Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Of cities of cash and gold

Arjun Appadurai presenting at JWTC

In the first public lecture of the 2010 edition of the JWTC, entitled “Slum Cosmopolitanism: The Cultural Tactics of Mumbai’s Urban Poor,” Arjun Appadurai gave us a taste of how one can fly from elevated discussions on Weberian thought, down to the vernacular; a move without which any enterprise aimed at theorising can prove not only vain but also irrelevant. And this is a point worth underlying since this capacity is not that frequent among thinkers. What Appadurai precisely presented to us by putting forth the background, components and experience of “slum cosmopolitanism,” is a critique of the most frequently elitist definitions of cosmopolitanism.

One first comment that comes to my mind relates to the very attempt of the JWTC to “theorize from the South.” Because the workshop is meant to be an experiment, this endeavour will be further discussed in the coming days. The South is here thought mainly in opposition to the North as the still dominant provider of theory. It is also approached, to follow Jean and John Comaroff’s remark, from a “technical” point of view, as a place where experiments are conducted before being (re)exported to the North. Last but not least, the South, which is sometimes labelled “global,” remains an unstable notion, a multifarious space and time with many connections to its Northern counterpart. One way to further nuance this opposition is therefore to wonder if we are not actually trying to theorize from the Northern part of the South, and to stress that one would probably struggle to do so from the Southern part of the North. By this I suggest that Wits may not be representative of Southern based institutions of higher education and that it is probably a more privileged place to think from than many universities in Europe could be. One can also wonder whether institutions such as let’s say the American universities of Beirut and Cairo are better described as Northern or as Southern institutions. Yet what Arjun Appadurai showed us tonight is that it is crucial to think one south from another south.

Slums, most commonly called townships in South Africa, remain here a still too familiar life experience. They are defining spaces that challenge politically asserted certainties such as democracy by showing that if “one man, one vote” can constitute a beginning it is far from being a finite achievement. They are places that politicians are now fearful to visit since the reassertion of their commitment to change does no longer guarantee them a quiet visit. But they are also places where leaders as much as shack dwellers counterparts are drawn, just like in Mumbai, into the microcosmopolitanism that encompasses the hopes, strategies and needs of the urban poor.

Arjun Appadurai led us to a visit in the streets of Mumbai’s Nagpada slum, in a city he once described as the “city of cash.” He did so speaking with his guts just like an Edward Said would leave literature for a moment to speak against the occupation of Palestine, before eventually turning back to theorisation on the basis of his sympathy in the literal meaning of the term. Mumbai and Nagpada are the setting for the mobilisation of the Alliance, a federation that gathers three movements, namely SPARC (Society for the Protection of Area Resource Centres), Mahila Milan (Union of Women), and the NSDF (National Slum Dwellers Federation). According to Appadurai, they can be characterised as groupings of the “progressively organised urban poor” that developed a capacity to debate and negotiate in a cosmopolitan space, hence participating in the deepening of democracy.

In South Africa, such mobilisations, which are connected to India’s through the Slum/ Shack Dwellers International (SDI), are visible in groups such as, for instance, the South African Shackdwellers’ Movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, or the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, some of which are also part of the umbrella organisation known as the Anti-Privatisation Forum. They’ve been engaging government and the ANC over the years by demanding the provision of basic rights and services such as housing, electricity and water. To extend Appadurai’s argument to South Africa and though it also differs from the Indian context, one can question the meaning of “cosmopolitanism from below” in relation to recent waves of xenophobic violence that have been targeting mainly non South African residents of the townships.

They are one challenge among others to South Africa’s unique project of establishing a non racial society. But they also express the will of some actors, led by political or economic agendas, to play against slum cosmopolitanism rather than to resort to it in order to achieve their goals. Such enterprises are not without recalling the 1990s ethnically based violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party and they are not disconnected either, to echo Jean and John Comaroff, from ethno capital or business. By this I mean that gangs and criminal organisations are involved in xenophobia but also that political actors who are supposed to be rooted in the principles of the Freedom Charter are failing to take responsibility. In this last regard, the recent call by the South African Communist Party to consider xenophobia as nothing less than crime, hence calling for police and legal repression on xenophobic criminals, is interesting but does not constitute a comprehensive solution.

To such an extent and because the roots of racism and xenophobia (the two being interestingly distinguished by many in the South African case) are social, economic and political rather than otherwise, they are also a call to take seriously the “injunction” to local cosmopolitanism, which has too often been attacked or unprotected by the state, rather than that to comply with monolithic definitions of the self. This need for township resident organisations to be considered as full fledged interlocutors by state institutions, as well as by the ANC or the trade unions -many of whom still tend to view them as competitors rather than as partners- finally means that former leaders of the struggle are also entitled to renew their “capacity to aspire” if they want to succeed.

Raphaƫl Botiveau
University Paris 1 & French Institute of South Africa