Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cities of Migration and Contradictions by Gcobani Qambela

Michael Keith's lecture in session at the BAT Center, Durban, South Africa

The past week travelling by the “Thought Bus” through Johannesburg, Swaziland, Durban and now the Eastern Cape has been incredibly enriching not only in terms of the scenic drives and views, but also the intellectual stimulation. Yet, it was hard to not notice the contradictions of these cities, starting with Johannesburg, ‘the city of gold,’ where only a few actually benefit from its riches. But then there is also Swaziland where some people feel censored by the government and Durban where poverty, deprivation and opulence often stand side by side.
Yet, despite many challenges that cities often face, for many people the city still represents some hope particularly in offering economic opportunity and ‘work’. It is in this fashion that Micheal Keith delivered his talk on the theme of ‘The Right to Have Rights in Cities of Migration’. The talk focused on five main themes:
1.     Austerity politics and historicisation of neoliberalism,
2.     City rights and property rights,
3.     The city commons, Insurgent informality and institutional forms,
4.     And, new forms of urban participation.
Keith notes that his works emerges our of a dissatisfaction with the ways in which race and class are looked at particularly as it relates to the right to the city. He is interested in looking at the ways in which “the empire strikes back” and particularly inspired by Raj Patel's work on shack dwellers (anti)evictions movements and other studies that illuminates the circuit of realizing the right to the city.

For Keith, it is important to ask: ‘who is displaced in the city?’ and ‘who belongs?’ To address this question, we need to take into account the tensions between the political economy and theory. He says in order to understand the neoliberal processes that result in so many people being excluded from the city, we need to understand neoliberalism (‘the beast’) as well as understand its genealogy.

I found Keith's idea that urban spaces should accommodate future planets particularly striking. It reminded of the old proverb:“We do not inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children”. As Keith noted, the city (and planet I would argue) belongs not only to people who are alive now, but also those who will constitute the city in the future which will include those that are dislocated economically by surplus.

I was also taken by Keith’s idea of the ‘arrival’ (into the city), temporarility and the disorientating effect that this has on the (im)possibility of being able to dwell in the city. We need to ask and think about “where the neoliberal movement comes from” and the relationship between power, people and property for it is here that institutional rights play against race and class.

Yet, while in many ways illuminating, it was disappointing that the presentation was UK/East London focused for the most part especially since it was taking place in South Africa. South Africa is somewhat peculiar when it comes to land and property issue because the land (along with the economy) is owned by a white minority although the bill of rights in South Africa stipulates that everyone should have access to property, land and economic participation. This shows the limitations of legal rights without sufficient substantive application, that even property rights are not enough if they are not applied and reach people at the ground level.

On our way to Keith’s talk on the ‘Thought Bus,’ we passed a group of about five homeless people who were being removed by police for sleeping on the city center. This is what Keith called ‘the economization of everyday life’ and has a lot of implications for what we then understand to be the ‘non-racial’ and what rethinking and reshaping has to be done to get there.

But we also have to think about who will do this rethinking? Will it be an all-inclusive community-wide process or will it be a few policy makers? What will be the (re)gendering of social relations that the new cities will have to do? Ultimately I agree with Keith’s conclusion that we should not let economics continue to override the law. Our future cities will be shaped by the decisions we take now and those will also ultimately dictate which way the non-racialism project goes.

Images by Naadira Patel. 


About the Author: 
Gcobani Qambela is a graduate student in Anthropology at Rhodes University. He currently works on cultural masculinities, HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health.

Follow on Twitter: @GcobaniQambela

Instagram: GcobaniQambela

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