The South African Homeless People’s Federation Interrogating the myth of participation by Leopold Podlashuc

13 05 2013

The South African Homeless People’s Federation Interrogating the myth of participation
by Leopold Podlashuc

Click here for the full PDF of the paper by Leopold Podlashuc

This paper is an exploration of the ways in which participatory development has become
a key mechanism for both extending (globalising) and consolidating neoliberal hegemony.
The paper hinges on a case study of the South African Homeless Peoples Federation
(SAHPF) and comprises two parts. The first part maps the milieu in which this politicised
development takes place, revealing the local and global context of dispossession that
provides the backdrop to the case study. This part critically interrogates the emergence
of the participatory development paradigm. It is argued that this normatively fashionable
discourse of development has come to be dominated by three essential vectors of neoliberal
ideology: housing, microfinance and social capital. It will be revealed that participatory, (or
rather, ‘bootstrap’) development portrays itself as ostensibly anti-neoliberal, while, at the
same time, it co-opts the tools and vocabulary of the Left to carry out the economic project
of the Right. This apparent contradiction between rhetoric and outcome will be seen to
be consistent with the broad political alliance that Gramsci defined as an ‘historical bloc’,
which consolidates class differences to create hegemony.
In a hegemonic system, democracy between the ruling group and the ruled
groups exists to the extent that the development of the economy, and there-
fore of the legislation which expresses that development, holds open the
channels for the ruled to enter the ruling group. (Gramsci 1975)
In the current era, this historic bloc includes the medley of moderate, liberal and right wing
discourses that legitimise globalised neoliberalism despite their intellectual differences.
The second part of this paper traces how this consolidation of political, normative and
ideological agendas occurred through the lens of the SAHPF. Relying on interview data
collected over a seven-year period (2003–10),1 it questions how an ‘Alliance’ (a term coined
by Arjun Appadurai in 2001) of academics and development practitioners, imbued with
the political agency of neoliberal hegemony, effectively manipulated the South African
environment to manufacture a social movement of homeless black women. It clarifies how
this seeding took root so well, and how, despite its artificial insemination, the SAHPF
established itself as a grassroots movement with considerable agency and traction. The
The South African Homeless People’s Federation
Citizenship and democracy
paper then show show the SAHPF became a crucial global relay point for the spread of the
participatory development paradigm through Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI),
the transnational social movement that it helped create. Operating in at least 33 countries
across the South, SDI has become the hegemonic-actor-from-below, dominating the field of
development. Here, the tensions between SDI and SAHPF are examined, demonstrating how
the genuine and artificial motivations of the ‘participatory development’ paradigm ultimately
fragmented. The paper shows how a resolution came about for the SAHPF by amputating its
links to SDI and the lucrative funding that underpinned it. This is a dialectical tale of thesis,
antithesis and synthesis.