Delivery as Dispossession offers us an incredibly nuanced social scientific study of the dynamics of land occupations in contemporary South Africa. Lucidly and dialectically told by Zachary Levenson, the story follows two occupations by the urban poor in Cape Town that have opposite outcomes: one succeeding and the other failing. Why, Levenson asks, did they have such different outcomes? The answer is far from obvious, and upon closer examination, traditional scholarly explanations fail us.

The precise methods deployed in this study include ethnography (which, for sound ethical and political reasons, is conducted “at-a-distance”), interviews, policy and media analysis, and archival work. But the overarching methodology is built in large part on the work of geographer Gillian Hart, whose writings on the benefits of ethnography and “relational comparison” prove to be crucial for Levenson. How can we begin to generalize our case study findings, without reaching too far, as world-systems theorists are accused of doing, to the sometimes overly abstract scale of “the world”?

Relational comparison offers one incredibly useful answer, by bringing different case studies into conversation and into relation, refusing the originally discrete approach of much of the work in sociological comparison, and instead insisting that even before they are brought into relation by scholars, different cases are likely already in relation with each other. In Hart’s work, struggles around racialized dispossession, land redistribution, economic restructuring and investment in/from Taiwan and South Africa offer useful cases to think through. And in her contemporary work that develops the notion of a “global conjunctural frame,” placing cases from the United States, South Africa, and India into conversation relationally can offer broader findings regarding authoritarianism, nationalism, and populism.

In Levenson’s study, the (“extended”) cases are much closer to each other—indeed, we learn that some of the occupiers from Kapteinsklip were actually recruited to join the next occupation at Siqalo. This means that the occupations are not discrete at all. In addition to sharing the broader immediate surroundings of former townships, and some of the same socio-economic conditions, they even shared some of the same occupants. This also means that lessons from the first failed occupation were able to inform occupants at the second successful encampment.

Like Hart, he draws on Gramsci’s theorizations of civil and political society, hegemony, and the integral state, as well as on latter-day Gramscians such as Stuart Hall and Peter Thomas. But he also adds to this theoretical mix an interesting engagement with Sartre, who offers him the useful distinction between a series and a fused group. While the series (applied to the unsuccessful occupation at Kapteinsklip) represents the isolation and individualism of the crowd under commodified social relations, the fused group (applied to the successful occupation at Siqalo) represents a successful effort to overcome such divisive subjectivities by uniting across differences for a greater goal.

In a country plagued by historical and ongoing racialized dispossession, grappling with the question of how the urban poor might successfully challenge the state for survival purposes, and win concessions like access to urban land and services is obviously crucial. The particular dynamics of South Africa’s post-colonial democracy, however, make this much harder than it seems. After all, Levenson underscores the fact that the ruling African National Congress party must offer its citizens something by way of redress for the history of colonialism and apartheid in order to continue receiving their (dwindling) support at the ballot box. And indeed, going against the grain of neoliberal privatization and retrenchment across the rest of the world, he notes that more than 3 million homes have been built for poor people in South Africa since it became a democracy in the mid-1990s.

Part of the uniqueness of Levenson’s stories includes the fact that Cape Town, and the Western Cape province of which it is a part, are ruled by the Democratic Alliance, a political party that usually plays second fiddle to the ruling African National Congress in much, although not all, of the rest of the country. This means that rather than simply doing the dirty governmental work of dispossessing land occupations—as they do in much of the rest of the country—the ANC can sometimes encourage land occupations in Cape Town, but only as part of a cynical instrumentalist attempt to either gerrymander the city according to the racial demographics they think will be most favorable to their party. This often entails moving ANC-leaning “Africans” into DA-leaning “Colored” neighborhoods. And indeed, we learn, somewhat surprisingly at first, that both the Kapteinsklip and Siqalo occupations were initially started, or at least heavily supported, by front groups working for the ANC (MPHA and SPRM).

But—and in my view this is one of the most significant findings of Levenson’s study—the relationship between political party politics and either social movements or social non-movements is also far from clear. Levenson is at his ethnographic best—and this in a book in which all the ethnographic accounts are truly captivating—in the penultimate chapter when telling the story of how and why Siqalo succeeded as a land occupation. Of particular note is his absolutely brilliant recounting and interpretation (149-153) of a tense meeting that took place in Siqalo. He demonstrates the chops of a sophisticated ethnographer with a keen political antenna, as he points out the contradictory and offensive logic deployed by some of the DA-supporting occupation leaders, while still ultimately siding with their denunciation of perceived “outsiders.” These “outsiders” included those who were clearly closest to Levenson (Faeza, Ebrahiem, and Mike), and who arguably had the best politics on paper, but who Levenson believes were complicit in this instance with reproducing a dynamic that threatened to jeopardize the community’s autonomy, even though that is precisely what they thought they were buttressing! Organizing can indeed be complex.

Always careful to think the Gramscian specificity of a conjuncture, including the potential reversibility of any temporary wins, Levenson’s account demonstrates that in both occupations, outside organizations in general, but especially political parties, played a divisive role in land occupations. The more residents get embroiled in the divisive politics of political parties, the more they risk appearing to the state as serialized and disorganized groups of self-interested actors, unworthy of state assistance or recognition. The more they are able to successfully avoid such outside organizations playing a role on their internal politics, the more likely they are to remain united as a genuinely fused group under recognized structures of leadership that end up with the best chance of appearing to the state like worthy subjects of government assistance.

