espite the end of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid, dispossession, displacement, and domination continue in contemporary South Africa. How do we square that fact with the South African nation-state declaring in its 1996 Constitution that housing and freedom from “arbitrary evictions” are a right of all – a right, no less, that the state saw as critical to its efforts to remedy the effects of colonialism and of apartheid? Trying to understand the wide gulf between official rhetoric and official practice is the goal of Zachary Levenson’s recent book Delivery as Dispossession. He begins his study by noting that this same Constitution qualifies its obligations to ensure this right in two key ways: first, “adequate housing” is only guaranteed if the state has “available resources” to provide it and, secondly, evictions and home demolitions can continue if a South African court of law orders it. Given the high numbers of people without adequate housing and the continuous evictions of those occupying the land they need in order to live, Levenson explores the ways the South African state tries to legitimize its ongoing dispossession and displacement of people in light of the fact that its legitimacy is very much attached to ending the practices associated with the apartheid era.

This is not to say that nothing has changed from the apartheid era to the present day. A signature policy of the apartheid regime was the construction of nominally Whites-only spaces in the most coveted and lucrative spots in South Africa through the forced re-location of many hundreds of thousands of people negatively racialized as “Black” or “Coloured” to distant townships, districts, “homelands,” and “bantustans.” From the 1960s, the state constructed (inadequate) housing in an effort to mitigate unrest in these segregated, dangerously under-resourced sites. Citizens of South Africa (a point that Levenson does not duly note) now have full mobility rights. They cannot be forced to live in one or another area. This is no small change. However, it is not transformative change either, and certainly not the change people hoped for during the anti-apartheid struggle. Not only does residential (and other forms of racist) segregation continue, but hundreds of thousands of people are without adequate housing and houselessness and evictions continue apace.

The main change in regards to the state’s relationship to housing and land allocation, as Levenson points out, is that the relationship between dispossession and what he awkwardly calls “delivery” (of housing) has been inverted. In the apartheid era, delivery of housing (at least after the 1960s) was a way to ensure that negatively racialized people stayed put in their state-designated places. In the post-apartheid period, both dispossession and delivery continue but people are now dispossessed by court-mandated evictions said to be necessary for the “protection” of the state’s capacity to “deliver” housing to those deemed to be deserving of it. As Levenson succinctly puts it under apartheid “delivery enabled dispossession” while in the post-apartheid city of Cape Town (at least) “dispossession enables delivery.”

Levenson’s subject provides an excellent opportunity to examine the politics of postcolonial nation-states in general and the South African nation-state in particular. In the case of South Africa, where the post-apartheid Constitution was widely regarded as completing the “liberation struggle,” Levenson’s study helps us evaluate the reality of life in a national liberation state and, relatedly, the nationalist politics of citizenship with its reliance on a rights-based discourse. His questions point us to ways that postcolonial states legitimize their continued rule over people’s land and lives.

Like other promises made in the name of “national liberation,” the post-apartheid Constitution was written in such a way that people (or at least those granted South African nationality) were led to believe that the practices associated with colonial and apartheid rule would end and that the damages they caused would be repaired. Yet, state practices of dispossession and displacement continued. Not in the same way to be sure, but many people lacked adequate housing and the state’s courts, police and military used violent force to expel people.

Levenson examines the wider implications of these continuities in state practice, but his main focus is a comparison between two different land occupations in areas of Cape Town named Kapteinsklip and Siqalo. Employing political theories of the state and of social movements, Levenson argues that the liberal tendency to treat “civil society” as distinct and separate from “political society” is a flawed approach to understanding the social, political, and economic dynamics of land occupations in South Africa. His deep dive into the dynamics of these land occupations helps us understand how people engaged in the occupations understood themselves, their status in South Africa, and their actions. This is a refreshing departure from overly general theories of the relationship between state and capital that leave out the ideas and world-changing actions of the people over whom they rule.

