Land evictions and the real power of City rulers

Laurence PiperLaurence Piper is a Political Scientist at the University of the Western Cape interested in urban governance, democracy, and informality in South Africa and comparatively. His latest book is Democracy Disconnected:Participation and Governance in a City of the South, Routledge, 2019, with Dr Fiona Anciano. He is a past President of the South African Association of Political Studies (SAAPS) 2016-8, and a founding member of the Association for Political Theory in Africa (APTA).


The current spate of housing evictions in Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini seems especially malicious, not only because it is winter, but because of the assurance by national government that no evictions would happen in South Africa during the Covid-19 lockdown. City authorities argue that these are not evictions but rather efforts to stop land invasions initiated during the lockdown – a position that national government has endorsed. Whatever one thinks of this defence, it is cold comfort to those like Bulelani Qholani, yanked naked out of his home and left without shelter in the Cape winter rains.

Nevertheless, there is a point to the state’s case. Local government is much more concerned about the loss of land than illegal housing, and these evictions offer an important insight into the kinds of power at the heart of city rule in South Africa and beyond.

As argued in the recent book, Democracy Disconnected, city rule does not work like national government because city authorities are not sovereign over the people and places of the city. Rather they form part of a larger system of government where other spheres directly control key aspects of daily life. When the neighbourhood watch reports a crime to the police, it is engaging with national government. In turn, provincial government is responsible for the hospitals we go to for Covid-19.

It is really only over some basic services such as local roads, refuse collection, and street lighting that municipalities have complete control. Even then, the supply of electricity depends on the national parastatal, Eskom (enough said!). Furthermore, on the issues of greatest importance to most neighbourhoods around the country ­– jobs, crime, health, education and transport – local government is a bit player. The real policy-making power that impact on residents where they live does not lie with City Hall.

At the same time, our everyday democratic institutions such as neighbourhood associations, ward committees, ward councillors, city officials are connected to local government, which is great if the problem is fixing a pothole or refuse collection, but of little use if the issue is more important. Not having ward based politicians in provincial or national government further exacerbates this disconnect. Hence, in this everyday sense, local democracy is disconnected from the ‘power over’ the neighbourhoods in which people live.

But there is more to city rule than the divisions of powers between national, provincial and local government. In the analysis so far we have been thinking of political power as sovereignty in the western tradition – as the highest authority to make decisions over people and places. Following Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber, this conception of ‘power over’ law and policy is closely associated with having a monopoly on coercive capacity. It is the army and the police that ultimately back up the rule of law, and cities have limited powers over most laws and policies, and a small police force if any.

However, there is another way to think about power that is more relevant to municipalities, and that is the idea of power as a productive force – the ‘power to’ make society, and in the case of City rulers, the power to build houses, roads, harbours, airports, factories, communication infrastructure and so on.

This idea of power as productive is well made in many traditions of political thought, and a famous example is Foucault’s distinction in western history between state sovereignty as coercive control over citizens and state biopower as managing populations to enhance their biological wellbeing. If the destruction of shacks illustrates the former, educating people in social distancing and wearing masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 is an example of the latter.

However, in the context of city rule under conditions of democratic capitalism, loosely framed, Clarence Stone offers a more specific and empirically informed account of the centrality of ‘power to’, illustrating that the real challenge of city rule is generating and co-ordinating resources to literally build the city. As Stone argues, in a competitive capitalist system, government does not have all the resources to make the city on its own, and must seek out partnerships with business to build new houses, or malls, or ports, or factories, and so on. Economic policy thus profoundly shapes the distribution or resources among state and non-state actors, creating a massive co-ordination challenge. Consequently, a successful City Hall is one that can create mutually beneficial partnerships with other spheres of state, capital and residents to generate and coordinate the resources to make the city.

And so we return to the issue of evictions. In brief, ownership and control of city land is an important resource, and therefore a key source of productive power for City Hall to ‘steer’ the urban environment. This is especially pronounced across the Global South as high levels of urbanisation mean that cities must grow the built environment to accommodate a burgeoning population. Land is a source of productive power for City rulers in three ways.

