“Our politics starts from the places we have taken”

Reading a piece by Peter Hallward, I ran across this piece of wisdom, from S’bu Zikode, Chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement:

Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don’t have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly. We do not allow the state to keep us quiet in the name of a future revolution that does not come. We do not allow the NGOs to keep us quiet in the name of a future socialism that they can’t build. We take our place as people who count the same as everyone else. Sometimes we take that place in the streets with teargas and the rubber bullets. Sometimes we take that place in the courts. Sometimes we take it on the radio. Tonight we take it here. Our politics starts from the places we have taken. We call it a living politics because it comes from the people and stays with the people. It is ours and it is part of our lives. We organize it in our own languages and in our own communities. It is the politics of our lives. It is made at home with what we have and it is made for us and by us.

There are certainly echoes of Ranciere’s “part of those who have no part” here, when Zikode says that “we take our place as people who count the same as everyone else.”  But I was also quite struck by the resonance with the right to the city, by his insistence that “our politics starts from the places we have taken” and “we have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground.”  He does not set out a future goal of occupying and controlling space in the city, but starts from the spaces we have already taken, the large and growing part of the city that people already control and have defended.  Here, perhaps, is a way to approach the political  potential of informal settlements, not by holding them up as an ideal example of self-managed urbanism, but by finding in them the already existing power (in the sense of popular potential–potentia, puissance) and the already occupied ground, and beginning there, with this power and on this ground.  There is where it might be possible to begin a politics, an activation, a struggle for democracy.  Or rather, to continue, augment, and spread the struggle that is already underway.   

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