However, if political parties, and electoral politics in general, play a negative role in the politics of land occupations (occupiers even set non-partisan newly arrived voter registration booths on fire! Twice!), and residents are advised to avoid them if they hope to succeed, the somewhat counter-intuitive, but in my view correct, second finding of Levenson’s study is that even in cases when land occupiers want nothing to do with the state, or when they assert an autonomous anti-state politics, they are inevitably likely to be drawn into dialectical relationship with the state. Thus, his point that civil and political societies must always be thought of together, relationally, rather than discretely.

To me, this clearly implies that much of the traditional left’s critique of social movements in South Africa and elsewhere—that they fail to meaningfully intervene on the terrain of state power, or to scale up, which in such criticisms usually entails joining or forming political parties—is misplaced. Actually, the opposite appears to be the case here. Traditional political parties, even those that are ostensibly radical, are the ones who have hitherto failed to understand the particular dynamics of poor people’s movements and their parallel forms of quiet encroachment, especially when these occur among the surplus populations that are the focus on Levenson’s study. They too often believe that such people are either counter-revolutionary, insufficiently proletarianized, or unorganizable. At best, even when they do seek to mobilize such groups, they do so as part of top-down structures where leadership is either imposed from outside the lived experience of the occupation, or where the concrete demands and desires of land occupiers are made subservient to broader political goals that either have nothing to do with the occupiers or can even work against their interests.  

And yet, just as statist political parties are unhelpful in occupations but the state cannot be avoided as part of the conversation in such spaces, so too does Levenson’s study reveal something about the complicated dynamic of leadership in such spaces (99-100, 105-106, 109-112). On the one hand, adequate leadership is a crucial and necessary element that facilitates an occupation’s success. On the other hand, leadership is inevitably corrupting and part of what can make such occupations fail. Democratic structures, developed not out of pure ideological commitments but more likely from the practical knowledge of everyday people who seek to disperse power, even if they understand the necessity and utility of some form of leadership, are crucial here. But they are not, Levenson explains, catch-all solutions to these problem, and democratic structures, when abused by certain actors, can also make groups more rather than less vulnerable to co-optation at times. It all depends, Leveson usefully reminds us over and over again, on the particular dynamics at play at any particular place and time of an occupation.

Related to this reversal, I found especially exciting Levenson’s observation—which was briefly made explicit (78), but is mostly delivered implicitly—that the relationship between formal social movements and social non-movements needs to be thought through more carefully and in a much more sustained fashion. That is to say, in the face of the criticism of many traditional approaches to politics—through political parties, the working class, or excessively normative theories of agency—a growing body of literature has emphasized much more everyday modes through which ordinary people manage to survive in cities across the postcolonial world. But these concepts—such as insurgent citizens, social non-movements, quiet encroachment, and people as infrastructure—also tend to elide a substantive relation to formally organized political movements. The danger here, in my view, has always been that any examples of formally organized movements are then equated with, and potentially dismissed, as traditional modes of doing politics. But I think Levenson’s findings point to the political imperative of thinking through the relationship between the structures of everyday life and more formally organized modes of doing politics, particularly among populations that have been deemed surplus to either the needs of capital or surplus to dominant modes of doing politics. After all, as Geo Maher has argued, going against the vein of a lot of academic writing, “The power of community, in short, is an organized power” (174).

When I set the book down I was excited, and I immediately jotted down a series of burning questions still lingering in my mind. I’ll close with just two groups of these:

1) If, ironically, or counterintuitively, the Siqalo strategy of radically critiquing both the state and all political parties, while not necessarily asking for any formal recognition from the state, ends up, unintentionally but successfully, being the most legible model to the state itself (at least in the powerful courtrooms of South Africa) and facilitating certain meaningful concessions from the state, then how exactly should movements relate to the (integral) state? How can we simultaneously be “thinking the state as a terrain of struggle” (164) while also insisting upon the greater efficacy of “autonomously articulating” (168) our forms of organization that seem to work best when they reject outside organizations like political parties, NGOs, and charities?

2) What do we make of the fact that the same ANC- and DA-led post-apartheid governments that justify ongoing forms of dispossession by arguing that it is the only route to adequate and responsible democratic delivery (again, the state has delivered more than 3 million structures since 1994 (51), more than any other country in this period), is also clearly guilty of ‘state capture,’ violent repression of the poor, and a virulently nationalist anti-migrant politics? This was made evident most recently in the Johannesburg building fire that killed approximately 76 poor people, many of them migrants, and by the ANC Youth League leader’s subsequent statement that such tragedies should actually signal an intentional “policy” and program for how to successfully rid the country of what he called “illegal foreigners,” demanding that “all of those buildings must be cleaned out.” Is “delivery by dispossession” a mere convenient excuse to generally continue an anti-poor policy? What is the relationship between “delivery by dispossession” as the post-apartheid reversal of the dialectical relationship between the two processes, on the one hand, and the parallel reality of state capture, violent repression, outright assassination of the poor, and state-produced “xenophobia”, on the other hand? To be clear, these are not posed in jest or as mere rhetorical questions. They are real questions I continue to grapple with after reading this nuanced and fantastic study of the different paths that everyday struggles for survival can travel down in post-colonial democracies like South Africa. I look forward to continuing the conversation with Levenson. He has gifted us with a brilliant book that should be engaged by anyone concerned with everyday struggles for survival in the city, land occupations, and the dialectical relationship between movements, non-movements, and the integral state.

Yousuf Al-Bulushi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His book Ruptures in the Afterlife of the Apartheid City will be published in 2024 in Palgrave’s Contemporary African Political Economy series.