First, control of city land also gives cities important influence when it comes to engaging provincial and national government over the building of new schools, hospitals, police stations, power stations and the like. This often takes the form of negotiating the exchange of land or changing land use rights. So important is keeping control of land that the City of Cape Town changed its practice to allow any department to veto the sale of city land, even against the wishes of the executive. This was intended to prevent possible short-term collusion between politicians and their business partners (Helen Zille, interviewed by author 26-09-2017).  

Second, rents in the form of local taxes (rates) are a key source of income for the metropolitan municipalities in South Africa, alongside the sale of services, for example electricity charges. A case in point: the City of Cape Town earns about a quarter of its revenue from electricity sales, and about a fifth from property rates. Third, zoning policy offers municipalities a means of expressing productive power by controlling what various groups can do with land in the city – especially through offering commercial or industrial rights for business. (This may be an important, if informal, source of revenue for political parties too).

These three reasons are why land matters so much to cities. It is an important source of much of their power, now conceived in productive rather than coercive terms. Of course, coercive power remains important – not least to protect City control over land as shown by the recent evictions – because it is the access to productive power enabled by controlling land that matters most in the growing urban South.

In conclusion then, as tempting as it is to blame the evictions in Cape Town on the anti-poor attitude of the DA-led City (and to be fair they have some form here), the fact that it is also happening in ANC-run municipalities reveals a deeper cause. City rulers need land for rental income, to create partnerships with business to attract investment to add value to land and to create jobs, and as a key resource in engaging other spheres of the state in building the city. Only once we understand the importance of land to the power of City Hall, and rethink power in terms of production rather than coercion, can we understand the political will to evict poor people from land in the winter cold and during a pandemic.

South Africa in lockdown: COVID-19 information and its inconsistencies

Candice BaileyCandice Bailey is a Political Studies PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand looking into the Promotion of Access to Information Act and how it enables democracy.


SOUTH AFRICA enters a new phase of its ongoing COVID-19 fight this week, loosening the grip on a variety of regulations introduced in mid-March to try and contain the spread of the deadly virus. The latest stage of the lockdown takes place as South Africa marks more than 30 000 COVID-19 cases and close to 700 deaths. 

Level three means that most of the economy opens up, a large cohort of workers return, previously forbidden goods such as alcohol go on sale and the night-time curfew is lifted. Social distancing is still a must, as is wearing masks in public and so is vigorous handwashing. Staying home as much as possible is still the best course of action and interprovincial travel remains prohibited, with the exception of business travel and those attending funerals of close relatives. 

At this time the government is relying on the public to take collective responsibility for the management of the virus. Providing definitive guidance and information to the citizenry is more important now than ever before. One critical issue is the need for people to understand the severity of this pandemic, how easily it can spread and the fact that even the simple day-to-day tasks we carry out can put us at risk of contracting the virus. 

But the concern here is that the government’s track record over the last 9 to 10 weeks with providing definitive guidance hasn’t been great. This may have disastrous consequences for the South African government which should be seen as the most reliable authority on COVID-19 guidelines. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial address announcing lockdown measures put everyone at ease. The public felt informed and in control. But as the lockdown has progressed, Ramaphosa and members of his cabinet have created scenarios of pandemonium. At certain points there has been clear definitive communication on the lockdown rules. On other occasions the public has been left in pockets of vast uncertainty caused by inconsistent messaging and uncoordinated communication. Sometimes the goalposts have shifted. At other times critical statistical information has been left out when engaging with the public.

Some government officials have made about turns mid-regulation, while other ministers have bordered on an authoritarian approach, threatening the public about regulations. There are countless examples. The to-ing and fro-ing of when exactly public schools would reopen, is a case in point. The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products is another. The actions of some soldiers when implementing enforcement can be added to the list. And a clear explanation on why the Western Cape has higher figures than the rest of the country and why its engaged in a different testing model is another question that has not been convincingly addressed. 

The other worrying trend emerging is the seemingly reluctant stance of Provincial Government officials in the Western Cape to adhere to national decisions, creating confusion. 

Although there are mechanisms that the public could use to comment on regulations, this has also been a clouded issue. It’s still generally unclear how the public can comment on the regulations. Is there a central place where the public can lodge their comments? And what about those in rural areas – with limited access to electronic communication – how do they make sure their voices are heard? 

