Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Democracy and Inequality: the Warwick experiment in Durban
Keith Hart on Fri, 26 Jun 2009 21:48:10 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Democracy and Inequality: the Warwick experiment in Durban


We are all part of a long struggle between inequality and democracy. They
are each other?s opposite. If the democratic goal is for the people most
affected by decisions to have the biggest say in their making, this becomes
impossible when the resources that they bring to the process are vastly
unequal. In the twentieth century, people?s aspirations for democracy in
their lives were routinely squashed in the name of great ideas ? state
socialism and the free market ? whose effects were to exaggerate the power
and wealth of a few at the expense of everyone else. Let us not dwell either
on the wars that led to mass loss of life and destruction on a scale unheard
of before.

The outside world cares a great deal about what happens in South Africa,
since it occupies a central place in our shared history. South Africa was a
pioneer in the formation of the world economy as a racial order around 1900
and it supplied much of the gold that made a previous age of globalization
possible. The excesses of apartheid provoked a worldwide reaction. Nelson
Mandela?s release, along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed to usher
in a new era of human freedom, not just for South Africans. Today, people
who have never been here ?know? that crime is rampant in South Africa; and
this reinforces an often unconscious conviction that ANC rule does not pose
the threat to global injustice and racial inequality it might once have
promised. We do not choose our collective place in history, but South
Africans have become a symbol of futures that the rest of us both fear and
hope for. Next year?s world cup offers outsiders a chance to get beyond the
symbol to the social reality. But what will they find here? The human warmth
of the majority of its people or bureaucratic and criminal violence?

I have been coming to Durban for over a decade now and recently made a home
in the city. I love the place, for its mixture, fluidity and openness to the
world. Its citizens have a strong sense of their own distinctive character
and of responsibility for their town. As the biggest port in the southern
hemisphere, it is the Marseille of Africa. I hear countless stories abroad
of lives that took in Durban during the war or as part of an oceanic journey
long ago. If anywhere in South Africa reflects the cosmopolitan complexity
and vitality of our world, it is Durban. In comparison, Johannesburg is an
embattled fortress and Cape Town is locked in its own sterile beauty.

So what happens here matters, not only for local people, but for the wider
process of building a better world. The Warwick Junction street market
project, which we have come here tonight to celebrate through this book
launch and the exhibition opening for Dennis Gilbert?s remarkable
photographs, could be said to be small beer indeed, even within the
perspective of current plans to redesign Durban as a ?world city?. But, for
me and many others, what Richard Dobson and his collaborators achieved here
over a dozen years has been a unique experiment in the struggle for
democratic accountability against entrenched conditions of inequality and

The notion of an ?informal economy? came out of my own ethnographic
experience in the slums of Ghana?s capital city, Accra. At that time, around
1970, it was thought that only the state could engineer economic
development. Economists wrote about escalating ?urban unemployment? in the
Third World, yet I knew that Accra?s inhabitants were working, if only for
low or erratic returns. No single idea, such as ?the State?, can capture
what people really do and I wanted to make visible their ?informal? economic
activities, so that these could be taken into account in development policy.
The goal then and now was to combine formal and informal contributions to
development more effectively. There are tasks of large-scale coordination
that only public and private bureaucracies can undertake and there are many
that are best left to people?s capacity for self-organization. Bringing them
together is extraordinarily difficult, but it happened at Warwick.

I was asked to point to comparable examples elsewhere, but I cannot think of
any. City planners, often personified in some heroic or demonized figure,
usually ride roughshod over the lives of people dislocated by their plans.
Consulting the latter is too laborious to be taken seriously. Street traders
have sometimes been moved to new purpose-built accommodation where they are
supervised by and accountable to the authorities. But I have not come across
any other example where the interests of street traders and local
authorities were negotiated with mutual respect over a period as long as the
Warwick project.

