- Interview by
- Dupe Oyebolu
For more than a decade, Axolile Notywala has worked alongside fellow organizers and activists in Khayelitsha, Cape Town to tackle infrastructure failures facing Black communities living in that township and its adjacent informal settlements. These failures grow out of the legacy of apartheid that deprived Black people and other communities of color of public infrastructure.
The promise of transformation that came with the fall of apartheid and the 1994 emergence of a full franchise for all South Africans have fallen short. Today, millions of South Africans are navigating worsening economic circumstances. Across the country, we are witnessing growing political disaffection. And in the vacuum of transformational leadership left by the contemporary political class, xenophobic talking points are emerging as a rallying call for various political parties.
Cape Town’s ongoing challenges are emblematic of the rest of South Africa. Notably, communities remain fractured—the outcome of the apartheid legacy that forced communities of color to live apart from each other, limiting their capacity to build power together. Notywala believes that transformation requires a movement that transcends these divides and builds solidarity across communities, and from the ground up. Drawing on his previous experience, he is working to build the Movement for Collective Action and Racial Equity (Movement for CARE), which particularly seeks to bridge the long-standing divide between Black communities and Coloured (largely multiracial) communities. As Notywala observes in the Q&A below, given that these communities are marginalized in similar ways, they stand to gain political ground when in solidarity. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Can you give us a brief account of the political organizing currently happening in Cape Town?
A lot of organizing over the last few years has focused on spatial segregation, which is a legacy of apartheid. Under apartheid, the darker the color of your skin, the more you were pushed outside of the main central business district and city centers.
So as a Black African—again that’s an apartheid label in itself—I live in Khayelitsha which is about 30 kilometers away from the city center. The people who live around the city center and in the suburbs of Cape Town are predominantly white and, in the middle, you have mostly Coloured communities. As a result, a lot of political organizing has been around trying to get people back into the city center because that’s where the best public services are. And those services range from basic services to schools, roads, and public transport.
You already started to reflect on the historical context of Black and Coloured communities under apartheid spatial segregation; can you briefly offer a little more context on the dynamics between these communities?
This is something that I’m also trying to better understand in my work. But its roots are in apartheid legislation, in particular the Group Areas Act, which divided people based on their skin color. Under the Act, Black African people would be segregated in different parts of the city. Coloured people in different parts. Indian people in different parts. And white people in different parts. This was the divide-and-conquer strategy of the apartheid regime. The aim was to make sure that all these non-white groupings did not mix, otherwise, they might become the majority and have more power.
This divide-and-conquer strategy meant moving people away from each other. If you were to look at the geography of Cape Town, you’d see that it’s separated by railways or national roads, which make it difficult for people to cross neighborhoods. The further away you are from the central business district or the city center, the harder it is to go to the next neighborhood. Two colleagues call Cape Town “the city of islands” in their book, to indicate just how separated communities are.
This spatial geography, in terms of who lives where, has predominantly remained the same post-1994—more specifically between Coloured and Black African people.
Most of the organizations working in these communities tend to focus on Black African communities, with very little intentional organizing in Coloured communities. There are a couple of specific challenges that have made this historically difficult. For instance, there are language differences between communities. My mother tongue is Xhosa, while most Coloured people speak Afrikaans. There has also been some rhetoric that the ANC favors Black African people because it is comprised of mostly Black African leaders, though, in reality, they just treat everyone badly.
During apartheid, people were ranked—white people, then Indian people then Coloured people, and then Black African people—and so there’s still that notion that Coloured people are seen as better than Black African people. For many people, it’s just a lack of understanding of the history of how these ideas came about.
In our movement work, we’re trying to bring in the ideas of the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko, which refers to all these non-white people as Black people, thereby doing away with these apartheid connotations.
Could you briefly describe how you came to this work?
