Book review: ‘Amakomiti’ tackles the role of self-governance

 In his new book Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements, the academic and social activist Trevor Ngwane coins the concept of “democracy on the margins” to explain the work of grassroots organisations in informal settlements.

The researcher traverses four provinces. In each informal settlement he finds a unique combination of the old-style committees and the newer ones. 

However the field research finds that the traditional type of civic organisation is in demise. This is as a result of the formation of a monolithic civic association in the early 1990s at the behest of the newly unbanned ANC. The new formation is christened the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) and subsumes the “old” civic formations under its wing as branches.

The new dispensation quickly moves to create new committees to accommodate new realities. But then these committees come with an expectation of remuneration and other incentives, such as access to information on development programmes, which breeds a new type of cadre not necessarily moulded in the ilk of the struggle years.

In instances such as Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape, the activists in this area occupy multiple offices in service of the area with ward councillors sometimes supervising the operations and human resource allocation.

In Thembelihle, south of Johannesburg, the local committee is diametrically opposed to the local ANC committee. The Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) is born out of the crisis of relocation to a new place called Lehae after the community was informed they built on dolomitic ground.  At Thembelihle it takes bouts of running battles between activists and the Red Ants (a squad deployed to evict so-called defaulters) and several arrests of the leaders to bring the provincial government to agree to the demarcation of the settlement as a housing settlement. 

Despite antagonistic relations in some areas one cannot generalise the nature of amakomiti. In some instances there is an ambivalent relationship with government structures where the community is “invited” to participate as opposed to it “inventing” its own platforms and programmes. 

Nkaneng in the North West uses types of committees known as iinkundla (clan committees) in the platinum mining belt. In 2014 they played a vital role in brokering a deal that saw the victory of the independent candidate. Since, the iinkundla has expanded its scope of operation to include dispute resolution and community development. The committees are demarcated along the lines of clan allegiances back home.

Although Ngwane zooms in on three informal settlements he links them to the general struggles of the working class in South Africa and the world. For him it boils down to the concept of “democracy on the margins” for these areas. He explains the concept as “distinct from the dominant democratic state form” – a form of “experiment in democratic grassroots self-governance”.

This form of democracy was prominent during the turbulent 1980s, when the trade union movement was on the ascendance and there was an intersection of national liberation goals by the participants. The writer also traces the form of self-governance to the shack movement of Sofasonke Mpanza in Orlando East in Soweto. The resilience of Mpanza’s followers spawned a new township despite the authorities’ initial reluctance and suppression.

One good thing about Ngwane’s latest offering is that it broaches a subject seldom put at the centre stage – the plight of the shack dwellers. No doubt other researchers before him have attempted to explain the phenomenon but his is a different angle on ways the downtrodden organise themselves creatively against capitalist encroachments on their livelihoods. 

Where the book deploys storytelling elements the narrative works better. For instance, the first chapter follows the story of Fundis Mhlongo, a “one-man committee of Ekupholeni” in Durban. We follow his escapades to the point of land occupation. 

But this method is dropped towards the middle of the book in favour of empirical evidence associated with academia, only to be redeemed near the end in the chapter “Thembelihle Settlement: A vision of Hope.” The preface also works well in contextualising the inciting question: “Can people who live in shanty towns and favelas teach us anything about democracy?” Ngwane’s answer is in the affirmative.

Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements is published by Jacana Media

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