From his research, we get to see what works and what doesn’t in regards to land occupations in today’s South Africa. Unexpectedly, at least from the vantage point of many current liberal and even Left theorists, it was the occupation in Kapteinsklip which was evicted rather than Siqalo. At Kapteinsklip, occupiers, Levenson says, viewed themselves as “possessive individuals” (to use C.B. Macpherson’s term) seeking to become homeowners, whereas in Siqalo occupiers saw themselves as a group of rights-bearing citizens bent on securing their constitutional right to housing (although Levenson doesn’t discuss them as such nor the politics of national citizenship per se). If the purpose of contemporary land expropriation and expulsion of impoverished land occupiers in the national liberation states (and even in the Rich World) is to enrich developers and the state, as many theorists maintain, then the occupation at Siqalo, which took place on private property next to a relatively well-off neighborhood ripe for further development would be more likely to be expelled. However, it was the occupiers at Kapteinsklip, which was on public property, whom the court ordered ejected.

Levenson examines the reasons why the outcome doesn’t fit prevalent theories about land conflicts. Kapteinsklip failed, he argues (following Asef Bayat), because it was a “social nonmovement.” Occupiers there were not engaged in a “politics of protest” but a “practice…of redress through direct and disparate actions” (Bayat 2013 qtd. in Levenson 2022, 13). Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s conceptual framework, occupiers at Kapteinsklip, Levenson (30) says, were only “members of a series – fragmented, isolated, and acting in simultaneity rather than in common.” In Siqalo, on the other hand, occupiers formed themselves into a “fused group” whose internal cohesion was strengthened by their rejection (and ejection) of people from political parties, charities, and NGOs. Their demand for land/housing was made not from the position of individual homeowners (as at Kapteinsklip) but as rights-bearers in a post-apartheid South Africa that was going to remedy the wrongs of colonialism and apartheid. The more influential of the Siqalo occupiers were, indeed, active in the anti-apartheid movement and learned the power of anti-racist organizing there. Levenson (139) very nicely discusses their anti-racist politics by noting that, “faced with openly racist antagonists [from the municipal government or neighbors], they refused to coalesce around antagonists, they refused to coalesce around an ‘African’ identity, which might have restricted their membership. Instead, they preserved their identity as occupiers, forming a fused group capable of incorporating anyone who wanted to join them.”

Most innovatively, Levenson also notes the importance of how occupiers viewed the state for this, he argues, profoundly shaped how the state viewed them. At Kapteinsklip, occupiers viewed the state as the provider of housing while at Siqalo the occupiers saw the state as denying them their national right to housing. Again, in contravention of most theories of land development and dispossession, the former should have fared better than the latter because their views supposedly fit better with the state’s neoliberal approach to land and housing. Yet, as Levenson explains, this didn’t occur because the Siqalo occupiers’ hostility towards the government led to their becoming more self-organized as a collective demanding respect for their rights. In a South Africa where the state’s legitimacy is in no small part reliant on its remedying historic wrongs, collectives demanding their constitutional rights held greater sway than individuals desiring to become home owners. No wonder, then, that Levenson sees a relational theory of the state as the most helpful.

Levenson deepens his analysis by noting that although the outcome of occupations at Kapteinsklip and Siqalo were quite different, both further cemented the hegemony of the post-apartheid South African state. Despite the differences in their self-understanding, both occupations were forced into South Africa’s courts, which, according to the much-lauded 1996 Constitution, alone could determine who could be lawfully evicted and who could stay put (at least until the next court date). Both occupations had their politics “judicialized” (a term he borrows from the Comaroffs). By participating in court proceedings (retaining lawyers, making arguments based on the law, abiding by the decision, etcetera), both sets of occupiers responded to the state’s addressing them as its citizens and were thus interpellated into its rationality of ruling. As Levenson argues, the judiciary was key to managing discontent in post-apartheid South Africa. In the process, the hegemony of the current state practice of “delivery as dispossession” was maintained. Or, to paraphrase Foucault (1980), technologies of domination intersected with technologies of the self in the governmentality of post-apartheid state rule. Levenson however is much more indebted to Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas’s relational theories of state power and would likely feel more comfortable saying that the hegemony of the South African capitalist state was secured by incorporating the reasoning of ruling relations into people’s everyday understanding of themselves and their world as well as ensuring that their political paths intersected with that of the state.

