Sustaining “Ungovernability”: Housing and Evictions during Covid-19 in Durban, South Africa

By Kerry Ryan Chance

Emergent Conversation 15

This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

Evicted people wait to recover their belongings during a joint eviction operation between the Red Ants, a private security company, and the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Dunkeld West, Johannesburg, on April 6, 2021. Photo by Luca Sola / AFP) (Photo by LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images.

A central question raised by Giorgio Agamben’s (2013) concept of destituent power is: How do populations sustain “ungovernability” across emerging orders? This question is relevant in the time of Covid-19 when in South Africa, as elsewhere, governmental power has sought to control not only the virus, but key sites of biological and social reproduction. South Africa had among the strictest Covid-19 lockdowns in the world. I focus on housing and evictions because these lockdowns put such an acute emphasis on “the home” as a place of safety and refuge away from the virus. At the same time, the virus shone a spotlight on “the home” as a place of radical inequality, with marginalized communities faring the worst. In South Africa, Covid-19, and its political and economic repercussions, are deepening a post-apartheid eviction crisis with new, deadly consequences as populations move across the city. While aimed at control and curbing informality tenancies, evictions reproduce peri-urban precarity. Evictions, moreover, give rise to mobilizations among poor residents. Often, these mobilizations are premised upon informal dwelling and informal politics, newly through enshrined citizenship rights. Covid-19 makes visible the dissatisfaction of those who still struggle to make a home in South Africa’s cities, and their practices of sustaining “ungovernability.”

In the mid-1980s, the African National Congress (ANC) famously called for the streets to be rendered “ungovernable” in opposition to apartheid (Chance 2018). Ungovernability implied operating without centralization, becoming legible to state agents (and other publics) by breaking the law, and targeting—at times, through unrest, disruption, or violence—material manifestations of the unjust political and economic order. The ANC’s call stood in tension with theories of political representation that proscribe becoming legible to state agents by legitimating claims to legal rights or operating within the bounds of the law. The ANC’s call suggested that governance does not necessarily create ever more efficient and effective—or desirable—sites of control. Even when disenfranchised populations acted within the bounds of the law, they were subject to state violence. Instead of simply reproducing order, governance can give rise to mobilizations outside of its capacity for recuperation. Indeed, it could be said that disenfranchised populations in South Africa have been in revolt throughout the modern period with peaks in certain moments, such as the mid-1980s.

While associated with criminality, unreason, or antimodernity, ungovernabilty actually reveals theories, logics, and strategies that seek, as many liberation movements do, to achieve redistributions of power. I would suggest that ungovernability is characteristic to new activist networks, crowds, and insurgencies, which have correlates and coordinates with mobilizations that preceded them. Yet they also act upon new terrains. A woman burning a tire on the streets of a South African shack settlement, for instance, may appear before a court as a respondent, calling upon rights in national policy and legislation. She may build a shack for her family on occupied state land, yet present her community as dutiful constituents to a local councilor. She may illicitly connect energy supplies, while praying to God to give her a job to feed the prepaid meter. Like all identities, practices, and interactions, they are multiple, complex, and often contradictory, once they are performed as what I have called “ungovernability”. Ungovernability expresses how residents make their lives viable and secure, while grappling with new global forces – specifically, transformations in sovereignty amid neoliberalism and climate change – alongside the legacies of apartheid.

Setting aside inaccuracies in and subsequent criticisms of some of Agamben’s recent statements on the Covid-19 pandemic, Agamben’s concept of destituent power is useful in theorizing contemporary ungovernability. Destituent power—the power to abandon the law—brings together two interrelated concepts, biopolitics, and forms-of-life. Anthropologists often utilize Agamben’s reinterpretation of the Roman legal figure of homo sacer, exploring the way certain subjects, stripped of legal and political status and reduced to biological beings (or biometric data), are exposed to extra-legal public or private forms of authority grounded in violence. Sovereign violence, according to Agamben, stands at once inside and outside the law, in that the law is at once broken and deployed to suspend the status of certain subjects. Anthropologists have identified remnants of homo sacer and “the state of exception” in the precarious lives of refugees, shack-dwellers, and the HIV positive (Biehl 2001; Hansen and Stepputant 2006; De Boeck 2009; Marrow and Luhrmann 2012).

Agamben also looks to experiments in escaping the law at the very moments law’s foundations are set. His interest is in life that achieves autonomy from the law by linking so closely to life’s form, that is to say its practice grounded in “use” and “poverty” (Agamben 2013, 6), that life and rule become inseparable. In this way, sovereign power (in theory), he argues, cannot usurp the law or appropriate life, foreclosing the possibility of producing homo sacer. Destituent power, in other words, denies sovereign power’s ability to enter between life and rule—at least, for some duration. Agamben’s striking example is the monastery without clocks. If “the camp” defines the paradigm of homo sacer, then the heretical, parodic anti-abbey of the exiled described in Rabelais’ 1534 novel Gargantua might begin to define the form-of-life. Rabelais writes that in this abbey, the life of the monks was not regulated by the rule, or the tick-tock, of a time piece, but by their habits and habitus, such that life itself became the rule: “They got up out of bed when they saw fit, drank, ate, worked, slept when they came to feel like doing so…” (as cited in Agamben 2013, 6).  In short, it is characterized as “the perfection of a common life in all and for all,” fully un-attuned to what later would be modernity’s articulation of factory life according to labor-time (6).

