Pervasive elitism blinds us to the bitter land battles in our cities

"No political party offers an emancipatory and democratic urban vision, or serious support for people struggling for urban land." (John McCann)

"No political party offers an emancipatory and democratic urban vision, or serious support for people struggling for urban land." (John McCann)

The mechanics of domination, in their moments of visible drama and in their less obvious everydayness, frequently have a pronounced spatial dimension. Since ancient times the world — first the earth and then the sea — has been divided into territory, often by men trained, equipped and organised to kill. Over the past century the capacity for violence, and therefore to make and hold territory, expanded into the air.

At the outer limits of contemporary forms of domination, territory takes on new forms of malleability. In Palestine access to scattered bits of the surface of the earth does not extend to sovereignty over either the air or beneath the surface.

An Israeli road may run through a tunnel beneath a Palestinian town, and Israel may assert a right to the water gathered in the depths of the earth. The Israeli Defence Force sometimes moves through urban space by blasting a way through the walls of adjacent homes, moving through what had once been understood as solid containers of domestic space, while avoiding the open and public streets.

Territory, from the modern conception of the continent, beginning with the fantasy of Europe and its others, to the nation, is internally divided into ever more finely differentiated spaces. From the satellite we can zoom down into a city, its neighbourhoods and then, perhaps switching to a drone or CCTV cameras, the detail of a prison, a home or seats on a train. Each of these spaces is maintained by its own lines of force in relation to external space, and produces and contains its own internal lines of force.

The production and regulation of space is a key aspect of how a single humanity is divided, in symbolic and material terms, by race, class and gender. It is fundamental to how we separate the sick from the healthy, children from adults and the deserving from the damned. Many of the techniques with which some lives are accorded weight and consequence and others are rendered disposable have a spatial dimension.

Space, from the home to the mall and the country, is always consequent to power, to the dynamic balance of forces. It is never entirely stable and is often contested, overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, from above and from below.

Tonight a young woman may leave her childhood home, and the rule of her father, in Lagos. She may face a perilous journey across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean. If she gets past all the men with guns and makes it into Europe without being captured and held in a migrant detention centre, she may still have to face cops, landlords, bosses, gangsters and fascists.

The drones over the Mediterranean might seem like something out of a dystopian science fiction film, but much of what this woman may face has its roots in the deep structure of modernity. In the modern world the division of the earth and the sea into territory on a planetary scale initially took a religious form that later became raced. The Italian historian Domenico Losurdo shows that liberalism, the founding political ideology of modernity, operated with a fundamental distinction between sacred and profane space. In the realm of the profane, he argues, “the distinction between man and nature does not seem to emerge, or does not play a prominent role”. In the colonial context the question of space cannot be understood in isolation from the question of how the count of the human is made.

In the opening pages of The Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon offers us a vision of the colonial city as a world of “barbed wire entanglements”, “divided into compartments”, “cut in two” and “inhabited by different species”. Race appears as spatialised and space as racialised. There is a similar sense in many contemporary accounts of the lived experience of racism in metropolitan cites such as London or Paris. Early in his letter to his teenage nephew, first published in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” In her autobiography Angela Davis begins her account of her childhood by observing: “The big white house on top of the hill was not far from our old neighbourhood, but the distance could not be measured in blocks.”

The city has always been a site of popular insurrection as well as containment. The Paris Commune of 1871, a decisive event in the development of the political aspirations of modern communism, had a clear urban dimension. The rent strikes in Glasgow in 1915 are often understood as a significant event in the development of social democratic aspirations in Britain. Women took leading roles in both events. In 1961 Fanon described the urban land occupation in “the forbidden quarters”, the space allocated for the exclusive habitation of the settlers, as “the gangrene ever present at the heart of colonial domination”. Riots in Detroit in 1967, London in 1981, Los Angeles in 1992 and Paris in 2005, and elsewhere, all confronted racist policing. Today, most of humanity lives in cities and what Anna Selmeczi, writing about contemporary South Africa, has called “the lethal segmentation of the urban order” is a planetary phenomenon, always classed and frequently inflected or mediated by race, caste and citizenship. From London to Cape Town people face a far greater risk of, say, fire and violence in certain spaces than in others.

The United States military plans to fight the wars of the future in what it calls the “feral cities” of the Global South. In countries such as Haiti, Bolivia and Venezuela, the popular mobilisations that brought down three governments in the name of the people between 1991 and 2006 were rooted, to a significant extent, in the urban land occupation. The road blockade has become to the urban land occupation what the strike has long been to the factory.

In South Africa most people live in cities and cities have become a site of intense conflict between the impoverished and the state. The state often engages people in a manner that draws more from colonial counterinsurgency than any kind of democratic aspiration. In 2013 the municipality sent armed men out to effect electricity disconnections in the New Germany settlement in Reservoir Hills, Durban. Two people were killed and seven injured during the operation. This was a non-event in our national political life. Mayor Herman Mashaba, borrowing directly from the language that George Bush used during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, has called for “shock and awe” tactics to drive impoverished black people out of central Johannesburg.

The escalating conflict in our cities is not reducible to contestation over the allocation of urban land but there is no doubt that the urban land question is central to growing popular protest and disobedience, as well as worsening repression. That repression has long included arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture and murder by the police. It is now often supplemented by violence, sometimes fatal, organised through private security firms, armed municipal employees and criminal networks. The assassination of activists involved in land occupations, present in Durban since 2013, has spread to Cape Town.

The ANC has not only failed to address the urban question. It has also allowed itself to become enmeshed with forms of accumulation, through both the market and the state, that are at the direct expense of the interests of impoverished people. As a result, its own interests are often directly opposed to those of many of the people in whose name it claims authority. But no political party offers an emancipatory and democratic urban vision, or serious and sustained support for people struggling for urban land. The return to a critical discourse about land often continues to imagine the land question as an exclusively or largely rural question.

Many of the significant popular mobilisations in our past were fundamentally concerned with the urban question, and often, in particular, with urban land. That is true, for instance, of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union in Durban in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Sofasonke movement in Johannesburg in the 1940s and the contestation over urban land in Cape Town in the 1980s, most famously in Crossroads. Historical struggles and cultural innovation in places like District Six in Cape Town, Sophiatown in Johannesburg and Cato Manor in Durban have become iconic. But these memories of a counterurbanism are usually placed firmly in the past. People struggling to occupy or hold urban land today, sometimes in face of a real risk of death, are often treated as criminal, bit part actors in some or other imagined conspiracy or little more than a traffic issue.

It is the pervasive elitism of much of our political contestation that prevents us from taking these strivings and struggles seriously.

Richard Pithouse is a senior researcher at Rhodes University, and a visiting researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research 

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