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This is a beginning: a way of getting started as I think through the last 30 years of struggle and crises in South Africa. But it’s also more than that (or maybe less). It’s a contribution to completing my masters.


When asked by the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal to describe my research project in a single line, I wrote the following: “The research will examine the relationship between Johannesburg’s restructuring of the delivery of basic services and Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation (PA), through a survey of the effects of neoliberal cost recovery practices on the life strategies of urban poor communities.”

Reading this sentence again, I am struck by its narrowness and inability to represent the scope of the kinds of stuff that I want to talk about.


One tendency in recent usages of the concept is to invoke the PA in relation to neoliberalism in order to narrativise - within a Marxist framework - aspects of capital’s accumulation strategy that occur outside of the ‘traditional sites of production’ and operate through extra economic strategies of dispossession. That is, the project tends to be an exercise directed at theoretically rescuing the explanatory power of Marxism for the current context, and as such, tends to be an ideologically driven intervention . Secondly, there is a real sense in which the concept describes a specific historical moment in the history of capitalism . Finally narratives of the process of primitive accumulation, particular the histories of the development of capitalism in the south, have often done tremendous violence to local contexts and histories. That is, the history of the concept is not a good one.

Against (or different from) these usages of the concept, my own thinking has focused on the ongoing process of primitive accumulation in relation to the idea of separation , and is explicitly situated on the terrain of subjectivity. Still, I can’t ignore the nagging question, why use the concept at all then? And with that we arrive at the first task of this project i.e. to determine the extent to which the concept of primitive accumulation is useful in approaching “the effects of neoliberal cost recovery practices on the life strategies of urban poor communities”.


A very smart friend of mine visited a while back. At the time I was writing a report for the CSVR where I used the concept of PA. Because my friend is really smart, I used the opportunity to get his take on what I had written. He liked it except for the fact that I had used this concept (PA) and he told me as much. My friend is a Deleuzian, or at least he was on this occasion, and as such, he suggested that instead of PA I should use the concept deterritorialisation. Like my friend I like the concept, and like him, I agree that it would work in this context. At the time however, I wondered whether the usage of deterritorialisation might not alienate my co-author on the project. Another reason for not using the concept deterritorialisation on this occasion was the fact that outside of a very small community of very smart people, the concept is either not known or completely misunderstood, and the labour of the usage would need to be carefully explanatory, first in a general sense and then in the specific sense of PA. I chose against my friend’s advice to stick with PA.

Our current project has no such restrictions (except maybe not being smart enough) so the notion now presents itself as a very real alternative.


DeAngelis? In his essay, ‘Towards A Theory Of Globalisation As Strategy’, Massimo De Angelis, offers a means for characterising aspects of neoliberal restructuring within the broader narrative of capitalist strategies of accumulation (De Angelis, 1998a). Following Perelman, De Angelis argues that the notion of primitive accumulation, used by Marx to describe the emergence of the preconditions for capitalist production, may be understood, not simply as a particular historical phase of capitalism, but as a “continuous phenomenon within the capitalist mode of production”. The term ‘primitive accumulation’ was used by Marx to describe the process of separation and dispossession of people in relation to the social means of production and reproduction, creating a section of the population with no means of survival but their labour power. De Angelis argues that in contrast to the accumulation strategies associated with, for instance, factory production, primitive accumulation does not rely on the “silent compulsion of economic relations”, but is instead imposed through ‘direct extra economic forces’ such as the state (De Angelis, 1998b: 9).

An important element of this analysis is its demonstration of the relationship between strategies of primitive accumulation and worker struggles. De Angelis, building on the work of Polanyi, argues that capitalism is characterised by a double movement of the market and struggle: “On the one side there is the historical movement of the market, a movement that has no inherent limits and therefore threatens society’s very existence. On the other, there is society’s natural propensity to defend itself, and therefore to create institutions for its protection”. For De Angelis the second movement often involves processes of commoning, which may be characterised as the creation of “social spheres of life” aimed at providing “various degrees of protection from the market”.

