Almost every museum in Cape Town which in some way covers the period of apartheid includes among its exhibits a wooden bench with a variant of the sign “Whites Only” on it. This is no surprise, because these benches are a very vivid reminder of the brutal racial segregation which lasted in South Africa up to the mid-1990s. However, I was somewhat amazed that, in Cape Town today, there are almost no public benches, so that, if you want to sit down somewhere and have a rest in the city centre, you have to buy a coffee, a juice or a sandwich. This transformation of the accessibility of sitting down in a public place from a classification by race to one by class - classifications which, to a great extent, continue to coincide – speaks volumes about the point which South African society has reached today.
Of course, the situation becomes still gloomier when one takes into account the broader spatial dimension, which ranges from overcrowded shanty-town settlements with one toilet to eight households to luxury villas with electrified barbed-wire fences. And while the political changes twenty years ago did bring various improvements, young activists from organizations which deal with land use law point out that, at the moment, a “third apartheid” is in force. In this, as a result of privatisation of public services and land and the inaccessibility of decent housing, life for a large part of the population is unbearable. That this is not an isolated point of view is supported by the increasing disappointment in the ruling party and trade unions which were the structures traditionally expected to bring improvement to the poorest. The existence of miners’ strikes and student movements for free education are just some of the indicators of the need for new goals and structures in the fight for a more just society.
It was precisely the dead end reached by emancipatory politics on the level of vision, strategy and organization that was the theme of the conference “The Crisis of Politics & the Politics of Crisis”, held in mid-March this year in Cape Town, with the participation of 60 academics and activists from Africa, Europe, and South and North America. The conference was organized as part of the New Politics Platform, which arose with the aim of jointly researching the idea of strengthening the development of desirable, sustainable and realizable alternatives for overcoming repressive and exploitative structures. The previous incarnation of this project dates from the origination of the World Social Forum in 2001, when the focus of New Politics was the relationship between rising movements and progressive parties. In the meantime, the complexity of actors and their relationships, as well as the environment in which they work, has broadened - from the threat to life on earth because of excessive exploitation, through the challenges of the technological revolution, to the rise of authoritarian political forces.
At such gatherings, while it is most often easy to reach an operative consensus on the diagnosis of structural problems, regardless of whether the participants come from different regional, generational and individual contexts, matters get complicated when it comes to the prioritization of goals. The dynamic of the conference itself gave birth to very variegated, and sometimes contradictory, expectations as to what needs to be the focus and strategy of a comprehensive progressive movement. This strategy should be at once both radical and inclusive, open for discussion but efficacious, with a clear but not too particular focus, and aimed at systemic change but based on people’s everyday experience. Progressive politics must address how value is produced and also how it is realized, on what the conditions of work are and what those of living are. The priority is stopping the grabbing of land, halting privatization and the denial of acquired rights, but also the establishment of new forms of reproduction of knowledge, capital and more just relations.
The whole difficulty of effecting a transition from successful criticism, and even of offering transformative proposals, towards the prevailing impossibility of really establishing different policies, was best illustrated by parties which have succeeded in taking power in their own countries. In this sense, the presentations by people who had at some moment been part of the ruling structures in countries such as Bolivia, Uruguay and Greece were more interesting. Along with whatever success had been achieved, their experiences showed the necessity of rejecting the standard form of political organization which can easily produce similar effects independent of ideology, ending in a move away from one’s base, and in corruption, bureaucratization and the other customary ills of power.
The standard model of political party operation presupposes that social movements and the broader mass of citizenry give support to a party on the basis of pledges which are found in its programme, and that the party, when once it finds itself in power, repays its base by fulfilling those programme pledges. This model of support and repayment has proven limited possibilities, which are additionally limited by external factors such as international financial obligations and the global market. An alternative needs to be sought in multi-dimensional solutions which treat a political party, movement, local community, collective and other forms of organization as an ecosystem which, through coordination and mutual support, draws up a programme of political reforms, and which is in a position to form a government that will strengthen the ecosystem itself instead of approaching it as a base which it needs to repay. Such an ecosystem should also spawn different entities which can take over the planning and implementation of policies from the private institutions, corporations and development agencies by which every government is directed today.
For now, the nearest thing to this approach to politics is contemporary municipalism which is increasingly imposing itself as a tough and successful alternative to established forms of political organization at the local level. And it is indeed local politics which forms the best environment for political subjectivization and socialization. The representative of Barcelona en Comú, the best-known example of a municipalistic local authority, spoke on the importance of common property in the development of progressive policies, except that she did not place the accent on the economic or direct social importance which various urban common property can have, but precisely on how, through various models of managing and using this property, specific parts of society could be politically strengthened.
The example of the city of Barcelona looks rather distant when observed from the shanty-town settlement of Barcelona in Cape Town. Spanish municipalism grew out of a tradition, several decades long, of neighbourhood meetings and large-scale social movements. Nevertheless, together with other experiences of organizing and political organization, it teaches us the necessity of fluidity and multi-layeredness in political organization. This is an important lesson, both for South Africa, where the African National Congress has been the main political party for 23 years, and also for Serbia, where politics has a bad reputation.
To achieve true political reforms in Serbia, it is essential to transform the political space from a (bad) football game into a general social forum. The bearer of that change could hardly be a party or social movement alone - and those are the established standpoints in public discourse - but should rather be an ecosystem of progressive actors. Making a fetish of a single type of organization is quite limiting and risky, and experience hitherto with standard forms of political association has shown them to be ineffective. To expect a different result using the same approach is naïve. Different political goals are realized through different forms of organizations, and the goal of essential political reforms is to establish not only different policies but also other forms of producing social power.
All this implies that there is still a lot of work ahead for Serbian society. What is needed is for neighbourhood organizations, which at present appear only as a reaction to a surprise building operation or some other form of local “disaster”, to be transformed into permanent and pro-active forums. The social movements which are increasingly popping up should be popularized, and collective organization revitalized. People must be brought out of political lethargy into ways of organizing as students, trade unionists or similar, and all these actors need to collaborate and coordinate among themselves. No single set of elections will bring any significant change unless the way in which we do politics is changed. Otherwise, it will be all the same whether we are unable to sit down on a bench because we are black or because we are poor.
Translated by John White
With the assistance of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Marko Aksentijević attended an international conference on the current crisis in global politics in Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2017.
 Municipalism means the organizing of different local social movements into a unified platform, the aim of which is to gain representation and influence in institutions of local government by winning elections. The elements of municipalism include: local policies and institutions, directly-formed electoral lists which are controlled by citizens, the deprofessionalization of politics, the rejection of the logic of verticality of traditional parties, direct democracy and self-government. (From the book La apuesta municipalista. La democracia empieza por lo cercano (“The municipalist wager. Democracy starts with what is near.”). Observatorio Metropolitano, Madrid, 2014; p.13).