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Sedition!

something i wrote for alternatives. it a bit too much like all the stuff i write but anyway. Sedition Winter has become a season of rebellion in South Africa. In August last year, thousands of protestors from the sleepy town of Harrismith in the Free State descended on the N3 highway. Armed with placards and song, the protesters charged that after ten years of democracy not much had changed for the country’s poor. The “better life for all” that had been promised in 1994, and repeated with each successive election, had not arrived, while access to housing and basic services such as water and electricity were increasing mediated by the cold logic of the market. The state’s response was unequivocal. In scenes reminiscent of the heady days of the struggle against apartheid, shotgun-wielding policemen fired rubber bullets at the fleeing protesters. When the enforced calm finally returned to Harrismith, one protestor was dead. The planned blockade of the highway was over before it had started. Those who had been identified as the leaders of the protest were rounded up and charged with public violence and, for the first time in a new South Africa, sedition. The events in Harrismith are, however, part of an older narrative of betrayal that began in 1996 when the ANC government adopted the Growth Employment and Redistribution Strategy. Based on the advice of the World Bank policy experts, GEAR was a dramatic shift away from the parties stated commitment to addressing the imbalances of apartheid and set the South African state on a path of neoliberal restructuring. Realising that the new policy would never win popular support, the full weight of Mandela’s messianic appeal became focused on left criticism of the new economic policy and GEAR was dubbed non-negotiable. Under the regime of GEAR, the commodification of housing, water and electricity was deepened and thousands of people across the country were evicted or cut off from essential services for non-payment. GEAR was transforming bare life as it animated the poor’s daily struggle for survival. With no other option, poor communities turned to protest actions against the effects of GEAR, in particular cut-offs of basic services. The context of non-negotiability of GEAR, set in 1996, would, however, determine the state’s ultimate response. As the 2005 winter sets in, literally exacerbating the daily struggle for survival, South Africa is again engulfed in protest as communities across the country take to the streets. In the past month, communities from the most far-flung corners of South Africa have risen up, demanding the ‘delivery of basic services’. At stake is bare life itself. Although the charge of sedition would finally be dropped against the thirteen community activists in Harrismith (largely due to intense local political and media pressure), the state’s response to the uprising offers a unique insight into the rationality underpinning GEAR. The message is clear. Responsible citizens must grin and bear the stench of their poverty in the national interest. Bare life itself has become non-negotiable. Anything less is sedition!