The commodification of all life and the dismantling of the protections won through worker struggles may therefore be understood as the creation of “new enclosures” in so far as the process implies the ‘enclosure’ of what would otherwise be held in common. In other words, such ‘enclosures’ bring about “a separation between people and their conditions of life, through the dismantlement of rights, entitlements, etc … The aimed end result of these strategies of enclosures share the same substance: to forcibly separate people from whatever access to social wealth they have which is not mediated or co-optable by the market … New enclosures thus are directed towards the fragmentation and destruction of “commons”.

Under neoliberalism, people have been separated from those basic resources considered essential for all life, such as water, housing, electricity, health care, education, and so on, that have been made into areas for greater accumulation by a few. Whereas people previously had unlimited access to a naturally occurring resource such as water, today water has become big business with individuals having to now pay for it as a commodity. In this way, people have been forced to hand over the control of their individual and collective lives to the rule of profit and the market.

In the context of neoliberalism and the crises in capitalism, primitive accumulation strategies become the primary means by which neoliberalism addresses the limits posed to accumulation by the successive protections won by workers and communities.


Another very smart friend of mine – this one is fond of discussing every single theoretical discovery he has come across with me – insisted I read DeAnglis?, and I did. I immediately liked it and was grateful to my friend who indirectly is responsible for setting me along this path. The thesis seemed to explain well what was happening in relation to South Africa’s experience with neoliberalism. That is, the commodification of basic services was a process that had at its end the separation of people from the means of social reproduction. How could the forced mediation of access to water and electricity be anything else? Certainly this was as perniciously a process of dispossession as the hut taxes imposed a century earlier (even if the crisis wasn’t the same) ?

However, De Angelis’s frame of reference was the welfare state, the context in South Africa is however extremely different. In short I needed to understand what is being enclosed. What was the common?

This is how I approached this problem when writing up the CSVR report.

During the 1980’s the struggles of communities worked to create various protections against the market. While these struggles were largely concentrated in townships, they had a significant effect in de-legitimising the apartheid regime and profoundly affected the life strategies of communities. In particular, township resistance of the 1980s utilised strategies, in particular service payment and rent boycotts, that would contribute to the augmenting of household social income. Thus resistance allowed for the elaboration of life strategies under apartheid that allowed for people’s survival in this system and articulated a social common held and reproduced in struggle. The refusal to pay for the basic conditions of reproduction (water, electricity and housing) became a dynamic front in the struggle against apartheid, enjoying almost universal support and massive participation in many townships across the country (decades later these life strategies would come to present the central challenge to the new government and its attempts to remove the barriers to “the natural working of the market” in a neoliberal South Africa).

The near insurrectionary mood of communities and the local economic crisis, saw the apartheid state implementing several reforms aimed at removing obstacles to accumulation and the free movements of the market while attempting to pacifying resistance. Such reforms sought to address these problems through a two-pronged strategy of ‘total onslaught’ and ‘inclusion’ – complete repression of Black resistance as well as the gradual inclusion of parts of Black communities in aspects of governance, the improvement of services to certain parts of Black communities (e.g. the electrification of parts of Soweto in the early 1980s) and attempts to restructure the labour market. With the apartheid state’s strategy extending to include concessions to the liberation movement, by the early 1990s, with the release of political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), and the unbanning of political organisations, the road to change became that of a negotiated settlement. For the liberation movement, however, this new configuration of strategy was to dramatically alter its vision of the post apartheid future. Concepts like ‘people’s power’ began to disappear or were harnessed towards the ends of assuming state power in a neoliberal world order. Thus, when the African National Congress (ANC) ‘came to power’ through electoral democracy in 1994, it intensified the restructuring of the South African economy along neoliberal lines.

Notably, however, the most profound limit to this process is the life strategies of township communities. Thus, the deepening of the commodification of basic services depends, to a large extent, on the transformation of these life strategies. As noted by McDonald? and Pape, the role of local government shifted, under GEAR, from a redistributive one (imagined in the RDP and probably partially elaborated in the first two years of democracy) to an ‘enabling’, or ‘facilitating’ one (McDonald?, 2002: 4). In this way, the central social responsibility of government has become one of establishing the means for increasing redress rather than delivering access directly. Under this model, real access has come to be determined by market forces, with the state becoming the facilitator of this logic. However, as facilitator of this logic, the state is tasked with disciplining these life strategies as the limit to the free working of the market.