We are in unchartered territory – and to a certain degree the government must be commended for rolling with the punches and taking definitive action very early on in the pandemic’s cycle. But there are times that they have gotten it very wrong.  The good thing is that they were able to admit when in practice certain regulations were just not workable and they needed to be amended accordingly. The decision not to sell baby clothing in level 5 is a clear example of how one sector of the citizenries needs were completely overlooked.

COVID-19 will be around for a long time and the only way citizens are going to survive it is if they get information they need – and are able to make informed choices about the issues that affect them. 

Renowned Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has published one of the most notable discussions within modern democratic theory on the need for information in democracy. In the time of COVID-19, we need to remember these words and ensure that the information we receive is not only provided consistently, but also that it is reliable and above all accurate. In his seminal work The Idea of Justice, Sen discusses the role that the media plays in society, drawing on the links between the media and public reasoning. He speaks of an informational role the media play in disseminating knowledge, allowing critical scrutiny and facilitating public reasoning. He also emphasizes the importance of “general information” about what is happening where. One of Sen’s poignant illustrations is that of famine. He argues that “famines do not take place in functioning democracies” – and that the media have an important role in this because it points to the protective power of political liberty. Sen says: “When a government is accountable to the public, and when there is free news-reporting and uncensored public criticism, then the government too has an excellent incentive to do its best to eradicate famines.” Sen was speaking about the Bengal famine of 1943 where an estimated 3 million people died. 

The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be compared to the Bengal famine. But it is an unprecedented global health crisis with more than 6 million people infected and more than 370 000 people dead. The estimates are that in South Africa, at least 45 000 people will die from this virus.

There are two important points that Sen makes. Firstly, public dialogue about the calamity can make the fate of the victim a powerful political issue which ultimately has an impact on voting. But it is also able to make people take an interest in the matter through public discussion. The second point concerns the informational role, which provides the public with knowledge. What this suggests is first and foremost that democracy has a role in creating informed citizens, and mechanisms such as freedom of access to information can be used by the media to effect accountability. 

The ruling of the Pretoria High Court this week shows that the judiciary also has a role to play in ensuring the dissemination of clear and precise information. It must do this by admonishing the government when it errs in drafting or enforcing regulations. The court’s  decision to send the government back to the drawing board and focus on drafting level 3 and 4 regulations that are in line with South Africa’s constitution is an indication that its democracy is alive and well. 

If the South African government wants the support of the public, they need to clean up their communication act. South Africans expect them to provide clear precise and well considered communication. And they need to remember that in a democracy you need to subscribe to a brand of governance that is citizen-centred. People need to feel considered and listened to. The public don’t want their concerns to fall on deaf ears. They want to feel like democracy is functioning in the face of the global health crisis. 

The expectation of the electorate as a collective is not that each individual’s preferences and requests be met, but that the needs of the citizens are dutifully engaged and considered when decisions are made. South Africa has a mixed participatory and representative democracy, but  for citizens to truly participate, they need to be well informed. Accurate information gives citizens the ability to effectively live their lives. If the status quo remains and the government fails to adequately share information, our democracy and our freedoms, such as access of information that holds it together, will be on a slippery slope.

Political voice in a changing world

Manjeet RamgotraManjeet Ramgotra teaches political theory in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London. Her research, teaching and writing focus on decolonising political theory and reinterpreting republicanism in both the history of western ideas and twentieth-century anti-colonial thought.


How we use language and participate in politics has transformed democratic notions. Today democracy is understood in terms of diversity and inclusivity. Yet, although executive and legislative institutions are open to a greater diversity of citizen, the institutions through which we conduct our political lives have not been reconceptualized to reflect contemporary social relations between individuals of different cultures, genders and class.

Many have reclaimed their place within political spaces, yet their voices are often muted and marginalized, especially if they challenge the predominant structures. Often diverse voices are either co-opted into the existing system of power or silenced. Moreover, as executive power becomes increasingly centralized, it stifles voices of change in an effort to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, those who question the abusive use of privilege are speaking out. Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements unsettle the locus of power and traditional use of authority. This produces conflict in which the powerful use their position to censor and the less powerful talk back.

