Title: Dismantling Homes, Dismantling Apartheid: The Politics and Practice of Squatting in Cape Town
Name: Anne-Maria Makhulu
Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts
Year: 2000
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

The story of African independence is well known. By contrast, South African liberation—fairly recently achieved and under conditions quite different from those that shaped anti-colonial struggle in the '50s and '60s—frames a set of questions about political transformation from the perspective of generally ignored people and places. As such, the dissertation project is concerned to refine the definition of what constitutes "politics," addressing populist struggle in South Africa in order to understand the contemporary postcolonial moment and the new stakes against which older notions of moral vindication for apartheid wrongs are now being measured. This is at once an historical problem and a problem of historical narration. For as the past is recuperated and revised, the "how" and "why" of the country’s victory over repression emerges as a mostly unambiguous tale of the contest between pro- and anti-regime forces. Against such predictable simplifications the dissertation project explores a series of much disputed oppositions between "youth" and "elder," "rural" and "urban," cultural authenticity and invented tradition, that together came to fashion the complex social field in which anti-apartheid struggle was ultimately resolved.

Beginning in Cape Town's shantytowns, the dissertation proposes a re-reading of the historical record for the past quarter century. Concentrating less on the activities of formal political organizations such as the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front, the thesis places the squatter struggles in Crossroads and other shack areas at the center of South Africa's unfolding drama of liberation. These battles turned not only on the politics of scarce resources, but also on the production of symbolic values which eventually served to destabilize the urban social order.

If "apartheid" opens the dissertation, "neoliberalism" emerges as a critical counterpoint in explaining political reform and its limits. Early nation-building efforts in the post ’94 period—public housing, land reform, electrification and potable water schemes—quickly ceded to policies of economic liberalization and the collapse of the social reform agenda. And as the focus shifted from concerns with the public good to self-interest and privatization, ordinary South Africans would withdraw from the forms of popular protest that had characterized the struggle years, instead consulting with diviners, healers and witchdoctors as if the hardships that democracy introduced were a matter of spiritual rather than material privation.

Perhaps the dissertation leaves one major question partially unanswered: "To what degree has South Africa been transformed by democratization and to what degree has it had to confront the limits of change?" To be sure, the collapse of apartheid and the move to embrace democracy remain nothing short of dramatic. Yet beyond the rhetoric of "radical discontinuity" with the past, how different is the "new" South Africa? To what degree has everything changed and nothing changed (Marks 1998:17)? And if social inequality, violence, under-development and racial exclusion remain what does democratic citizenship signify for South Africa’s black majority?

Bibliography: Makhulu, Anne-Maria. 2004. “Poetic Justice: Xhosa Idioms and Moral Breach in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” in Producing African Futures: Ritual and Politics in a Neoliberal Age. Brad Weiss, ed. Leiden: Brill Press.