The limits of the transition have meant that neoliberal orthodoxy defines the parameters of the state’s approach to service delivery. What has emerged, as a result, are two conflicting narratives of the social commons created in the payment boycotts of the 1980s. For the state, cost recovery programmes have necessitated a de-legitimation of the ‘commons’ in the interest of restructuring parastatals and state institutions along lines appropriate to its macro-economic priorities. For many communities and critics of the government’s growth path, by contrast, the commons have come to represent the central redistributive challenge of the new state and need to be institutionalised.

In the first narrative the payment boycotts of the 1980s were merely a means of leveraging the position of the liberation movement in relation to the apartheid state. The persistence of non-payment in this context has been characterised as a pathology of ‘a culture of non-payment’ that requires the intervention of the state only in restoring law and order (i.e. payment). The second narrative, in contrast, treats the commons as a fundamental part of the reproductive needs of poor communities, and the social income secured therein, as one of the few protections the most vulnerable have in relation to the capitalist market. The clash of these narratives represents the conceptual basis for the contemporary conflict between the state and communities in relation to basic socio-economic services and their ‘delivery’


The CSVR narrative was very attractive . Primarily, it allowed me to frame the entire thrust of the restructuring of basic services in terms that placed struggle at its centre. This approached also presented, in a reasonably original manner, the limits of neoliberalism in South Africa , and a narrative of the South African social movements in terms of a profound continuity between the struggle against the commodification of basic services and the struggle against apartheid. The argument was, however, open to a number of obvious criticisms. Firstly, it simply assumes the link between people’s life strategies and the payment boycotts. Secondly, it tends to homogenise these life strategies and township communities in the process. Finally, it moves too quickly and so that the logical leaps are not always easy to follow. Although the bulk of these problems could be dealt with through a longer and more directed project (like my MA), some of them, at least, could be addressed by developing the concept of life strategies.


The concept presented itself while reading Foucault’s ethics and thinking through the resistance to prepaid meters in Soweto. With respect to the latter, while we had a sense that the entire history of cost recovery interventions were converging and becoming clarified through the installation of these meters, the only concept we had to describe what was being transformed was the “culture of non-payment”. Of course subjectivity was an option, but who knows how to deploy such a concept, and so much work seems to precede it (hopefully this work is a contribution to getting some of that work done). At the time prishani’s writings were focusing on life, and the manner in which neoliberalism generally, and the meters specifically, were commodifying it. It was also clear to us that the meters were not just the product of governmental rationalities but were specifically pedagogical in their approach to life. The meters were about teaching new life strategies, which at the time initially meant something like ‘the strategies people have for taking care of themselves’. One only needs to look at the promotional information that Johannesburg Water distributed to realise that this was an explicit aim of the programme.


In what sense were the payment boycotts a common?

Without emphasising any spatial connotation, the payment boycotts were maintained in part through the creation of no go areas that were facilitated through the development of a complex networked response to the presence of state officials. It is, as Andy Clarno would say, the creation of an ungovernable space. Essentially, through a whole range of tactics a particular condition is created, an affect whose effect is the commoning of services. But even if we move beyond the spatial affects, and acts of collective solidarity, to individual acts of the refusal to pay - and the significations of that act, which allow for its valorisation and reproduction – we recognise an effect, the commoning of services .

The fact that these services are about accessing the means of life, the strategic investments made in obtaining them can be considered part of the strategies people construct in taking care of themselves - that is life strategies. Further, the fact that such strategies often involve investments in collective action and shared meanings clarifies their potential social investment. That is life strategies may converge through their creation of common meanings and networks. The common is essentially created in the creating of these networks and meanings.


In what sense is the installation of prepaid meters an aspect of primitive accumulation ?

In so far as these life strategies imply the creation of common meanings and networks aimed at accessing the means of social reproduction, the transformation of these life strategies has the effect of separation implied in the definition of primitive accumulation. That is separation from the social means of (re)production.


