Accepted Paper:

Rethinking the practices of self-organization in South Africa: the self-empowering experience of the 1980s and it's role for the contemporary protest communities  


Daria Zelenova (School of History, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow)
Olga Aksyutina (Institute for African Studies)

Paper short abstract:

Based on ethnographical research conducted in South Africa at various times from 2009 to 2011, the paper analyzes the self-empowering experience of the 1980s and it's role for the political practices of the contemporary protest communities of South Africa.

Paper long abstract:

It's widely known that the 1980s in South Africa was a crucial period in the struggle against apartheid, when mass participation of the people in resistance to the regime had created an unprecedented experience of social and political self-organization. One of the most popular ideas of how to dismantle the apartheid state apparatus was through reclaiming power by the people (known as a popular slogan of that time "amandla - ngawethu!" or "power to the people!"). And it was not just an idea. The struggles waged in the local communities by marginalized segregated population led to establishing alternative organs of people's power: street, block and yard committees, regular meetings and people's courts as well as various socio-economic projects, which were operating outside state's control. Many of these were based on the principles of direct democracy, horizontality and mutual aid. In the situation of deligitimization of the repressive regime, the organs of people's power started displacing police and collaborationist local authorities from townships all over the country.

After the ANC came to power the growth of state violence and a return to repressive measures against those who are considered now as politically dissenting (more then often the marginalized poor people's communities) we can observe the revival of many of those political practices that were widely used in townships as a self-empowering practice and as means of struggle against apartheid regime.

Based on in-depth interviews with participants of grassroots organizations and local committees, township residents and political activists of the 1980s, many of whom are still active now, this paper seeks to analyze self-organization as a process of peoples' self-empowerment in South African townships of the 1980s and its role for the evolution of the contemporary political practices in the protest communities of South Africa. We will analyze the development of direct democracy as a crucial political practice of the 1980s that was implemented through mass meetings, operation of committees and people's courts and consider it's evolution in the contemporary context.

We would like to reflect upon the following questions: How the conception of "amandla - ngawethu" that was so important for the people in South African townships in the 80s is being re-imagined and reinvented in the contemporary protest communities in South Africa? Is the horizontal self-governing as a form of self-organization still so essential for them?

Panel W121
Inspiring alter-politics: anthropology and critical political thinking (EN-FR)