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Sociology conference discusses politics at a distance from state

Date Released: Fri, 12 October 2012 08:59 +0200

A recent two-day sociology conference has opened space for the discussion of politics that is at a distance from the state.

The conference, which was organised by the Rhodes University Department of Sociology and held at the Rhodes Continuing Education Centre, brought together academics and social movements.  

“One of the aims is to ensure that there is an opportunity for everyone to give voices to their experiences,” said Dr Kirk Helliker Head of the Department of Sociology at Rhodes.

Dr Helliker said that the conference wanted to consider different politics. “We were trying to think about the type of politics which is dominant in South Africa and to reconsider a different form of politics – a politics that does not see transformation and emancipation taking place through the state.”

The conference provided “a space for academics and activists sympathetic to, in support of and interested in politics outside of the state, at a distance from the state to openly discuss and explore these ideas”,  said Professor Lucien van der Walt also of the Rhodes Sociology Department.

Prof Van der Walt added that the word politics has come to be associated with the ruling party and what the state is doing in South Africa with very little emphasis on what ordinary people are doing. 

“Since the end of apartheid politics in South Africa have been reduced to politics of the state and of state power,” he said. “When people talk about politics they often mean party politics.”

This trend only emerged after the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa. “There are tendencies which have existed even in the struggle against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s which are suggestive of a different type of politics, one which emphasises self-organisation and try to create a society now as an alternative to seizing state power,” said Helliker.

The fight against the apartheid regime was characterised by the existence on many politics. “In the 1980s while there was a strong current to capture the state, there was also a different vision, a different tradition,” said van der Walt.

He added that the tendency in those days was that when some people wanted to take power others were working towards building organisations that will empower people.

Organisations such as the United Democratic Front tried this through the ‘people’s power’, “where community organisations often set up street committees, block committees, ward committees and in some cases like Alexandra Township governed the township”, said van der Walt.

Although this type of politics seems to have been forgotten in South Africa, social movements are reviving it.

“Movements have challenged what we mean by politics. Movements like Abahlali base Mjondolo have refused to reduce politics to state elections, they have refused to reduce democracy to state elections and even refuse to rely on state elections,” said van der Walt.

“There is a whole other world of politics where people are fighting around dignity, building movements based on their experience, needs and having democracy in their daily lives,” he said.

Some of the organisations represented include the Landless People’s Movement, the Backyaders, Eastern Cape farm workers committee, the Rural People’s Movement, the Unemployed People’s Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Photo: Supplied