“Where there is fire, there is politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article ““Where there is fire, there is politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa,” which was published in the August 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on material politics, including Antina von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa” (2013) and Nikhil Anand’s “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai” (2011).

In addition, Cultural Anthropology has published articles on emergent publics and alternative conceptions of the political, including Tania Ahmad’s “Socialities of Indignation: Denouncing Party Politics in Karachi" (2014), Amira Mittermaier’s “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: The Egyptian Uprising and a Sufi Khidma" (2014), and Daniel Mains’s “Blackouts and Progress: Privatization, Infrastructure, and a Developmentalist State in Jimma, Ethiopia" (2012).

Cultural Anthropology has also published several articles on post-apartheid politics in South Africa, including Joshua Rubin’s “Making Art from Uncertainty: Magic and Its politics in South African Rugby” (2014) and Jason Hickel’s “‘Xenophobia’ in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft” (2014).

About the Author

Kerry Ryan Chance is Lecturer on Social Studies and Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Living Politics, which examines governance and political mobilization in three South African cities between the mid-1980s and the present. Her research has been supported by numerous funding agencies, including the Fulbright Program, the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Other Works by Kerry Ryan Chance

Forthcoming. “Contentious Infrastructures and Spatial Practices in Contemporary Urban South Africa.” Social Analysis.

Forthcoming. “Sacrifice After Mandela: Liberalism and Liberation Among South Africa’s First Post-Apartheid Generation.” Anthropological Quarterly.

Forthcoming. “Slum-as-Infrastructure: How the Politics of Informality Shapes South Africa’s World Class Cities.” In Spatializing Politics: Essays on Power and Place, edited by Delia Wendel and Fallon Samuels Aidoo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

2014. “Legacies of Fear: From Rodney King’s Beating to Trayvon Martin’s Death,” with Laurence Ralph. Transition, no. 113: 137–70.

Interview with Kerry Ryan Chance

Marzieh Kaivanara and Sean Furmage: How did you come to work in urban settlements in South Africa? What drew you to these communities and what prompted you to focus on fire?

Kerry Ryan Chance: I began living in South Africa soon after the fall of apartheid, during the honeymoon period of the new democracy. The euphoric optimism about either a revolutionary redistributive state or the “rainbow” nation—built on an ostensible reconciliation between white minority rulers and black liberation movements—had only started to wane. In the early 2000s, I spoke with workers who said unions were being rendered toothless by the power-sharing alliance with the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Yet, they said they would vote for their ruling party until they died. Residents of council housing in race-based townships told me that their water was being disconnected amid aggressive cost-recovery experiments instituted under pressure from the World Bank. Still, they questioned the value of supporting comparatively weak opposition parties, doubting that their votes at the ballot box could serve as a protest against international institutions half a world away.

HIV-positive activists I knew viewed government inaction in the face of a mounting death toll as signaling a necessary return to civil disobedience. Yet nearly all had faith that they could sway recalcitrant politicians and even multinational corporations to make anti-retroviral medicine accessible to the poorest of the poor. I spoke with shack-dwellers who had spent their lives on a parcel of land in the city or who had moved from rural areas after the fall of apartheid. Many found themselves under threat of eviction and were counted among the mass unemployed, but believed that the promise of infrastructure and work would be fulfilled in their children’s lifetimes, if not their own. Migrants and refugees who had been burned out of their homes and shops by neighbors told me that they were despondent about getting papers to stay in the country legally, but continued to view South Africa as the continent’s inclusive promised land.

From these multiple vantages in the early 2000s, optimism—revolutionary, liberal, or otherwise—was giving way to the imperfect processes that would consolidate South Africa as an actually existing democracy. I focused on fire because it captures some of the complexities and contradiction of these processes. The prevalence of conflagrations and the number of routine deaths and injuries that occur in shack settlements suggest colonial ties that bind, while pointing to new globalized configurations of power that, rather than enabling promised mobility, violently constrain it. Yet, I also focused on fire because I found that the urban poor in South Africa and elsewhere are using energy to transform what it means to belong in a twenty-first century liberal democracy, a political formation that has been variously heralded by decolonization, postsocialism, “humanitarian” intervention, and war.

MK and SF: How did you come to connect fire to “a critical reappraisal of the material forms that have made South Africa a globalized liberal democracy”? How else have you worked with anthropological critiques of liberal democracy?

KRC: I address these questions more fully in my current book manuscript. Based on ethnographic and historical research in townships and shack settlements, I analyze the criminalization of the popular politics that were foundational to South Africa’s democratic transition. Each chapter of the book is structured around an element of living politics (ipolitiki ephilayo in isiZulu), namely fire, water, air, and land. As governance in South Africa is increasingly managed by a globalized private sector, living politics innovatively borrows practices from the liberation struggle, as well as from the power invested in new technologies and the recently desegregated courts.

In the sentence you identify, I mean “material” in three primary ways. First, I am referring to fire, as a chemical process that congeals histories of democratic politics. Second, I mean “material” in terms of inherited inequalities, manifested in a lack of infrastructure, constraints on economic and political mobility, and racialized endangerment. Third, I mean it in the sense of the worldly making of politics and life, whether in revolt or reproduction,.which in South Africa was founding of state transition just as much as it shows up in the constraints of liberal democracy.

In other words, state transition is an opening where semiotic meanings, processes of commodification, or technological deployments—for instance, of fire—are (locally and globally) up for grabs, and yet highly constrained by the past and emergent present. Some of the most celebrated liberal democracies are also the most unequal societies, which structure the political lives that are possible for and created by the world’s most historically disenfranchised populations. So, in my view, fire—like water, air, and land—are never unmediated, insofar as they are temporally and spatially contingent, differently shaped by our time and place in the world.

