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 indifference.

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

Comments |1|