Unpacking race, party and class from below: surveying citizenship in the Msunduzi Municipality

14 Dec 2012

On the basis of a 2008 survey conducted in the Msunduzi municipality in the KwaZulu-Natal province, the paper begins an exploration of the character of popular politics and citizenship in South Africa. Embracing a ‘citizen-centred’ methodology informed by participation literatures, and sensibilities to the ‘work in progress’ character of African cities from urban studies debates, the paper interrogates the mainstream liberal-participatory model of citizenship in South Africa, and the critiques of current South African politics informed by these notions, specifically the ‘racial census’ and ‘dominant party syndrome’ analyses. Taken together these views can be read as characterising South African politics as a game for individual citizens governed by liberal rules, but played by racial and/or partisan groups in exclusionary ways, thus distorting liberal democratic mechanisms of representation and accountability. The paper also examines evidence for an alternative class-based analysis of one aspect of citizenship, namely, protest against poor local governance. The paper looks to unpack this ‘liberal model versus racialised communitarian practice’ imaginary by, on the one hand, demonstrating the ways in which citizenship is not racialised, or is asymmetrically racialised. Indeed, other than party allegiances and trust in key offices, very little by way of what citizens do, believe or think of themselves follows discrete racial lines. Similar points hold for partisanship too. On the other hand, the paper does not redeem the liberal-democratic model as there is also evidence of trust in government when it is not deserved based on performance, but more importantly, evidence that citizens embrace ‘informal’ means to secure their rights. A good example of this is protestors who are also more likely to vote than non-protestors. Taken together, these findings affirm both the way in which the racial and partisan legacy of the past is being undone by new institutions and practices, and suggest the complex intersection of these with networks of personal relations which characterise the local politics of most African cities.