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Fractured militancy

A new book from sociology Marcel Paret explores social dynamics in post-apartheid South Africa.

The College of Social and Behavioral Science recently sat down with Marcel Paret, associate professor of sociology, in their new interview series CSBS Conversations to discuss his exciting new book "Fractured Militancy: Precarious Resistance in South Africa after Racial Inclusion." Paret will be launching his book on Friday, May 6 at 6 p.m. MST with a party hosted at Weller Book Works.

Can you give us a summary of your book along with a brief historical and political background of South Africa?

In the book, I focused primarily on the case of South Africa, where racial inclusion entailed dismantling the brutal apartheid regime, one of the most oppressive systems of racial domination the world has ever seen in the middle of the 20th century.

To tell the story of South Africa and the dramatic transition from apartheid to democracy, I use the lens of protests and social movements. This includes the popular movement against apartheid, in the 1970s and 1980s and into the early 1990s. South Africa is a country of extremes. If apartheid was the height of the apex of state racism, it also produced one of the most impressive social movements we have ever seen.

In the end, though, the movement prompted a process of racial inclusion that was largely political, rather than economic. The new constitution abolished racial discrimination, creating legal equality between racial groups, very similar to the United States after the civil rights movement, but the economic challenges remain, and the economic inequality is extreme.

Against this backdrop, protests reemerged, not just a few protests, but a lot of protests. Many people feel betrayed by the Black elites who came to run the government after 1994. They feel betrayed by the government that's not delivering on the promises that were associated with that transition from apartheid to democracy. The struggles, however, are far from unified. Residents isolate themselves from each other. The title of my book, "Fractured Militancy,"points to this dual character of popular resistance, which is simultaneously militant and fragmented at the same time.

In this book, you've decided to write from the perspective of Johannesburg's impoverished urban Black neighborhoods. Why was this important for the story?

Book over: A marigold background with colored lettering.

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Marcel Part

Fractured Militancy: Precarious resistance in South Africa after racial inclusion.

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There are two answers to the question which are quite closely linked to each other. One answer is that these impoverished urban neighborhoods are where much of the post-apartheid politics is playing out. Since the late 2000s, South Africa has had a consistent wave of protests rooted in impoverished Black neighborhoods located primarily on the urban periphery. It's here and in spaces of economic hardship and protests where one can witness those feelings of betrayal and the widening gap between the expectations and the realities of democracy. As my research unfolded, it also became clear that the dynamics around these community-based protests were highly localized. In the contemporary, post-apartheid period, each residential area had its own community organization, its own relationship with the government and its own politics. This was part of the fragmentation that I talked about in the book, the separation of communities.

This brings me to the second answer, which is that I felt it was important to tell the story of post-apartheid South Africa from the perspective of the poor. Some commentators writing about South Africa assume that the poor are largely irrelevant to mainstream politics which is dominated by elites in the upper classes. They may assume, an assumption that happens in many places, that politicians can easily manipulate the poor for their own personal gain. In contrast to that approach, I wanted to take the poor seriously as critical thinkers and people with agency. My research demonstrates that people are not just being manipulated from the outside, but they have the capacity to think and develop solutions on their own. That does not mean that I aim to glorify what we might call “struggles from below.” My goal is to take the poor seriously and demonstrate their political complexity.

This book also draws parallels to movements we see in the United States, such as Black Lives Matter. If anything, what can movements in the U.S., South Africa and other parts of the world learn from each other? And what can future movements do to be more effective?

I think the simple answer to your question is that movements should take care to consider both race and class or more generally, race and capitalism. In the book, I draw parallels between South Africa and the United States. Let me recap some of these parallels, as well as some of the important differences.

One parallel is the fact that struggles for Black liberation continue in both South Africa and the United States in the wake of racial inclusion. In both places, the popular resistance civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa ushered in a new era of racial equality. Yet, in both places, formal racial inclusion failed to eliminate either racial inequality which persists or the concentration of economic hardship within Black communities. These conditions give rise to protests in both places after that process of racial inclusion. In the United States, for example, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015, helped to propel the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the protests spreading across South Africa, the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore emerged from predominantly Black neighborhoods marked by unemployment and poverty.

There are many differences between the two movements. One is that participation in Black Lives Matter expanded to include the middle classes as well as diverse racial groups. Now, turning to South Africa, the same widespread participation did not emerge in South Africa, where the urban poor remained much more isolated, not only from each other but also from the middle classes. South Africa's protests were also different in that race was not at the forefront, while protesters in the areas that I researched, were almost always Black. They frequently articulated their grievances and demands and discourses of class, rather than race.

What are the larger political and societal implications made in this book?

One general takeaway from the book is that elite movements from above, and popular movements from below are constantly shaping each other. We often focus on one or the other, but it is important to think about their dynamic interaction. More specifically, elite maneuvers may weaken coops fragment popular movements. This is a process that I call passive revolution, drawing from the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci. This, I argue is what happened in South Africa through the process of racial inclusion. Not only did maneuvers by both White and Black elites undermine the more radical side of the anti-apartheid movement, but they also de-mobilized popular organizations and redirected popular expectations toward the government delivery of public resources. These motives invited competition over scarce public resources, and I argue, eventually fragmentation of the movement.

The second implication of the book more generally regards the long arc of Black movements, or we might say racialized movements more generally, as they move between institutionalization, that is the institutionalization of racial inclusion—think of civil rights reforms in the United States or the abolition of apartheid in South Africa—and popular protests in the streets. My account shows that formal racial inclusion does not deliver Black liberation, in that failure, may both reignite and fragment further protests. We must pay attention to class struggles within processes of racial inclusion. It is not thinking about one or the other but thinking about how class operates within a racialized movement.

The book also speaks to the possibilities of collective action and social change in a world with rising inequality, something that many people have been pointing to across the globe, not unique to South Africa, or the United States. Growing economic inequality is something that we see in many places.

One last thing is that the book offers insights into the dynamics surrounding immigration and xenophobia. One of the chapters in the book shows how community protests around things like housing and electricity feed into and occur alongside attacks against the foreign-born. As in much of the globe, including the United States, and South Africa, economic insecurity and inequality, reinforce anti-immigrant sentiment.

What would you invite the reader to do after reading this book?

There are several different things one could do after reading this book. If you enjoy the book and want to learn more, I encourage people to sort of pursue South Africa. We often have simple or limited views of what's happening in South Africa… but the dynamics are complex.

If you're interested in the broader issues that I'm pointing to in this book, the best thing you can do is join a movement. Join the movements that are happening in your local context. I think that's probably the best thing you could do to address some of these ongoing issues. There are lots of different ways to participate, some more productive than others. I think the key thing that my book points to is to be critical about what movements are up to and what they're aiming to achieve.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with people?

I thought I would just come back to something that I started to say in relation to a previous question about my particular focus of this book, and why did I choose to focus this story of post-apartheid South Africa on the impoverished neighborhoods on the urban periphery. I think these neighborhoods are crucial to understanding what's going on in the global economy today and what's going on in South Africa. The measure of South Africa's success depends at least partially on what's happening in the lives of the black urban poor. Without their perspective, and their voice, any accounts of racial inclusion, any account of democracy is going to be incomplete.

Watch the full interview below.