Transforming township life strategies becomes the primary task of overcoming the limits of the neoliberal restructuring of basic service delivery. But this is no easy task. In the last ten years the state has variously experimented with a series of ideological and punitive interventions aimed at this task. At the ideological level, campaigns such as Masakhane were launched emphasising good citizenship through the payment for services. That is, it attempted to remake the meanings of non-payment. On the other hand, cut-offs and the attachment of property were used as retroactive measures to ensure compliance. However, in comparison with the strategy that would succeed it (prepaid meters), the elements of these two aspects of the state’s response seemed dislocated. Where government and parastatal public relations departments carried out the ideological interventions, cut-offs and attachments were treated as administrative actions and presided over by low-level officials. The introduction of operation Gcina ‘manzi, in many ways, marks the evolution of neoliberalism’s strategy in this regard and explicitly brings these together - the prerogative to save (implicit in the name of the programme) and self-disconnection.


Subjectivity, a far more difficult concept, tends to animate life strategies and determine how they invest different acts (for instance, the non-payment for services). We should also note that while life strategies tend to imply subjectivity, they are not coextensive. Instead, I tend to think of life strategies, as an effect of subjectivity; however, in following the paths of a strategy, subjectivity is also remade. This also seems to imply that life strategies are a negotiation of available freedom and ideas of self. However, life strategies do not simply encounter “available freedoms” as a closed set, but are potentially the means through which the limits of the latter are marked or opened up. I also want to pose this concept (life strategies) against that of survival strategies. The latter seems far too narrow, and reactionary, in the sense that its objects are externally given. From this perspective, the most attractive aspect of this concept is that it allows me to say a few things about subjectivity without it having to be the explicit focus (which seems to me to be an impossible research task).

Our definition of life strategies as ‘people’s strategies for taking care of themselves’ no longer describes the direction in which the concept is developing. We have already seen its relation to social means of production and its elaboration of collective investments. For now the following formulation will have to do: by life strategies, I imply that which is constructed, as a negotiation of people’s available freedom and notions of self, through assuming various strategic positions as a means towards creating the conditions of life.


Hardt and Negri’s Empire takes up the theme of Primitive Accumulation as well. However, where theorists such as David Havey have tended to invoke the concept in relation to notions of inside/outside, Hardt and Negri offer an analysis of a properly postmodern form in which the distinction increasingly becomes untenable.

Their analysis contrasts postmodern PA with the figures of modern primitive accumulation that highlight the relations between inside and out and wealth and command. In relation to the latter, they argue that processes of PA were experienced differently depending upon mediations of the geographies of imperialism. So, for the type of PA described by Marx (ostensibly European), wealth came from outside while command arises internally. On the other hand in Europe’s colonies, wealth came from inside, while command came from outside.

In the postmodern era, what disappears is not PA (“capitalist relations of production and social classes must continually be reproduced”) but the play between inside and outside (or rather, it declines). Further under postmodernism, social wealth - the subject of appropriation - increasingly becomes immaterial: “social relations, communication systems, information and affective networks”. Equally as “the proletariat is becoming the universal figure of labour, the object of proletarian labour is becoming equally universal. Social labour produces life itself.”

They go on to argue that information (the figure of postmodern wealth) carries through its networks both wealth and the command of production such that “informational accumulation destroys or at least destructures the previously existing productive processes, but immediately integrates those productive processes in its own networks and generates across the different realms of production the highest levels of productivity”


Negri’s conception of postmodern primitive accumulation, in spite of a few deficiencies opens up a whole new set of questions that we can discuss when we meet. But a few connections should become clear 1. Firstly that the common of our life strategy thesis is in fact a product of immaterial labour. 2. Such a conception of PA opens up a whole range of possible narratives that speak to the manner in which the post apartheid context has facilitated the widespread appropriation of common . 3. In South Africa the intensive integration of labour (through technologies such as prepaid) elaborate forms of biopower that reconstitute township life strategies as a means to facilitating their insertion into the collective biopolitical body. 4. The forms of reconstitution of life strategies take the figure of entrepreneurialism as an all encompassing master narrative of social production , forcing our thesis into dialogue with various pieces of research on governmentality (not least of which is the work of AvS)

This is where things start getting interesting. However this was only a begining and maybe u can already see where I am taking this…


The following is an outline of the practical process of researching life strategies in relation to water and prepaid meters.

