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.

The poetics and politics of summits: Ramaphosa and the performance of creditworthiness

Cecilia SchultzCecilia Schultz is a PhD candidate, looking at the politics of numbers in financial markets, specifically risk metrics like sovereign credit ratings. Her research interests fall in the fields of economic sociology, the geographies of money and finance and the philosophy of science.


In recent years, the “Big Three” credit rating agencies (CRAs) – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s) and Fitch – have become common parlance in South Africa’s polity. CRA’s rate the creditworthiness of a government’s debt, issued as sovereign bonds and traded on exchanges like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). A sovereign bond can be thought of as a debt-based investment, where investors lend money to a government in return for an agreed rate of interest. The interest rate is determined by the government’s credit rating, namely ‘the future ability and willingness of sovereign governments to service their commercial financial obligation in full and on time’ (S&P’s 2017). ‘Ability’ refers to aspects like economic growth, GDP per capita, debt-to-GDP ratio and inflation. ‘Willingness’ on the other hand, relates to the extent a government conforms to an established set of socio-political standards. Sovereign credit ratings grant governments access to liquid capital markets and the necessary debt financing to facilitate programmes of national self-determination such as health care or fiscal stimulus. More favourable ratings translate into lower cost of borrowing. Conversely, less favourable ratings demand a higher premium or dry up, with consecutive downgrades – as we have seen in the past few years. Thus, despite claiming to be ‘informed opinions’, sovereign credit ratings are imbued with power and knowledge by establishing an infrastructure of referentiality – via the ‘AAA’ scale – to denote what correct and ‘normal’ fiscal conduct should entail (Paudyn 2014).

Although modalities of public borrowing can be traced back to ancient and medieval times, it was the advent of credit money as a means of payment in seventeenth-century England that inaugurated sovereign debt as we know it today (De Goede 2005). Contrary to commodity money, credit – like paper money – is detached from a direct relationship to any actual commodities. It is a claim on goods, based on promises of future income streams (Ingham 1999). In order to fund its numerous wars and colonial conquests, the English state established a system of long-term public debt through the creation of joint-stock companies like the Royal African Company (RAC), which enjoyed special privileges and monopoly power granted by the monarchy. Shareholders could not demand their capital back but instead retrieve their funds by selling their shares to third parties. The shares, credit certificates and tickets became marketable in themselves and established a liquid secondary market for trading public debt instruments, whose value rose and fell based on the public’s confidence in the state’s political, military and financial transactions (Pocock 1975).

Credit transactions therefore rely on social imaginations of trust, which are inherently political. In modern financial markets, creditworthiness assumes a distinct geopolitical imagination that envisions spaces beyond the horizon of “the West” as sources of chaos and danger. The ‘global’ in global finance, refers not to a ‘composition of equal and pacific elements but a hierarchy of places, from known to unknown, most friendly to most dangerous’ (Agnew 2003, 16). ‘Emerging markets’ like South Africa are often portrayed as ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and beleaguered with policy uncertainty. At the same time however, these are destinations to be conquered: ‘risk-versus-reward’ investments. In order to gain credibility, emerging markets are encouraged to display their willingness to conform a global set of standards. From the 1980s, these standards have mainly been informed by neoliberalism (a very problematic term with many meanings, but one with which we must now live) (Paudyn 2014). This paradigm encouraged a set of free-market reforms such as deregulation, trade liberalisation and an autonomous central bank to keep inflation low. Such reforms signal a ‘favourable investment environment’, which assumedly increase possibilities for economic growth that strengthens a government’s ability and confirm its willingness to repay debt obligations (Paudyn 2014).

