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.

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.


  • 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.