This article examines how free speech operates in a changing political environment and calls for a rethinking of the institutions that govern, not simply to make them more inclusive but to redress the activity of politics and representation to better reflect the agency of the many groups of people who comprise our society. It argues that the language of diversity does not adequately challenge institutional structures and sees difference stripped of its racial, gender and cultural specificity. Decolonisation, on the other hand, repudiates the language of diversity and calls for a fundamental shift in power and knowledge structures. This includes dismantling power structures that are symbolized in statues, supported through educational curricula and actualized in gender, racial and social relations. How we see power and its embodiment, how we are formed to know truth and authority and how we relate to each other together construct part of the nexus of power and knowledge to which we are subject.

It is not surprising that these are the points at which many currently challenge the foundations of power. Rhodes Must Fall, broadening the educational curricula to include the female and non-white voices that have often been suppressed by the ‘white male voice’, Black Lives Matter and Me Too are all movements that question and speak out against our current power structures. Moreover, each of these expose various articulations of white male power in the public space, in our ideas, in racial and sexual relations. The call for change is thus structural. It is not just about opening up to and including others but actually calling out oppressive practices, reimagining public spaces so as to not venerate historical figures who supported oppression and reading theoretical ideas of the canon critically, especially when women and people of colour are accorded inferior intellectual and rational capacities so that the ruling classes maintain patriarchal and imperial structures. The point is not to take Aristotle or Kant off the curriculum, but rather to interrogate their ideas, to ask what is knowledge and to learn other sources of knowledge as well.

What is the difference between diversity and decolonising?
These two languages shape how we participate in the public space and how we think of democracy. When we use them, we invoke two understandings of contemporary politics: one that expands yet maintains institutional structures and the other that reclaims political voice and transforms.

Although people who enter politics as a result of diversity and inclusion may want to change structures, they can be co-opted into existing structures. Their voice and agency become shaped by structures or silenced. Often they are excluded through techniques that ridicule, consider as lightweight and don’t take seriously. For instance, Diane Abbott a long-standing and successful British MP is constantly ridiculed in the press and abused on social media. Their diversity gets muted and does not effect any real change.

This process reflects the view that the offices and institutions of politics construct power to keep it from becoming corrupt and abusive. The offices remain over time, whereas office-holders don’t. Hence politicians are shaped by the office. Their interests and personalities are meant to be held in check by the structures of power. Political office and institutions mirror a certain type of power and authority embodied in the ideal type citizen who tends to be the white propertied man. Such power controls and dominates change to maintain stability as well as privilege. The process of adapting to the institutional environment reflects the need to be part of a system to advance personal ambition and self-interest. In this system, individuals are rational, calculated and compete against each other, rather than work together in solidarity (Collins, 1994, p.93). This can lead to corruption and neglect of the public interest, whatever that may be at this time of uncertainty as we question our collective values.

The language of diversity shapes the ‘liberal face’ of democracy and inclusion. The language of decolonisation, in contrast, presents a more radical politics of democratisation that gives marginal voices the capacity to change the direction of politics through the recognition of their positionality and epistemic outlooks.

Rather than imposing a liberal universalist model to which one must conform, a decolonised politics would listen to difference and recognize the various needs. As such it would create the space for different voices to speak and be heard without necessarily conforming to a particular model of power. There is an anarchist element to the decolonising project, but at the same time the idea is to evaluate power structures in order to reconstruct them to be more fair and open. In part, decolonising occurs through the recognition that these institutional structures are predicated on a particular masculinist embodiment and understanding of power, that is both patriarchal and imperialist.

These ideas of power are deeply rooted in western thinking and were reiterated in the Renaissance. Power was conceptualized in terms of virtue which derived from the Latin ‘vir’ emphasized manliness, the capacity to rule and (to a lesser extent) be ruled. Machiavelli reconceptualized it as ‘virtù’ and promoted the virile, virtuous and authoritative prince who possessed the rational, strategic and physical capacities to dominate over irrational, unpredictable and constantly changing circumstances. These capricious and volatile circumstances were associated with the feminine and embodied in the Goddess Fortuna. In this understanding of power, domination of the masculine over the feminine gets played out in gender, class and racial relations where women, lower classes and the non-white are seen to be irrational, unruly and volatile. Decolonising seeks to uproot these power structures that try to mute and dominate change.

