The operation of power in social movements: the story of a shack dweller movement

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Seminar by Ibrahim Steyn (Sociology, UCT)

The operation of power in social movements: The story of a shack dweller movement

Date: Thursday, 14 April 2016

Time: 13:00 – 14:30

Venue: 4th floor, neville alexander building


Academics and intellectuals have been burying the underside of social movements under romantic claims about the practices and struggles of the movements. However, studies of informally structured social movements in both the local and international social movement literature are subverting the romantic imaginary of social movements. In The Rise and Fall of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African Social Movement, Bandile Mdlalose, a former leader of the movement, critically reflects on power dynamics in Abahlali. The article drew criticism from several academics – much of it on technical grounds. The real issue that prompted the controversy is that Mdlalose’s insider account of Abahlali disrupts the dominant social movement narrative, which is largely celebratory in nature and tends to treat the oppressed as homogenous, pure and virtues subjects. Her piece corroborates the argument advanced by Jo Freeman against the notion that informally structured social movements are egalitarian political spaces. Walsh (2015, p.123) poses a vitally important question to Mdlalose’s critics: “If the idea is to actually build stronger movements, focused on achieving social justice goals, how can discussing power dynamics…create such a furore?”

The impact of power dynamics on the successes and failures of movements is often left undiscussed in scholarly writings on social movements. Existing analyses of power in movements or movement organizations are circumscribed to decision-making processes in movements, and to relations between specific actors or groups. They thus leave us with little empirical knowledge about the ensemble of social relations through which power operates in a movement, and about how the operation of power in a movement shapes its successes and failures.

This paper provides an empirical account of the operation of power in a shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo of the Western Cape, and how it shaped the waxing and waning of the movement between 2008 and 2012. It will also shed light on the complexities of external resource support for social movements, especially for poor people’s movements.



Dr Ibrahim Steyn is an AW Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology. His research interests are in the area of political sociology, including local governance and social change, state-civil society relations, and social movements. Dr Steyn is a political activist. He cut his political teeth in the student movement as a member and later a leader of the South African Students Congress (SASCO). He also held leadership positions in the South African Communist Party and the Young Communist League of South Africa.

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