Cape Town, South Africa

Commoning for Urban Justice

Learning from the Victoria Mxenge Women, Cape Town, South Africa.
The Victoria Mxenge Settlement, seen from the community building.

Commoning to counter a neoliberal urbanism
Capitalist and neoliberal urbanism, through the logic of ‘fencing off’ from the public goods, has led to the creation of ‘new urban enclosures’. There have been repeated calls to replace this extractive and exclusionary logic with a generative and inclusive ordering. Authors and practitioners have suggested that it is in with the practice of commoning that we may find a way forward. As part of this discourse, the political philosopher Silvia Federici has foregrounded the commoning by women of the global South, in their struggles for subsistence and against land enclosures. One example of such a struggle, was carried out by the Victoria Mxenge (VM) women in Cape Town, South Africa.

Commoning for a right to the city
Towards the end of the apartheid era, a group of rural women arrived in Cape Town to join their migrant-worker husbands. As a result, they found themselves defined as illegal migrant land occupants and radically marginalised on the extreme periphery of the city. Their shared struggle for inclusion revolved around the basic need for shelter as the means to enter the city in two ways: to have a proper house for themselves and their children, and to become emancipated urban citizens. Hence, this group of women, as the poorest of the poor, also needed to transform their own identities to get access to power in the urban context.

Engaging in commoning as an initial means of survival, the women produced houses and public amenities for their emerging community. Crucially, through their circularly evolving commoning process, they also created resources as knowledge and professional and leadership skills. With these, they could transform themselves into legal citizens with the agency to counter dominating powers.

Commoning for societal transformation
Social justice is sometimes recognised as resource redistribution and identity recognition. The commoning of the VM women engaged with both. The commoning process distributed previously denied resources which were created in parallel with the new identities. But it also created social justice in terms of representation. The VM women did not only become recognised as urban citizens, they also became political subjects, appointed to represent a larger social movement contributing directly towards societal transformation. In the context of Cape Town, where ubiquitous violence makes its presence felt in walls topped with broken glass and barb wires, the Victoria Mxenge settlement is strikingly peaceful. Everyday violence is an enduring feature of processes of domination, both on a structural and interpersonal level. In contrast, commoning for accessibility, participation and emancipation by necessity resists violence. The non-violent spaces of the commons consequently offer a radical alternative to current neoliberal urbanism.

Henrietta Palmer, Deputy Scientific Director
Henrietta Palmer
Partner: Victoria Mxenge Women
Henrietta Palmer is a researcher and was Artistic Professor of Urban Design at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. During the same time she was also Deputy Scientific Director at the international research centre of Mistra Urban Futures with a particular engagement in methodologies for transdisciplinary research. Her research focus concerns spatial justice and urban transformation processes stemming from social-spatial practices.

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