Those who hold power never want to give it up, as Machiavelli observed long ago. There is conflict. The powerful use their clout to censor and silence. The less powerful talk back. For instance, Me Too has empowered women to speak out about sexual exploitation in the work place within socio-political contexts that take them seriously and hold men to account. Through this dialectic change may occur. Indeed, to a certain extent it is occurring as new institutions that address people’s needs and take representation seriously are conceptualized (Hamilton, 2014; Williams, 1998). These move beyond the simple structure of a single MP authorised through elections to act on behalf of thousands of constituents. They are discursive institutions through which the needs of everyday citizens and constituents can be voiced.

The popular voice and political institutions
To be sure, people today have more clout. They are empowered by the internet and technology. More women and people of colour run for office and are changing the demographic of the legislature, but as this happens the executive power is becoming more centralized. Those who theorised about the doctrine of the separation and balance of powers worried that not only could the power of one become absolute, but also that the legislative power as the voice of the people had the tendency to become despotic.

Thinkers such as Montesquieu therefore argued for an executive veto over both branches of the legislative power to ward against the abuse of power. To Montesquieu, individual freedom could be secured only if the executive and legislative branches of power were completely separated as institutions and an independent judiciary were established. In this manner, power would be neither absolute nor arbitrary. The executive power would execute laws that were established by the upper chamber of the legislature and ratified by the lower chamber. In the absence of contestation, the people’s representatives who occupied the lower chamber were considered to consent to the laws. This separation of executive from legislation power guaranteed the individual liberty to live in security and as one wants within the bounds of the laws. It provided the political conditions for the freedom of speech.

This configuration of power maintained the social hierarchy between the landed aristocratic classes and the wealthiest ranks of the popular social classes. The nobles sat in the upper legislative chamber and the people in the lower chamber. The institutions were structured to accommodate the propertied social classes. After much struggle, the working classes, men of colour, and, finally, women got the vote. Although the structures eventually accommodated people on the margins, these had been built on a particular understanding of political power. They were established in part to regulate class relations and social conflict between the nobles and people.

Today, our social and political relations are more complex. Our institutional structures do not adequately mediate conflictual relations that arise from racial, gender and social difference. Rather we aim to minimize difference so that it does not matter as we are all equal and blind to difference. The voices of the marginalized get suppressed or are less well regarded and heard in the light of the grammar of white male power and authority. In my view, this is the case because our institutions from the family to the state are proving to be incapable of dealing with difference and relinquishing power.

Free speech and silence
The need for decolonisation is pertinent in struggles for liberation where different voices get pitted against each other and absorbed into existing power structures rather than finding opportunity to dismantle those structures and construct them anew.

I was struck by an observation that bell hooks made regarding black American women who in the nineteenth century reclaimed their public voice and fought for the right to vote. Unfortunately, white feminist and black men’s movements for suffrage alienated these women. Black women were part of neither movement for to be on the side of women was to abandon the struggles against slavery and racial oppression. To be on the side of the men was to support the patriarchy and abandon women’s struggles. Neither movement sought to secure the rights of black women. Yet black women were activists, writers and thinkers. Their activism and voice were silenced. In her book Ain’t I a Woman? bell hooks asks why are black women silent? She eloquently relates this to the silence of the oppressed, which is a “profound silence engendered by resignation and acceptance of one’s lot” (hooks, 1982, p.1). Resignation indicates the feeling of powerlessness against the structures and systems of power and acceptance indicates passive obedience, which maintains the predominant system in place. To bell hooks, this is an indication of the “sexist, racist socialization” that made black women feel that their interests were not worth fighting for, that the only option they had was submission (hooks, 1982, pp.7-9). This is an extraordinary conclusion and powerful reflection of how the struggles of others took precedence over those of some, how sexist and racist oppression have the effect of making black women feel so powerless as to not talk back to power.

