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Constructing unity in Cape Town

By Adrian Murray – January 31, 2013

How can social movements navigate diversity and effectively demand quality public services for all? And how can they do so in a way that genuinely reflects the concerns of all those whose voices give them strength?

Photo: Adrian MurrayA few months ago in Cape Town, on a march to City Hall, I looked around and saw municipal union members marching side by side with the casual municipal workers they had clashed with in the past. Among them were also activists and members of community organizations from townships and informal settlements in Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha and elsewhere around the Cape metro. And my heart filled with hope to see us all together.

Not because this was representative of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ South Africans are told they are or should be. No, I felt hope precisely because they were not marching or expressing something they had been told to. They were expressing something else entirely, something of their own construction. They were telling those at City Hall who they were, and more than that, what they wanted, and they were saying it loud and clear: good jobs, quality services, and decent housing!

Almost two decades since the fall of apartheid and still the struggle continues for most South Africans. Each and every day, activists, unionists and community members keep up the fight for a better future. For the things they’ve been promised over and over but which most have yet to see.

The municipal worker leaders and community activists from around Cape Town that I’ve rubbed shoulders with in marches and workshops this past year agree, for the most part, on these goals and on the primary thing they need to do to achieve them: unite and demand them! But when it comes to the details its not so simple.

Differing experiences with privatization, same hardship

And understandably: union members and township residents have experienced the transition from apartheid and the past 18 years in different ways and the same goes for their experiences with the privatization of services. But all increasingly endure the squeeze that private and corporatized utilities impose upon the working class. Everyone feels the bite of water cut-offs and prepaid meters, of rising unemployment and falling wages. Often neighbours in their communities, this diverse group is increasingly on the same page as the provision of basic public goods is denied.

Today activists and trade unionists in Cape Town see the need for solid research and knowledge exchange on organizing and movement building to overcome diversity and formulate collective demands. So, how do we go about finding common ground?

What’s for sure is that the sharing of experiences of people around the world, coming together and developing collective identities around dispossession linked to the privatization of public services, is inspiring. Reports of new forms of organization tied to place, bringing together a broad ‘new working class’ and engaging the state in multiple ways, exploiting both open protest and legal and constitutional roads to alternatives, breathes hope into struggles around the world.

However, in South Africa the waters of the way forward remain muddied, obscured by the strength of many cross cutting identities – the legacy of apartheid, the varied material reality of dispossession, a lack of resources and so on. But we must continue to stand in solidarity with the struggles of community organizations, the labour movement and many others, and facilitate transfers of information, experiences and knowledge that can contribute to positive social change as we move forward, together.

Adrian Murray studies global development at Queen’s University. He is part of an MSP initiative that, in partnership with the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), brings together worker leaders from the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) and community activists from across Cape Town to engage the City around service delivery and alternatives to privatization.