Levenson (41) shows how the delegitimization of occupations by housing officials helps the post-apartheid state avoid acknowledging its failures, something he sees as key to the state’s maintenance of its hegemony. But he misses the opportunity to relate this fear of failure to the national form of state power that is the basis of postcolonial states. Painting occupiers as “queue jumpers” is key not only to understanding how the state redirects responsibility for the lack of housing away from itself to the houseless but to managing the inherent contradictions of nation-state rule. The reality of life in a nation-state is that being a “rights-bearing citizen” does not mean that one will get that to which one has a right. Nation-state power does not exist to ensure freedom from want, never mind equality between people.

The state’s use of the courts to legitimize (and individualize) evictions is more than the “judicialization of politics.” The overarching institution which captures politics today is the national institution of citizenship. Citizenship secures the hegemony of what I have called the postcolonial new world order (Sharma 2020). It is both the promise and the cudgel of the nation-state. In the formerly colonized world, it ideologically (and juridically) transforms the colonized into rights-bearing persons. When accepted (which most people in the world do), it also produces the idea that the absence of that which we have a “right” to is a failure not of nation-state sovereignty with its promises of liberation, but of particular governments (“a different party should be in power!”), particular state officials (“corruption must end!”), or just plain individuals (“pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”).

Yet, Levenson does not analyze the state institution of citizenship. Even as he quotes someone from Siqalo saying, “It’s like they don’t recognize us as South Africans. We are human beings and they must maintain our rights,” he does not discuss how the occupiers, including those who were revolutionary, anti-apartheid activists, answered the call to South African citizenship. While paying attention to the relationship between how people view the state and how the state views them, Levenson doesn’t recognize that this is part of a nationalist politics of citizenship. Most especially, he doesn’t discuss the lack of juridical citizenship for people needing land and housing in South Africa. While it is certainly the case that, as Levenson says, “how state actors see populations is inseparable from how populations see the state,” he doesn’t account for the difference that citizenship status (and its lack) makes in both these regards.

The South Africa nation-state (like all others) does not see non-citizens as deserving of rights, even if they live and work in the territories the state claims. Perhaps Levenson, in wanting to avoid a totalizing view of the state in favour of a relational view, is unwilling to look at the governmentality of postcolonial state power. Yet, its hegemony lies in its capacity to convince people that they are the state. But, of course, they aren’t. The sovereignty of the nation-state is not the sovereignty of “the people” (i.e. those recognized as “nationals”). This would become clearer if Levenson would see “migrants” in South Africa. In the politics of nationally organized constitutional “rights,” “migrants” are unincorporable (other than changing their status from “migrants” to “citizens,” a rare and increasingly unpopular move with citizen-electors).

South Africa is not unique in this. No nation-state can incorporate “migrants” into the “nation.” No nation-state can “deliver” on its promises, whether anodyne or spectacular (housing! liberty!). This is not (only) because they are corrupt or in the hands of the wrong set of people. It is structural. All nation-states co-exist in a highly unequal world organized by globally operative capital. Capitalism cannot abide equality but relies on the simultaneous production of instrumental solidarities and deep divisions as well as untold wealth for a few and grave poverty for the many. South Africa is not the hegemon within this global system of nation-states/capital. But even if it were, these inequalities would not end (we only need to look at social relations in the United States to see that). Levenson’s (12-13) analysis would have been strengthened, I believe, if he applied what he came to understand about the failed occupation at Kapteinsklip to South Africa as a nation-state in a world of nation-states, namely that, “small alliances formed and attempted to secure material benefits and access to information for its members, but at the expense of other squatters in competing blocs.”

