Claiming 'rights' in the African City: popular Mobilisation and the politics of informality in Nairobi, Rabat, ...


Sophie Oldfield, Claire Bénit-Gbaffou | A Routledge Handbook of Cities of the South., 2014

The groundswell of mass popular activism in contemporary cities –in particular in the global South- has (re)inspired an academic literature on ‘the right to the city’ (Purcell 2002; Brenner, Marcuse and Mayer 2012; Harvey 2012; Schmid 2012; Samara et al. 2013), and has crystallised the emergence of global social movements claiming a ‘right to the city’ (Purcell 2003; Portaliou 2006, Mayer 2009), more or less rooted in localised political initiatives (see Fernandes 2007 for the Brazilian case for instance). Whilst both academics and activists do not necessarily directly nor even implicitly refer to Lefebvre’s initial concept of the ‘right to the city’ (Mayer 2009), and are rather developed in articulation with dynamics of urban neoliberalisation (Harvey 2008, Brenner et al. 2012), it could be argued that they both are calling for ‘some kind of [radical and fundamental] shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade’ (Harvey 2012: 5). In this chapter however, we do not directly use the term ‘right to the city’, as we follow Mayer (2009) in her call against the ‘proliferation of this rights [to the city] discourse’ that runs the risk of weakening its political power (see also Purcell 2002). We also believe that, on the academic terrain, the term (between a motto and a concept) is more analytically useful when its contribution to understanding specific urban social and political dynamics is carefully unpacked, in link with a specific intellectual question or project – see for instance Purcell (2002), Harvey (2008), Brenner et al; (2012), building on the lefebvrian concept to unravel the urban utopia at work in emerging contestations about what the city should be, in its spatial, social and political forms. In this respect, broadening too much the understanding of the notion reduces its analytical relevance. We do not equate the term ‘right to the city’, a trap we believe Samara et al. somehow disappointingly fall into in their recent book Locating Right to the City in the Global South (2013), with any form of collective mobilisation taking the city as their object – assuming that those mobilisations are ipso facto claiming a ‘right to the city’. We do not either assume that any policy initiative aiming at constructing more equitable or inclusive cities on the basis of strengthening urban dwellers’ ‘rights’ is always usefully analysed through this lens (ibid.; see also Morange 2011, interestingly debating Parnell and Pieterse 2010).

Our aim, in articulating urban mobilisation to the notion of ‘rights’ (in the plural) in this chapter, is to understand more narrowly, more practically, and perhaps then theoretically, to what extent these ‘rights’ to the city are (or not) a strategic tool for collective mobilisation in cities of the South to access urban goods, spaces, resources. In this respect, we are more interested in literature that takes the notion of ‘rights’ seriously, in line with Fernandez in Brazil (2007) or Bhan in India (2009) for instance: examining the legal dimension of ‘rights’ and its impacts in securing different forms of access to urban spaces and urban goods. But this approach needs to explicitly take into account how the formality of this definition unfolds in urban politics and collective mobilisation marked by high levels of informality. Indeed, our understanding of differentiated, unequal, discrete levels of urban citizenship in cities of the South (Chatterjee 2004, Benjamin and Raman 2011, Holston 2008, Mamdani 1996, Yiftachel 2009), questions the ability of ‘the majority of the people’ to access and even to claim rights in their legal sense. We are interested here in the way urban social movements mobilise the notion of ‘rights’ – with a legal understanding or not- in their contemporary forms of mobilisation, in cities of the South in general and in African cities in particular, marked by the importance of informality: where, as Chatterjee (2004) has demonstrated, ‘being informal’ in a way or another in the city determines, or at least strongly influences, the ways urban dwellers articulate their (individual and collective) claims to the city.