When I began my Fellowship year in AFRE, I started to reflect on some of the challenges of movement building. I’d considered these issues before, but my time at AFRE allowed me to dig a bit more into concerns of race, white supremacy and anti-Black racism. Having to engage with the dynamics in South Africa and to hear comrades in the US was also important. I specifically remember hearing a US peer’s story of being referred to as a Coloured person in South Africa, and being confused by that because he refers to himself as Black. I think that type of story sparked something on top of reflections that I’d been thinking about.
Prior to that, I started in political organizing and activism, without having really studied politics. And so I participated in this politics and in my activism understanding and dealing with many issues that have that had to do with race and racism, structural and systemic racism and discrimination. But I think because I’d never been part of any political studying—I studied politics through the work—I never had a chance to intentionally dig deep into issues of racial inequality and white supremacy even though my work dealt with those things. Through my involvement in AFRE, I got to think more about those issues alongside the issue of solidarity between communities. It made me want to actually do more work to build solidarity between these two communities who are essentially marginalized in very similar ways, if not the same ways.
What challenges have you been facing as you’ve gone about this work?
One of the difficulties is the fact that many of those involved are also working in different spaces so it’s always difficult for people to commit time to this work. It has also been difficult, even for myself, to start a movement and build it from scratch, while also trying to have full-time work on the side.
This gets into this other challenge of funding and funding movements in the context of South Africa. I’m still trying to have more engagements around how donors and funders understand movement building, because sometimes there’s different treatment of movements versus NGOs, even though there can be blurred lines between those two types of organizations. These professionalized NGOs are able to more easily secure funding than movements, especially when movements start.
The next challenge has been how to actually build this conversation with some of the Coloured comrades. Hopefully, in the next few months, this is something that we’ll be able to do. There are some we’ve been able to bring into the movement, but I think because of the depth of the divide, it’s going to take a whole lot more. And even though there are quite a lot of urgent issues around housing, police brutality, and illegal evictions that people in the movement want to organize around, we need to start the movement-building process from the beginning in terms of political education. In order for us to try and build solidarity and bridge these divides, there’s an unlearning process in terms of how we understand the politics of this city and of these divisions.
Given all that’s happening in the country, and these challenges, where does your hope lie, for the years ahead?
When we started the movement-building process last year, it was partly geared around political power, people taking space and taking power in the political arena. For context, many people in the spaces that my comrades and I have organized are essentially fed up with mainstream politics and mainstream political parties, the ANC, the EFF, the DA, all of them.
And as someone who has organized for the last 12 years or so, I recognise that a big challenge is not having anyone on the inside, within government or within politics, who is able to take up some of the policy positions we’ve developed. As a result, my comrades and I have been thinking around the concept of radical municipalism, which essentially deals with the question of, “how do we bring politics back to the people, especially at the local level?”
Based on this, one of our goals was to see how to support people outside of these mainstream political parties in taking up power.
What gives me hope is that many people were engaged when we brought these ideas to them before the elections last year, even though we didn’t have much time. People saw this as a viable political alternative, as political hope where people have long felt hopeless. Seeing people self-organize into community action networks during strict lockdown levels during the pandemic brought another hope. Most of these community action networks were geared towards these politics that we are trying to work toward, the politics of care, where they provided humanitarian support for people who didn’t have food or didn’t have resources.
For me, these instances indicate that there is an appetite among people to organize and to be organized; there just needs to be an umbrella body able to bring people together. And I feel like the movement and the ideas around the Movement for CARE offer exactly that.
Any final reflections?
Given the degree of segregation in Cape Town, many people are still questioning whether we have freedom. People will tell you that we have democracy, but we aren’t free as yet, because we aren’t able to move or live in different spaces of the city. Because of how the infrastructure in Cape Town is, there still isn’t freedom for people to be in solidarity with each other. And this is 28 years after democracy.
Because part of the movement-building process is to create those spaces of conversation, I’d like to bring together different people from different backgrounds around conversations on this idea of what it means to be free in Cape Town, in South Africa.