The existing order of things

As the South African ruling class wages a protracted war against the poor and working class, it grows comfortable with the idea that people have more or less accepted the status quo.

Khayelitsha. Image credit Michiel Van Balen via Flickr CC.

Last week, South Africans were up in arms after a video surfaced depicting a black man, Bulelani Qholani, being violently evicted from his shack by four law enforcement officers in Khayelitsha, a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town. What distinguished this moment of evictions from all the rest that South Africans are used to is that Qholani was naked—and what are usually unnoticed acts of ordinary cruelty became a recorded episode of spectacular dehumanization. While the anger stirred is warranted, at times it’s implied in the talk about the indignity suffered by Qholani that the real problem is that he did not have clothes on—almost as if to say that evictions are fine if they are done humanely.

Cape Town’s police force has become notorious for evictions, clashing recently with black and coloured residents in a poor part of Hout Bay, a wealthy area on the city’s southern edge. And while the four law enforcement officers that assaulted Qholani were suspended after the video went viral, the city of Cape Town has defended the eviction order, claiming that the housing structures constituted an “illegal land invasion.” Never mind that this land belongs to the city of Cape Town itself; this language is not so far off from what we’ve heard before. Not just from the Democratic Alliance (DA) government which governs the Western Cape with an expected indifference to poor black and coloured South Africans (the mayor of Cape Town, also a member of the DA, shamelessly claimed Mr. Qholani’s nakedness was planned so as to embarrass the city), but from the ruling African National Congress which came to power on the hopes that it genuinely cared about the marginalized.

In South Africa, we have historically never been able to think of land as anything but a commodity, a means for facilitating the exploitation of labor (by accommodating and reproducing that labor), or something to be exploited itself (aided by that exploited labor). Any “unproductive” use of land—used as simply a site for a home, or as a site where one could independently produce their own subsistence—had to come to an end. And so, the story of colonialism and apartheid is the story of the dispossession of black people from their land and eviction from their homes. It’s a story that’s remained unchanged in plot, shifting only its storytellers.

If there is one manifestly public exercise of power definitive of the South African condition, past and present, it is that of the eviction. That these scenes of breathtaking cruelty are continuous with familiar ones from the apartheid regime, serve both to give us a ready understanding of the horror involved in materially depriving someone of a home, but also add to the success of the eviction as a technology of power because what it represents is so recognizable that we are predisposed to accepting that it will happen; all that changes is why it happens and whether or not we are willing to accept that.

The legitimacy of evictions in South Africa then becomes strictly a technical matter—whether they are lawful or unlawful, whether those carrying them out act reasonably or not. Once again, what seems to matter is that you have the legal authority to conduct the eviction, and that the eviction happens in a way consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The apartheid regime thrived on this kind of mystification, of obscuring unequal power relations in the guise of an instrumental rationality which makes us concerned with the proper processes of things and not what ends they are serving. But as we now understand, this isn’t exceptional to apartheid, it is how capitalism functions. And contemporary South African capitalism learned from its predecessors an effective regime of exclusion, a means of determining which lives matter and which ones don’t.

The denial of a home and shelter, even ones thrifted together in an act of hasty desperation—is to deny people any sliver of rootedness, any anchor and refuge in their life. It is a denial of citizenship, what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights.” It is to make refugees of the South African poor, moderating slightly from the apartheid regime which once made total foreigners of them. Contrary to the Freedom Charter which declared sixty-five years ago last month that “South Africa Belongs to All Who Live In It,” it doesn’t—but more importantly, it can’t.

The majority of the South African population has to be rendered illegible to the state in order to drive their cheap hyper-exploitation. To successfully deliver social goods to people such as adequate housing, safe and accessible transportation, and decent schooling—where the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the pattern of post-apartheid segregation the most—is to provide the basis from which they can continue to assert their rights and interests. It is to threaten the viability of the South African model of accumulation which depends on a regime of exclusion that literally makes people, basically black people, their lives and their histories easily expendable, at the whim of capital and its changing demands. The worry is not that the masses will get too comfortable and become idle freeloaders, the worry is that the masses will develop their strength. It is to fear that people will realize that democracy should not simply mean getting to choose your leaders, but having the means to exercise real control over your life and its destiny.

The more we ask, the more we plead with the government to do its job (and if they don’t, marching to the courts to compel them to), the more the government gets comfortable with the idea that it has to be asked— that it is doing the people a favor. The South African ruling class has been waging a protracted war against poor South Africans, having grown comfortable with the idea that the poor and working class have more or less accepted the existing order of things. Indeed, how do you fight back without a roof over your head, or without food to eat? As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, with the months ahead of us heralding austerity and the months behind us characterized by evictions, hunger and death, the words of C.L.R James are already proving relevant: “When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.”

Further Reading

Homeless in the city

The periodic evictions of poor families in Nairobi follows in a long tradition in Kenya, dating to colonialism, to keep the city as a space for the elite.