Analyses of social movements and the contemporary literature on the ‘right to the city’ often underestimate, indeed, the complexity of informality and of ‘shifting to a language of rights’, assuming too easily that the main restriction to people’s mobilization of ‘rights’ is state repression, or more broadly lack of political opportunity in many urban contexts (Bayat 1997). In this type of approach, urban residents are condemned to the politics of ‘quiet encroachment’ or ‘everyday resistance’ because the outright expression of their rights would put them in danger. Highlighting the limits of the language of rights and citizenship to make claims, Chatterjee (2004) in his seminal work, The Politics of the Governed, opposes ‘civil society’ to what he terms ‘political society’, the context in which in fact ‘the majority of people’ exist, those living in informal conditions, be it for access to housing, to services, or to employment. In this approach, ‘political society’ generally cannot claim rights: informal, and therefore often unrecognized by state administration, this category of urban resident has no rights; it can only negotiate favours with local administration and politicians, through temporary arrangements and by stealth (Benjamin 2004), practices of informal arrangement that clearly break the law. In contrast, what Chatterjee defines as ‘civil society’ is restricted to a minority, elite social group in cities of the south - the rate payers and property owners - those who can claim full citizenry as they do not necessarily need to infringe the law in their daily lives.

Nonetheless, urban mobilization characterizes contemporary global south city politics, more often than not involving parts of ‘political society’. In this chapter, we start our analysis from the assumption that to embark on social movement mobilization for rights is not easy or straightforward, because such actions necessarily disrupt and, at times, rupture existing political and social orders, placing residents in visible and vocal opposition with dominant powers from which they derive many of their means of survival. It is these trade-offs, and negotiations, between the extra-ordinary claim for rights and the everyday reliance on social and political networks for survival, that we explore here. We base our analysis on processes of mobilizations for housing and for security of land through a comparative conversation in four African cities: Casablanca, Cape Town, Nairobi and Johannesburg. In each of these contexts, social movement mobilization has become a feature of urban politics, asserting agendas for socio-economic and spatial change, and framing the ways in which rights and justice are articulated. Yet, what rights and mobilization mean and demand differ, framed in social and political, as well as geographical context: from the negotiated resolution from apartheid to democracy in the mid-1990s in South Africa, to the fissures of ethnic, identity-led mobilizations across Kenya in the mid-2000s, and the most recent 2011 movement for democracy and the reformation of royal power in Morocco.

In Nairobi, for instance, a protest by mothers against the detention of their sons in prison for mobilizing against the Kenyan one-party state creatively disrupts police action when these mothers strip and protest naked in Uhuru Park, a highly visible central location at the door-step of the globalizing Central Business District. In turn, the renaming of a peri-urban informal settlement in Casablanca highlights not only a right to housing, but also the social implications and costs embedded in renaming and challenging the stigmas of the rural and their interplay in a politics of urban injustice. In a peripheral neighbourhood in Cape Town, a mobilization to demand water makes visible - in large and old panties hung out on the fence of the municipality’s housing office in the neighbourhood - the spatial injustice of access and the absolute centrality of water in neighbourhood life; and, its corollary, the gross injustice produced when access is denied.

These stories are not interchangeable. It’s hard to imagine Moroccan women (or men) hanging out underwear to demand water, or for women to strip naked in a park in central Cape Town. But in each of these quite different urban, political and cultural settings, claims for rights take the form of a disruption of the usual, everyday, ‘traditional’ social order in the city. Rather than assume that the mobilization of ‘rights’ acts as a form of recourse and mobilization to claim redress (generally from the state), it is often more customary and efficient to use the register of favours and existing governance networks to try and claim access to resources. In exploring this type of interaction, we are not arguing that mobilization for rights has no bearing and no importance for the improved condition of the poor in the city generally: instead, we are more interested instead in analyzing when, and how, it becomes possible for political societies to use a language of rights to move beyond a politics of invisibility. A ‘right to the city’ is therefore meaningful, firstly inasmuch as it is a mobilization tool for residents, a category for action, organization and public debate. Secondly, movement mobilizations and their politics and practice disrupt any overly simple notion that the articulation on paper and in law of ‘rights’ - the heart of democracy - translates in some easy or linear way to everyday urban politics on the peripheries of African cities