I end on this note to reiterate that the object of decolonisation of power and knowledge structures is not make our world more colourful, as it were. Rather it is to give voice to those who have been silenced and oppressed by the structures and institutions that uphold white upper-class masculinist powers. These include the visible manifestations of their power in the statues of public squares, the theoretical voices that pervade our systems of knowledge and education and the assumption that by virtue of their epistemic and authoritative status, they can exploit and dominate the less powerful.

Speech is shaped by the language and discourse we use to construct meaning. As such it is not free. If we want freedom of thought and expression, we must decolonise to reconstruct our democratic institutions to share power and voice across different genders, races and classes according to egalitarian and non-dominatory concepts of power and knowledge.


Acknowledgement I wish to thank Catherine Davidson, Dick Blackwell, Alison Scott-Baumann, Michael Elliott and Lawrence Hamilton for constructive and thought provoking comments.


References

  • Collins, Patricia Hill (1994) “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought” in ed. Mary Evans, The Woman Question. London: Sage Publications, pp.82-103.
  • Hamilton, Lawrence (2014) Freedom is Power: Liberty through Political Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • hooks, bell (1982) Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
  • Williams, Melissa (1998) Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Let’s not kill all the populists

Bright Nkrumah

Bright Nkrumah is a Postdoctoral Researcher whose research interests include populism, constitutionalism, socioeconomic rights, peace and security, good governance, resistance, freedom and democratization.


Why we need to address the challenges that come with an upsurge of populism in the Global South

Dick the Butcher is one of the lesser known characters in the second part of Shakespeare’s trilogy about Henry VI. As a member of the gang of Jack Cade, who is a pretender to the throne, Dick often makes amusing and highly comedic statements. As a Grade 5 pupil, he lobbies his mates for class prefect position, promising shorter class days and delicious lunches. Cade (in the comic relief part of the play) makes vain boasts about how he’d provide free food and drinks for everyone, how drinking light beer would be a crime and a penny would buy seven half-penny loaves. Dick’s ultimate sell is: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. To this henchman, this is the best way to address societal problems and improve the country.

This claim of the mutually intrinsic linkage between lawyers and lawlessness is significant in the context of populist movements. To some they are seen as a threat to democracy and the primary source of social disintegration (Canovan 1999; Canovan 2004). Thus, in light of this negative connotation, should the Global South heed the advice of Dick and ‘kill’ all populists with moral condemnation and demonization? No!

To reverse the populist evolution, it is vital to adopt an analytical viewpoint and cast aside the simplistic account of the media that presents populism as simply irrationality, utopian thinking or mob rule.

Populism can simply be defined as a means of constructing a political frontier by dividing society into two antagonistic groups: the ‘people’ against corrupt ‘elite’. To be exact, it is the rhetoric of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Given that the composition of both groups is not clearly delineated, it is vital to distinguish between the different kinds of populism.

The rise of populist movements in the Global South should be seen against the backdrop of contemporary liberal-democratic politics. This was triggered by the compromise reached between the parties of the centre-left and centre-right on the notion that neoliberal globalization has no other substitute. By complying with the demands of international financial institutions such as the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes, key democratic concepts such as parliamentary sovereignty and popular sovereignty, which allows people to influence public policy, have not only been drastically watered down but abandoned. In recent years, any reference to ‘democracy’ in the Global South merely refers to the protection of human rights and conduct of elections. These developments (marked by a form of regulation of Capitalism) has resulted in massive poverty and glaring inequality. It is, thus, not far-fetched to say the Global South has been plunged into a state of oligarchisation.

Since political and social crisis can be seen as fertile ground for populist appeal, several populist movements have sprouted claiming to represent the interest of the people being ignored by the elites. Notwithstanding some of the strategies these movements adopt, it is vital to acknowledge some of the legitimate democratic ideals some aspire to restore. In South Africa, the belligerent character and combative tone of populist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has somewhat eliminated concerns that dominant party syndrome (of the ruling African National Congress) will undermine the constitutional mandate and diminish the independence of strategic institutions such as the National Assembly. It is the lack of a narrative capable of providing a distinct terminology to construct the struggles against our contemporary society that shows that populism resonates in several sectors of our political and social order.