Sovereign creditworthiness, especially in the case of emerging markets, thus involves a distinct theatrical element (Seabrooke 2006). According to Seabrooke (2006, 158-160), CRAs, investors and traders pay more attention to emerging markets’ ‘willingness’ to behave in a creditworthy manner, i.e. to ‘talk the talk’ than their necessary ‘ability’ to repay debt. Here, President Cyril Ramaphosa seems to have identified summits as key sites to ‘perform’ his government’s creditworthiness. Apart from his involvement in international summits like the G20 Summit, BRICS Business Summit or the AU Troika Summit, Ramaphosa also launched a much revered ‘investment’ summit last year, in which he managed to garner nearly R290 billion in investment pledges. Earmarked by a number of promises and projects to improve South Africa’s investment environment, Ramaphosa portrayed this summit as ‘an expression of shared hope and renewed confidence’. Addressing concerns of policy uncertainty in the past few years, the president emphasised his government’s determination ‘to put behind us the period of uncertainty and discord and embrace a future of cooperation and partnership.’

In order to comprehend the role summits play in the movement of global capital, it is necessary that we move away from the common portrayal of summits as ‘empty rhetoric’. Even in cases where governments fail to act in accordance to the declaratory statements and promises made, summits are moments of political theatre that provide a stage on which politicians can perform their roles and portray themselves in a particular way to global audiences (Death 2011). The declarations, policy positions and promises can be thought of as poetic speech acts: instances where the ‘palpability of the sign’ becomes more important than what it means (Jakobson 1985, 356-367). Roman Jakobson identified the poetic as one of six different functions in a speech act, the others being emotive, referential, phatic, expressive, conative and metalingual. In any speech act, several functions operate in a hierarchical order, where the dominant function influences the general character of the message. When the poetic function dominates, the speech act is organised according to the material qualities of the signifier (the words used) instead of its referential aspects (meaning). To take Jakobson’s (1985) paradigmatic example, when a word is selected in a poem in order to rhyme, its referential function is less relevant than its homophonic relation to another word. Poetics thus places attention in the materiality of the signifier itself, which allows a process of doubling where the purported objectives of summits become loosened from their real-life consequences (Larkin 2013).

The symbolic, performative and theatrical role of summits enable politicians to persuade actors such as CRAs, investors and/or citizens that they are serious about issues such as repaying their debt obligations, fostering a favourable investment environment or creating jobs. Sovereign creditworthiness must be seen to be done and summits are crucial sites where this performance gets played out (Death 2011, 2). Indeed, compared to ‘frontier’ or ‘pre-emerging markets’, emerging markets enjoy considerably more ‘room to groove’ in signalling their creditworthiness to the market. Although they reify dominant ideas, subjectivities and relationships and significantly undermine democratically-based ways for imagining creditworthiness, the symbolism and dramaturgy of summits grant emerging markets agency to attract investment. The same cannot be said for ‘frontier’ economies who depend on loans from the IMF and World Bank. Much like the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes, these economies must follow strict economic and political reforms to demonstrate their creditworthiness before gaining access to global capital markets (Seabrooke 2006).  


References

  • Agnew, J. (2003). Geopolitics. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Death, C. (2011). ‘Summit theatre: exemplary governmentality and environmental diplomacy in Johannesburg and Copenhagen’, Environmental Politics, 20(1):1-19. 
  • De Goede, M. (2005). Virtue, Fortune and Faith: A genealogy of finance. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ingham, G. (1999). Capitalism, money and banking: a critique of recent historical sociology. British Journal of Sociology, 20(1):76-96.
  • Jakobson, R. (1985). ‘Closing statements: linguistics and poetics’ in R.E. Innis (ed), Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Larkin, B. (2013). ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327-343.
  • Paudyn, B. (2014). Credit Ratings and Sovereign Debt: The Political Economy of Creditworthiness through Risk and Uncertainty. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Pocock, J.GA. (1975). The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Seabrooke, L. (2006). ‘Civilising global capital markets. Room to groove?’ in B. Bowden and L. Seabrooke (eds), Global Standards of Market Civilisation (pp. 146-160). Abdingdon: Routledge. Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s). 2017. Sovereign Rating Methodology. Online: https://www.spratings.com/documents/20184/4432051/Sovereign+Rating+Methodology/5f8c852c-108d-46d2-add1-4c20c3304725