjacent municipality of Ekurhuleni, to the east of Johannesburg. And the fourth, Bekkersdal, is to the south of the metropolis, in the municipality of Rand West City.

Each of these case studies, which feature similar degrees of material deprivation decades after the transition to democracy, illustrates the extent to which a sense of betrayal by political elites has animated new forms of resistance in the postapartheid era. In the face of persistent exclusion from the basic fabric of urban life—public goods like housing, water, and sanitation—these communities have drawn on solidarities of both race and class. Their active mobilization, Paret argues in the first part of the book, has pushed forward a project of racial inclusion in which material inclusion has increasingly been abandoned by the ruling ANC.

What stops these mobilizations from growing into a broader challenge to political power is their isolation—or, in Paret’s terms, fragmentation. “Administrative fixes” have been proffered by government actors and agencies in response to the protests of individual settlements. This is in contrast to more programmatic, policy-based responses. In these fixes, the demands of each individual neighborhood are treated as standalone issues. In some cases, this means promises of development. In other cases, this means threats of eviction.

In all cases, the various settlements that Paret tracks throughout the chapters of this book have been unable to link together precisely because their interactions with the government are so ad hoc. This has had significant consequences for the evolution of their political claims, including the growth of xenophobic organizing within these informal settlements, largely against migrants from other African countries or from South Asia. Activists in these settlements have also struggled to gain a toehold in formal politics: some are absorbed into the ANC’s juggernaut of an electoral machine, while others are sidelined by virtue of the fundamental unviability of an electoral vehicle that does not network across even more than a single neighborhood.

Overall, Paret develops a perspective in his book that is deeply skeptical of the role of political parties in postapartheid South Africa. This view from below, shaped by the case studies of informal settlements marked by activist fragmentation and frustrated material progress, carries a profound empirical weight. The book makes a convincing case that the ANC’s relationship with grassroots mobilizations is a major problem for the health of South Africa’s democracy. The space for organizing in the residential spaces of the urban poor is deeply constrained, making informal settlements some of the most mobilized and simultaneously unheard territories in the country.

Even so, it is not clear that by observing the effects of the dominance of a political party in society—what Paret calls “fragmented militancy”—we can necessarily conclude that the role of party politics is the fundamental problem. In fact, Paret’s astute emphasis on the “fragmented” nature of grassroots mobilization in South Africa today might well be said to underscore the absence of engagement with party politics. The kind of city-wide scale of policy-making that would protect such mobilization in urban informal settlements from ad hoc treatment by the ANC-led government would certainly require legitimation through the ballot box.

This suggests something of a strategic puzzle. If the domination of the civil sphere by a single political party is the problem, it may very well be that engagement in the electoral sphere is a necessary—though by no means sufficient—way out of that domination.

The persistence of this party paradox is not only a phenomenon that bedevils mobilization in urban informal settlements. Zuma’s rule was characterized by a creeping and ever more brazen capture of state agencies for private gain, justified by a thin ideological veneer of “radical economic transformation,” or RET. Those within the ANC who flocked to this banner had little to do or say about actual economic policy, but the RET banner united a wide array of actors under an increasingly transparent scheme of kickbacks, bribes, and nepotism.

A series of professional-class civil society campaigns emerged to challenge what became commonly known as “state capture” by Zuma and his allies. A network of business leaders, academics, and nongovernmental organizations joined together in this effort, most notably in the 2016 Save South Africa (Save SA) campaign, which included a few notable ANC parliamentarians and former ministers. This campaign was strikingly nonpartisan, framing itself as a loyal opposition that called for the resignation of Zuma and, implicitly, the internal renewal of the ANC.

The decision to stay out of the electoral arena certainly had a strategic basis: it cast a broad, inclusive umbrella for activists to join. But as soon as it became clear that Zuma’s preferred candidate to succeed him as leader of the ANC would fail to do so at the party’s elective conference in 2017, the Save SA campaign lost all organizational momentum. The winner, trade unionist-turned-business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa, has now presided over persistent economic malaise, and not a single person implicated in the endless “state capture” commissions and investigations has been convicted and gone to jail. In March, the most conservative estimate of unemployment in the country reached 35%, marking South Africa’s labor market as one of the most unequal in the world.

All of this underscores one of the key lessons in Paret’s critical study of South African politics. Namely, that despite the strong forces—largely from within the ANC—that have sought to tamp down on grassroots urban mobilization calling for further inclusion in the country’s postapartheid order, the country’s informal settlements hold the greatest potential for producing egalitarian change. Where professional civil society has largely eschewed the electoral arena for the obvious reason that it has no grassroots base, mobilization in informal settlements has avoided the electoral arena because it faces a significant constraint in the form of the ANC.

Paret’s book underscores just how structurally demobilizing this relationship between the ANC and contemporary grassroots mobilization in South Africa’s cities has become. He concludes by avoiding prognostications for the future. An article he published in Sociology of Development the month after his book’s release is deeply skeptical of electoral engagement under current conditions in South Africa.

But I read this book as providing distinctly strategic insights about what it may mean to do precisely what Paret warns against. To the extent that Fragmented Militancy illuminates a path toward a more egalitarian future, I would suggest that his findings point precisely to the strategic desirability of building an electoral alternative rooted in the country’s urban informal settlements. This would certainly require a decisive break with the ANC at the ballot box. On this point, I am in full agreement with Paret. It may also mean a break with the logic by which professional civil society has turned its back, largely by choice, on the electoral sphere. By contrast, Fragmented Militancy shows how grassroots civil society has been forced, often for lack of choice, out of it. A large survey-based study by Paret’s colleagues at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change shows that poor evaluation of service outcomes drove significant abstention by urban informal settlement residents in the 2021 municipal election.

The struggle against apartheid was rooted in an abiding faith in both the perpetual bottom-up democracy of social movements and the capacity of state institutions to deliver the structural inclusionary change that those movements demand. Paret makes a convincing case that despite their internal democratic organizing capacities, urban movements today are prevented from building large-scale alliances because of political domination by the ANC. Only by achieving scale can the fragmented mobilizations of today turn that organizing capacity into political power that can authorize meaningful redistribution through state institutions. The struggle for organizing such counterpower at a scale as large as even a single city in South Africa’s urban shacklands will require a toehold simultaneously within electoral politics and outside of the ANC.

Further Reading