To this end, populism should be conceptualized in a progressive way. It should be seen as a force that enhances and consolidates the neoliberal project rather than one that simply dismisses the issues they have put on the agenda. One would agree that the growing number of supporters for movements such as the Black Management Forum (BMF), the Black First Land First (BLF), the Decolonisation Foundation and the EFF demonstrate that ‘killing’ the populist through moral chastisement has not been effective in countering right-wing populism, especially as it reinforces the anti-elitist sentiments among the popular classes. What is lacking, and urgently needs to be done, is to address the issues they raise, like poor service delivery and state looting. These need different responses, one which is capable of rallying support towards social justice and equality. The best remedy to oppose existing right-wing populist movements and forestall the emergence of new ones is through the development of a real left-wing populist movement.

When the EFF first emerged in 2014, it was often described as left-wing populist (Buccus 2019). But in hindsight this is obviously incorrect. The party’s populism has demonstrated to be more of the right – a mixture of the authoritarian decrees of its 2019 manifesto banning the private sector from owning land and lavish lifestyle of its ‘firebrand’ leader Julius Malema. The feasible grounds to construct a real-left populist movement will be the new social forces that have sprouted from the shack settlements and trade unions outside the ruling party. Besides deepening democracy, this project’s focus should be the constitution of a collective that creates synergy between the multiplicity of political forces and social movements.

Despite these promises, there is a missing link – there is no visible charismatic leader who could unite these forces and progressively articulate the democratic demands existing in contemporary South Africa, or the countries in the Global South. If this challenge is addressed, there is a prospect for this collective to become hegemonic and have a transversal character, especially since several social sectors have been hammered by financialised capitalism.

Contrary to the anti-populist narrative of political commentators and the media who see populism as an affront to democracy, the most suitable political force to recapture and expand democratic ideals in contemporary South Africa and the Global South is left-wing populism.


  • Buccus, I. 2019. ‘Imraan Buccus: What chance does the ‘left’ have in the 2019 elections?’, First Thing
  • Canovan, M. 1999. ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’ Political Studies, 47(1): 2-16.
  • Canovan, M. 2004. ‘Populism for political theorists?’ Journal of Political Ideologies, 9 (3): 241-252.


What is the point of political theory?


Lawrence HamiltonLawrence Hamilton is the NRF British Academy Research Professor in Political Theory, Wits and Cambridge. He contributes to rethinking political theory from and for the Global South. His works include Amartya Sen (2019), Freedom is Power (2014) and The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003)


If politics is about who rules whom and how, theorizing about politics seems like a luxury, especially in the Global South, where many live precariously in the daily struggle to survive. Democratic political rule can seem secondary to more pressing needs, such as securing enough water, food, shelter and security. But this is wrong. Politics determines the extent to which ‘basic’ needs can be met, and under democratic conditions it is where ordinary citizens collectively select their representatives who determine the more complex needs that constitute their lives and livelihoods.

If we ignore or remain passive vis-à-vis politics, we vacate the space within which it is decided ‘who does what to whom for whose benefit’ (Lenin 1972; Geuss 2008). This is perilous, for citizen passivity allows the more fortuitous, wealthy, voracious and venal quickly to fill the space and dictate our politics. Our politics then becomes not about our collective, if often plural and competing, needs, interests, powers and ideas, but about the lives of those who thus capture the state. This is no mere theoretical threat, as Zuma’s South Africa, Chavez’s Venezuela and Bolsonaro’s Brazil make graphically clear; as do Trump’s America, May’s Brexit and so on. Populism is a dangerous byproduct of our passivity as citizens. By contrast, if our focus is on the quality of our lives and the powers to secure and improve them, democracy remains the only real contender. It is impossible to see this and improve it without political theory.

This is the case because political theory is the means through which we marshal or invent concepts, norms, ideas to comprehend and thus contest our politics. Like most other things that involve language, politics cannot proceed without concepts and ideas to overcome pressing practical problems: how to hold to account our political leaders; which collective goods require public provision; how best to engage with global political power relations; and so on.