The research will develop a narrative of the various cost recovery interventions led by the South African state over the last ten years, with a specific focus on the introduction of prepaid water meters. It will try to identify the manner in which these interventions have been shaped by, or have responded to community resistance and what has often been referred to as the 'culture of non-payment'. From this perspective the research will also seek to identify the manner in which the actual introduction of prepaid meters has altered the strategies through which people create the conditions of their lives. In addition, the research will attempt to understand the relationship between instances of resistance and these life strategies.

Through the above process, it is intended that we begin understanding the effects of neoliberalism and commodification on people's reproduction (including the whole range of social relations embedded therein). Finally, it is hoped that through this research the concept of life strategies may be developed with a specific focus on its relationship to subjectivity.

With these broad objectives, the research will attempt to answer the following questions:

o What was the specific economic and political context of the ANC government’s adoption of an ostensibly neoliberal approach to the delivery of basic services?

o How did this approach specifically alter the provision of water?

o What were the challenges faced by municipalities in rolling out this process?

o How was 'prepaid' framed in relation to these challenges?

o What were the specific challenges encountered in the roll out of prepaid technology in Soweto?

o What is the relationship between these challenges and various acts of resistance against commodification (including non payment)?

o What is the relationship between these challenges and the social history of Sowetans (eg. the payment boycotts of the 1980s), in particular their experiences of water delivery?

o To what extent do such social histories mediate people’s practices in relation to approaches to non-payment before the implementation of prepaid water meters?

o How do the social histories of Sowetans mediate their responses to prepaid water meters?

o What other factors mediate people’s responses to prepaid meters?

o How has the delivery of water though prepaid systems altered people’s approaches to essential activities such basic hygiene, sanitation and nutrition?

o How has the introduction of prepaid affected peoples approaches to ‘non-essential’ activities such gardening and recreation?

o How has the system effected the financial planning of households, in particular the household budgetary regimes and priorities?

o How has the introduction altered the relationships within the household and with the broader community?

o What has been the effect of these meters on what is often called ‘housework’ or feminised work necessary for the reproduction of the household (e.g. cooking cleaning fetching water)?

o What kinds of strategies do people develop in order to resist or navigate the effects of the system in the relation the categories outlined above? Literature Review A detailed survey of literature related to the above themes and research questions will be conducted. In addition, audio-visual material will be sourced from Indymedia-SA.

Household Critical Ethnographic Studies Five households will be selected in Phiri, Soweto. The researcher will spend a substantial amount of time with each household, interviewing members, observing their behaviour, and initiating conversations, debates and discussions with and amongst them to understand their approaches to life and living. The households will be selected to illustrate differences with regard to the nature of Phiri (representing the different sections), and differences with regard to the responses of households to 'cost recovery' practices.

The researcher will attempt to construct through the above a social history of each household, and map household strategies for living over time. In particular, attention will be paid to access to income, employment strategies, payment for basic services, differentiation of roles in the household, decision-making, etc. These themes will, however, be expanded on through interaction with the five households.

The researcher will construct a specific set of questions for members of households to understand their strategies with regard to prepaid meters. These will be designed in such a way as to understand the effects of prepaid meters on the social histories that would have already been constructed in the manner outlined above.

The researcher will try to draw 'rhizomatic maps' from the information gathered in the above manner to pull together similarities and differences of experiences amongst the five households, in this manner allowing the local experiences to determine the answers to the overall research questions.

It will be difficult to set from the beginning a finite number of interviews as the process of interaction that will have initiated this project will also determine who and what exactly the interviews will focus on. In summary, this project will involve a number of semi-structured interviews with various members of households about various issues related to their choices and strategies for living. It could be said that this project will be a series of 'conversations' with members of households in Phiri about life.