Beyond looking at democratic politics from the different vantage of these elements—for example, I look at air, pollution, and spirituality—I have been interested in how material life might be analyzed in comparative colonized contexts, particularly within African diaspora communities. The United States, for instance, has a long and gruesome history of racial violence that has organized liberal governance. Fire was used, and indeed criminalized, in recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. The histories that rise up from these flames have connections, often quite literally by way of activist networks, to emergent politics in South Africa and elsewhere in the global South.

MK and SF: Could you say a bit more about living politics? How does this term fit into anthropological understandings of what constitutes politics and what researchers should focus on to better understand politics?

KRC: Anthropology has long interrogated normative assumptions about what counts as politics. In reflecting on our historical moment, the practice of politics, expressed in new collective actions, arrangements of labor, and understandings of the material world, is yet again reconfiguring the category of the political. Emergent activist networks, crowds, and insurgencies are reshaping long-standing distinctions between law and illegality, privacy and publicity, formal and informal markets, state and nonstate spaces, especially under conditions of violence and stark economic inequality. The methods of anthropology can be especially useful for understanding recent social upheavals because they operate at multiple scales, connecting formal and informal zones. At its best, anthropology offers analysis not on the basis of taken-for-granted truths, but on the basis of what calls those truths into question.

Living politics is an organic intellectual theory of political mobilization developed through debate, rather than consensus, by Abahlali members and activists in South Africa over the last decade. I am interested in how living politics travels as theory about how those dwelling on the margins of cities without work or basic infrastructure come to inhabit political roles that transform economic relationships in the context of liberalism. Abahlali members refer to events such as community meetings, street protests, and gatherings at court, as well as everyday practices such as occupying land, constructing shacks, and illicitly connecting water and energy supplies, as living politics.

Here, politics is not merely defined by the laws, policies, and decisions of state-sanctioned agents, but by practices and interactions among ordinary citizens. This politics is about “making a living” as much as it is lived, that is to say, it is emergent and everyday. As important as the streets, then, is the home, the domestic space where the reproduction of life is operative or where this life might be a target of intervention. This politics suggests how power in ordinary material is activated: in the outlets that power our phones, the streets that we walk upon, the coolant that refrigerates our food, or the water taps that we drink from.

Living politics puts into relief three prevailing trends that have contributed to an evacuation of politics in social analysis. First, politics has been sidestepped by a renewed emphasis on law and governance within which formal institutional prerogatives and disciplinary mechanisms are prioritized. Second, building on studies of science and technology, politics has been circumscribed through stress on nonhuman agency and the role of experts in world making. Third, politics has been eclipsed by the theorization of sovereignty as the suspension of legal and political personhood and the reduction of human beings to bare life. While these trends lend insight into our world and its transformations, they overlook important questions about the historicity, creativity, and resilience of politics.

MK and SF: Could you say a bit more about ungovernability? How did you come to focus on this? We’re really interested in your claim that "the urban poor . . . become legible to state agents, not as the governed, but as the ungovernable."

KRC: In the mid-1980s, the African National Congress (ANC) famously called for the streets to be rendered “ungovernable” in opposition to apartheid. Ungovernability implied operating without centralization, becoming legible to state agents (and other publics) by breaking the law, and targeting—at times, through unrest, disruption, or violence—material manifestations of the political and economic order. The ANC’s call stood in tension with theories of political representation that imply becoming legible to state agents by legitimating claims to legal rights or operating within the bounds of the law.

The ANC’s call suggested that governance does not necessarily create ever more efficient and effective—or desirable—sites of control. Even when disenfranchised populations acted within the bounds of the law, they were subject to state violence. Instead of simply reproducing order, governance can give rise to mobilizations outside of its capacity for recuperation. Indeed, it could be said that disenfranchised populations in South Africa have been in revolt throughout the modern period with peaks in certain moments, such as the mid-1980s. While associated with criminality, unreason, or antimodernity, ungovernabilty actually reveals theories, logics, and strategies that seek, as many liberation movements do, to achieve redistributions of power.

I would suggest that ungovernability is characteristic to new activist networks, crowds, and insurgencies, which have correlates and coordinates with mobilizations that preceded them. Yet they also act upon new terrains. A woman burning a tire on the streets in Slovo Road, for instance, may appear before a court as a respondent, calling upon rights in national policy and legislation. She may build a shack for her family on occupied state land; yet, present her community as dutiful constituents to a local councillor. She may illicitly connect energy supplies, while praying to God to give her a job to feed the prepaid meter. Like all identities, practices, and interactions, they are multiple, complex, and often contradictory, once they are performed as living politics.


Filmmakers Dara Kell and Chris Nizza are best known for their award-winning documentary Dear Mandela. However, they have also produced a series of short films, including one on energy politics in South Africa entitled Electricity is Life. They are sharing it for the first time with readers of Cultural Anthropology.
Memorial service in an unelectrified shack settlement, with the lights of the Durban city center in the background. The 2009 service was for a resident who died by electrocution from a badly made electricity connection. Photo by Kerry Ryan Chance.
The aftermath of the Slovo Road fire, in which an estimated two thousand homes were destroyed. Photo by Kerry Ryan Chance.
A mass gathering in the Kennedy Road settlement, 2009. Photo by Kerry Ryan Chance.
Abahlali affiliates gather at the Cape Town High Court, 2008. Photo by Kerry Ryan Chance.
Emergency shelters for the urban poor, where South Africa’s energy company, Eskom, has installed prepaid electricity meters. Photo by Kerry Ryan Chance.