Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements

Trevor Ngwane, Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2021)

HAVING visited 46 informal settlements to discover that three quarters have popular committees, and just one no committee at all, Trevor Ngwane unsurprisingly concludes that generalisation is not possible. Most of these communities also have a range of other representative bodies such as statutory ward committees, political party branches, community and policing forums, headmen committees, or ad hoc and often disruptive pressure groups. From his survey, Ngwane calculated that 70% of communities had no (official) electricity supply, 40% no toilets and 65% nothing more than communal taps. While this indicates a common plight ‒ lack of service provision ‒ each community has its own distinctive character and dynamics.

Self-organisation is not new and was noted in the Eastern Cape in the early twentieth century, although the most famous pioneer is the Sofasonke movement of the 1940s in Johannesburg. Street committees and civics flourished during the final years of apartheid. Many informal settlements have emerged from land invasions of various degrees of spontaneity and planning; out of which committees developed as people took responsibility for their own destinies. Ngwane links this to the organic capacity of the working class in the tradition of Gramsci; and characterises it as ‘democracy on the margins’.

The narrative is enhanced by three interesting case studies. At Duncan Village (East London), a long struggle history included encouragement of shack dwellers in the 1980s as a means to undermine apartheid urban planning. But Ngwane notes the ‘fatal embrace’ and ‘near total hegemony’ of the ANC with the local councillor wearing many hats and controlling stipends and access to jobs. This is, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, described as participatory democracy from above. But Ngwane detects within this monopoly potential for grassroots activism.

At Nkaneng in the Rustenburg platinum belt competing committees generate tension and even violence. One of the ingredients is the iinkundla system of Pondoland, imported village by village to the North West, with particular relevance to crime fighting and dispute resolution. It is seen as traditional and backward by those with a more urban outlook, although in the spirit of migrant workers it has adapted to new circumstances and is notably pragmatic and resilient. Alongside it are ward committees that concentrate on service provision. But this is a politically highly volatile area, especially since the Marikana massacre.

The experience of the ANC at Thembelihle (place of hope) near Lenasia has been the polar opposite of Duncan Village. Party branch and ward committees lost credibility as a result of relocation policy and corruption over housing allocation. The Thembelihle Crisis Committee (i-Crisis) with socialist leanings and an anti-xenophobic stance under charismatic leadership challenged Red Ants security personnel and expelled the ANC. This was a case of social movement success in which state recognition was eventually forced.

Faced with state neglect and precarious employment, if any, victims become fighters. Marginal land (often as Ngwane notes, next to areas formerly designated Indian) is central and the site for a transformation in outlook from landless to aspirational property owner. The struggle for survival is reinforced by a tendency to self-governance.

True amakomiti, while varying in sophistication, are independent of both state and political parties and answerable to entire communities. They function on the basis of trust, which is sometimes betrayed. But Ngwane sees them as zones liberated by the marginalised that bring collective action and participatory democracy back into the South African equation. Pointedly, he comments that there lies a lesson for the beleaguered labour unions.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page,From the Thornveld