In other words, because politics involves judgements within a particular concrete context regarding our agency, power, needs and interests (Hamilton 2009, 2014a), the existing theoretical framework for our judgements heavily affects how we collectively conceive of the associated power relations, benefits, penalties and priorities. The practical, historical context of concept formation is therefore of utmost importance in politics. In South Africa today, for example, the fact that we use human rights as the main means of thinking about or formatting politics is relatively new. It is also a very bad idea. This is only apparent if we look carefully into the history and deployment of human rights and the deleterious effects they have had on our political power, agency and imaginative capabilities (Moyn 2018; Geuss and Hamilton 2013).

‘What is the point of political theory?’ is therefore a practical question. It is about working out how best to proceed at a particular moment in local, national and global contexts. This is about comprehension, orientation and judgement about our lives’ central questions, facts and values. For this we require knowledge of where we are and where we would like to end up; and judgement as to how best to get there. We also need to understand why we are where we are.

This is no easy feat. It requires capacities that constitute the art of good judgement in politics: a view of the world that acknowledges how our individual well-being and freedom is linked to our collective well-being and freedom (Hamilton 2014b); a willingness to deliberate about everyday facts and deeply held values; the timing and courage to find ways of judging collectively under conditions of likely disagreement; the capacity to persuade others of the collective worth of a proposal; and so on. In sum, the skill individually and collectively to decide when and how to act and what to prioritize. This is not easy, nor is it parochial, something the existential threat of our current global climate crisis exemplifies.

Political theory is the framework through which we acquire these skills and practices. Contrary to received theoretical opinion, this is not just a matter of conceptual or normative clarification. It is about learning to acquire and pass on the craft of political judgement. One of the reasons that democracy stands out in the modern world is because it is the one political arrangement that enables this collective process of (sometimes antagonistic) learning. A lot of political theorists, myself included (Hamilton 2014a), have supposed the panacea lies in innovative institutional arrangements, on the assumption that there may exist an institutional fix for democracy’s deficiencies. But this is wrongheaded; we need more, always and everywhere. Democracy must be constantly worked on, by leaders and ordinary citizens, to ensure it prioritizes and enables this collective process of learning for good political judgement (Cabral 1974; Hountoundji 2002; Dunn 2014). In other words, the health and vitality of everyone’s democracy is, ultimately, each individual person’s responsibility.

This, then, this the main point of political theory, especially in precarious democratic contexts: continually to remind fellow citizens of this responsibility and how best to meet it; and to arm them with the conceptual and factual tools to carry it out. If democracy is necessary for the free, collective determination of individual needs, good political judgement at all levels is a requirement for the health of democracy. Political theorists must guide this political judgement. If they shirk this responsibility, the very existence of the globe is imperiled.

Most political theory that emanates from the Global North does just this as it retreats into the life of the ‘ivory tower’ or actively turns away from the messy business of real politics. Political theorists from the Global South are well placed to resist this ‘flight from reality’ (Shapiro 2005) due to the visceral nature of their politics. They are forced to face the actual politics of their time rather than build philosophical castles in the sky. Critical South is a forum for the expression of this practical, postcolonial imperative. It thus aims to empower everyone to judge well in politics.


  • Cabral, A. (1974), ‘Análise de alguns Tipos de Resistência’, in Colecção de Leste a Oeste (Lisbon: Seara Nova).
  • Dunn, J. (2014), Breaking Democracy’s Spell (Yale University Press)
  • Geuss, R. (2008), Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press)
  • Geuss, R. and Hamilton, L. (2013), Human Rights: A Very Bad Idea, Theoria, 60.2.
  • Hamilton, L. (2009), ‘Human Needs and Political Judgement’, in New Waves in Political Philosophy, ed. Zurn and de Bruin (London: Palgrave)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014a), Freedom is Power: Liberty Through Political Representation (Cambridge University Press)
  • Hamilton, L. (2014b), Are South Africans Free? (Bloomsbury)
  • Hountondji, P. (2002), The Struggle for Meaning: Reflections on Philosophy, Culture, and Democracy in Africa (Ohio University Press)
  • Lenin, V. (1972), Materialism and Empirico-criticism (Beijing: Foreign Language Press)
  • Moyn, S. (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard University Press)
  • Shapiro, I (2005), The Flight From Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press