*Working in Warwick*, through its beautiful illustrations and sparse prose,
provides an excellent account of what was achieved there. With the help of
Richard Dobson?s vision and painstaking leadership on the ground, poor
people, coming from a long history of discrimination and high-handed
treatment in the area, proved that they could work with urban authorities to
enliven a city centre, generate employment for themselves and expand
services for the population at large. As the book and these photos show,
Warwick is not only a test case of economic, political and moral
regeneration, it also has enormous aesthetic value. One of Jackson Pollock?s
abstract expressionist paintings has lots of feet and faces buried in the
whirls of colour. Movement and personality are the essence of our common
humanity and together they made Warwick the vibrant social scene it is (or
was). Half a million working class commuters pass through it every day,
moving along pavements and walkways that offer a constantly changing outlook
on the market and the city, as well as access to an impressive number of
street traders selling a multitude of affordable commodities. Any normal
person would be bound to find it exhilarating.

At the beginning of the last century, W.G. Griffith found a new language for
Hollywood movies. His invention was to project huge human faces onto the
silver screen, juxtaposing these with inclusive views of wide open spaces:
close-up and panorama, individuals in the world, the dialectical expression
of any chance we have for modern democracy. Dennis Gilbert?s panorama of the
Brook Street market behind me captures one side of that dialectic, the
individual life-size portraits of the traders the other. It is hard for
photos to express movement as well as movies do and perhaps the scenic shots
capture the spaces more than the people. But Richard Dobson, in his daily
practice and long-term guidance of the project, never lost sight of the need
to bring the two together, as Griffith did. He and the traders made Warwick
more useful, cleaner and safer, more beautiful, more alive in ways that we
all could share.

This is what makes the events of the last few months so shocking. The slow
accumulation of this democratic experiment, in an area subjected for decades
before to colonial and apartheid violence, has been brutally shattered by a
unilateral decision on the part of the city authorities to reverse what has
been so painstakingly built up here. We have already witnessed tear gas and
rubber bullets, women crying on the sidewalk as their goods were forcibly
removed this very morning. The decision to impose a shopping mall on the
site of the Early Morning Market was announced in February this year,
without prior consultation, and the timing of its construction was linked to
the immediate disruption caused by the building of flyovers that began then.

There has been official talk of a modern vision for Durban?s transport hub
and city centre. I am not a romantic. I don?t look back with nostalgia to a
time when pigs ran wild in the streets of London. I never heard yet of a
grassroots movement that could launch a communications satellite or organize
the response to a flu epidemic. But I am a democrat and I can?t sit silent
while one of the world?s most successful attempts to bring formal and
informal organization together for the common good has been so wilfully
assaulted. And for what? A supermarket, some shops and garage space for a
fraction of the taxis, channelling pedestrians through a mall and away from
street commerce. It is as if the democratic example set by Warwick traders
and enlightened local bureaucracy was such an affront to some of Durban's
rich and powerful individuals that they had to smash it.

In my life-time of political engagement, I have learned not to pin
everything on hopes for one specific outcome. Of course we want the present
plans for Warwick to be stopped or at least delayed, so that more open-ended
consultations might take place. But this event and the mobilization it has
provoked also offer an opportunity to galvanize political pressure on the
city authorities in the medium and longer terms, regardless of what happens
now. I would like to think that we will look back on today as a time when
Durban, or at least some of its inhabitants, showed that they care for what
was achieved at Warwick, a living symbol of the better future we hope for.
Above all, we should be mindful that this city and South Africa more
generally open a window on the long struggle to build democracy in our world
against the resistance of entrenched inequality in all its forms.

Speech to the launch of R. Dobson, C. Skinner and J. Nicholson *Working in
Warwick: including street traders in urban plans*, School of Development
Studies, University of Kwazulu Natal, Durban, 2009.

Durban Art Gallery, 24th June 2009

Prof. Keith Hart
135 rue du Faubourg Poissonniere
75009 Paris, France
Cell: +33684797365

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org