Abahlali’s Vocal Politics of Proximity: Speaking, Suffering and Political Subjectivization

Abahlali baseMjondolo protest in downtown Durban

First published in 2012 this paper, written after sustained immersion in Abahlali baseMjondolo, examines the significance of what the author terms 'speaking suffering' in the movement's politics.

Using as its point of departure the claim that today the urban is the main site for the abandonment of superfluous people, this article explores the emancipatory politics of the South African shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Based on a notion of political subjectivization as the appropriation of excess freedom, I argue that Abahlali disrupt the order of the ‘world-class city’ when they expose the contradiction between the democratic inscriptions of equality and the lethal segmentation of the urban order. In articulating their living conditions as the unjustified breach of the promise of ‘a better life’, the shack-dwellers prove their equality and thus emerge as political subjects. As the article argues, at the centre of this process is a political practice of speaking and listening that is driven by the imperative to reverse the distancing and delaying practices of an order that abandons them by remaining physically, experientially and cognitively proximate to the experiences of life in the shantytown.

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