This leads to me to discuss Levenson’s approach to resistance in the context of the hegemony of the post-apartheid state. There is insufficient attention to the possibility (and practice) of being political outside of the terrain occupied by the state. Not only does Levenson (19) tend to see the “politics of necessity” as non-political or, again, to use Bayat’s (2013) term, “social nonmovements,” he rejects the idea that there can be a “sanctified space of the ‘from below’.” Regardless of the intent of political actors who, like the land occupiers in both Kapteinsklip and Siqalo, whom Levenson says just want to be “left alone,” the state sees (and hails) all. He says that, “whether or not residents want to be perceived by government actors is beside the point; they are perceived regardless. Even intentionally autonomous actions, attempts to sidestep the state altogether, still end up in communication with local government officials, police, judges, and the like” (19).

True enough, but being seen by the state is not the same as being interpellated into it. It is the case that the occupiers in both Kapteinsklip and Siqalo responded to the state’s address to them as its citizens by agreeing to participate in judicial proceedings and abide by its rulings. However, people’s involvement in the institutions of the state is surely not the same as their acceptance of the legitimacy of the state (or at least of national citizenship). In any case, if we accept Gramsci’s (and Marx’s) thesis on the inseparability of “civil” from “political” (or “social” and “economic”) spheres, the state permeates all of our lives. This is especially the case with the post-WWII nation-state, which is stronger, has greater reach into people’s lives, and is harder to escape, than any state before it (as James Scott notes, 2009). At the same time, it is also the case that not all political movements end up making demands of the state (as Levenson consistently claims, see p. 26; 115). Instead, some social movements actively call for the dismantling of states and reject national citizenship as the legitimate basis for political membership. Demanding the state cease to exist is not a “demand to the state” but to people to eject the state from politics. The state may (will) try to stop its dismantlement, of course, but a struggle with the state is also not the same as being interpellated into it. If it were, there would be no way out of the mess of state and class rule.

The limitations of Levenson’s political analysis may lie in his analysis of the relationship between “civil” and “political” society. While clearly seeing them as mutually constituted, he maintains their separation, supposedly as a heuristic device but, Levenson’ strategic separation often ends up acting as an actual separation in his analysis (they are “two domains”). Yet, what does it mean to say that land occupiers wanted to stay in the realm of “civil society” but were inescapably pulled into “political society”? For instance, the demands of those who Levenson says were least willing to get pulled into the state – the occupiers at Siqalo – were to be “left alone” and have land/housing. These are demands and they are not minor ones. Moreover, these claims were made on the basis of their “being South African,” i.e. rights-bearing citizens of the state. They were not pulled into “political society” at the moment they agreed to participate in judicial proceedings to stave off eviction; they were always engaged in a nationalist politics of “popular sovereignty.” They were enacting the hegemony of the postcolonial new world order.

The terms “civil society” and “political society” do not help us here. This is because “civil society” is a liberal ideology of state rule. Liberal styles of governance, as Marx and Engels (1969) and Foucault (1991) have shown are particularly concerned with the ideological construction of civil society. The notion that state practices represent the will of “the people” is conducive to the maintenance of the inequalities extant in all nation-states. Ideological notions of civil society easily intersect with ideological practices of nation-ness to organize a social space that simultaneously mythologizes a collectivity of “citizens” who comprise the “nation” while conjuring up categorical differences among the actual group of people living within national states. The social organization of an ideological unity of “being South African” is an important part of how ruling relations have been accomplished in the aftermath of apartheid rule. Indeed, the construction and continual reproduction of the “rainbow nation” for whom the state purportedly rules is an integral aspect of ruling South Africa. The nation-state always delivers dispossession.


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Nandita Sharma is Professor of the Sociology Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. She is the author of Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of “Migrant Workers” in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2006) and Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).