Kerry Chance

Lecturer on Social Studies, Harvard University


2015-2016: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow

2014-2015: Oppenheimer Fellow

Living Politics

Project Description

Living Politics

As a Du Bois Fellow in 2015-2016, along with publishing articles toward my next research project, I will be completing revisions on a book manuscript, titled Living Politics.  The manuscript examines how South Africa’s urban poor, those living on the margins of cities without work or basic infrastructure come to inhabit political roles and practice politics in emerging liberal orders. I focus upon governance and political mobilization in three South African cities between the mid-1980s and the present. Based upon ethnographic and historical research in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, I analyze the criminalization of popular forms of politics that were foundational to South Africa’s celebrated democratic transition. Tracking everyday interactions between state agents and residents of townships and shack settlements, I investigate rising urban unrest, which in the post-apartheid period has been characterized by street protests, labor strikes, and xenophobic pogroms. Under democratization, these protests have been sponsored by youth, anti-apartheid veterans, church leaders, and women, and focused upon the means of making urban life viable and secure. Residents refer to these protests and everyday practices such as occupying land, constructing shacks, and illicitly connecting water and energy supplies as living politics or ipolitiki ephilayo in the isiZulu vernacular. 

Living politics is premised upon a collective self-identification of “the poor” that cuts across historically ‘African,’ ‘Indian,’ and so-called ‘Coloured’ (or mixed-race) communities. As state functions in South Africa are increasingly managed by a globalized private sector, living politics borrows practices of the liberation struggle, as well as from the power invested in new technologies and the recently desegregated courts. Protests by “the poor,” as I demonstrate, have arisen not only in reaction to the failure of the state and corporations to provide infrastructure, but also to the management of “slum” populations by means of forced evictions and police violence. I argue that, as the lines between ‘the criminal’ and ‘the political’ have become blurred in public discourse and through these interactions, slum and state have yet again been cast in opposition to one another. By providing an analysis of how “the poor” politicize their material lives, be it in the streets, the courts, or global media flows, my research aims to contribute a new dimension to theories of liberalization, democratic politics and contemporary urbanism – and to expand the methods by which these phenomena may best be plumbed through an historical ethnography of everyday practices and interactions. In the process, my study shows how political spaces are redefined, state sovereignty is forcibly enacted, and the production of new forms of citizenship and identity congeal at the intersections of race and class.  

Each chapter of my manuscript is structured by a component of living politics, which include fire, water, land, and air. The first chapter draws from empirical material on the uses of fire in shack settlements to consider how poor residents and state agents understand ‘the political’ and ‘the criminal,’ categories that have transformed under democratization. The second chapter tracks how the delivery and disconnection of water in townships transformed from a race-based system to a logic of globalized liberal contract in the mid-1980s, which spelled out new terms for democratic citizenship.  In the third chapter, I analyze forced evictions of shack-dwellers to ‘transit camps’ – the latest technology of slum elimination rapidly reshaping the urban periphery – to chart how the management of slum populations spatially reproduces historically race-based inequalities.  In the fourth chapter, focusing on air pollution, I examine how ritual mass gatherings stage public confrontations with state agents, which designate movement leadership, collective identification and an emergent politics. While each of these chapters suggest how “the poor” might be constituted through shared everyday practices and interactions in communities, the final chapter combines elements to show how this identity breaks apart in counter-mobilizations over territorial sovereignty, which explosively differentiate certain residents as ethnic and national others.

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