Agamben’s focus is on practice and a common life not wholly defined by the logics of capital and formal institutions. The beginning of the modern Christian era brings new understandings of divine and human actions, as well as an increasingly “sharp separation of ownership and use,” which undergirds modern theories of law (134). To combat “the separation of ownership,” Agamben argues the ungovernable best sustain their power, not by frontal attack, but by rendering the law inoperative, where possible, through desertion (134). He contrasts destituent power with the constitutive power of making new law. Using Walter Benjamin’s example of the general strike, Agamben suggests that destituent power “escapes” the dialectics of “law-making” and “law-preserving” violence at the core of governmentality, characterized by states of exception, cycles of terror, and biometric securitization. Other, less parodic examples of destituent power include maroon societies, land occupations, and protest encampments—forms of exile that encompass both protest and infrastructure.

One of the limitations of Agamben’s thought is that it has the potential to become its own form of imperialism, requiring anthropologists to empirically affirm or reject his theories in the global South. Instead, one of the possibilities of reading Agamben is to look beyond biopolitics as a determining object of scholarly inquiry. Ungovernability, as a dynamic set of practices that galvanize collective political action when other means of civic action are unavailable, is one such avenue. However, among important differences with destitute power is that ungovernable populations, in order to protect forms-of-life, engage in frontal attack from time to time, as well as other strategies and tactics. That is not an evaluation about whether ungovernability is effective or desirable in any given political milieu, but to highlight that it is multi-faceted and changing, responding as it does to emerging orders of governance.

Abahlali baseMjondolo protests against the KZN Slums Act outside South Africa’s Constitutional Court in Johannesburg (Abahlali 2008).

I turn now to a shack settlement in Durban, South Africa, called Mendini Hills, to illustrate how urban land has historically been a contested site of governance and political mobilization. Stories by women residents suggest how populations who have been evicted have been politicized and criminalized as “ungovernable” across time. On Youth Day 2006, a national holiday commemorating the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Durban city officials and five carloads of private security arrived at Mendini Hills to identify and mark a spray-painted “X” on some 200 shacks for demolition by the Anti-Land Invasions Unit of the South African Police Service.

I subsequently went to Mendini Hills to see these “Xs,” which, in time, I learned were common in settlements marked for imminent demolition. Many new “Xs” have appeared in Covid times. As the city housing official overseeing the case explained back then, “We have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to control the amount of informal settlements and . . . we are trying to eradicate such settlements.[1] The Durban city government resolved to “eliminate” all so-called “slums” in accordance with the United Nations Millennium Goals, a policy platform aimed at reducing poverty.

Zinzi, a former textile worker and mother of two, was born and raised in Mendini Hills. She helped lead a campaign against the demolitions in her community that, between boycotts, street protests, and emergency affidavits to the city courts, managed successfully to stave off evictions. A year later, when the landowner and city renewed efforts to demolish the settlement, Zinzi said, “They act like it is still apartheid,” recalling the 1960s, when security forces destroyed Mendini shacks, leaving her family “in the open like animals” (Chance 2018). The predominantly Indian residents of “tin-roofed” houses in Mendini, who also have been repeatedly threatened with eviction in recent years, work alongside Zinzi under the banner of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a phrase meaning residents of the shacks, and a leading poor people’s movement in South Africa.

Zinzi’s comrade, Navi, and other families recall the 1980s, when Indian residents were forcibly removed under the 1950 Group Areas Act, after parcels of Mendini land were rezoned for “whites only.” Anti-eviction struggles in Mendini have been ongoing since at least the 1920s, beginning with riotous protests by an Indian residents’ association. In 1923, the government passed the Native Urban Areas Act, which precipitated an early version of British colonial pass laws and other repressive forms of influx control, aimed at curbing the movement of Africans leaving the countryside for major cities like Durban. At the same time, the government, along with allied corporations, especially in the mining and textile industries, sought to maintain racial segregation and the availability of a cheap labor pool by tolerating, or even facilitating, the growth of shack settlements on urban peripheries.

By the 1940s, with a heavy dose of colonial patronage, the government recognized increasingly formalized shack settlements, like Cato Manor in Durban, by granting in situ infrastructure upgrades, building roads, and installing drainage and streetlights. At other times and in other communities, including parts of Cato Manor, residents were subjected to “slum clearance” and evictions. Some of Zinzi’s relatives were sent to isolated, rural “Bantustans,” allocated to African ethnic groups, such as the Zulu and the Xhosa. Whether formalized or not, so-called “slums” were not regarded by state agents as permanent communities, but as sites of squalor, and decay that existed only as a matter of temporary necessity—a theme immortalized by Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country.

Women residents, however, sought to defend, often militantly, against state regulation as they did in Mendini, rebuilding their homes in defiance of evictions or “squatting” on new land. Early campaigns, like those spearheaded by the Industrial Workers Union and the religious front of Amafela—churches being key to these mobilizations—organized tenants in Durban and throughout the countryside. James Mpanza led his Sofasonke (“We die together”) movement of squatters to seize state-owned land in 1944, eventually managing to secure recognition and financial backing for the new settlement from a hostile municipality. Mpanza famously said, “The Government was like a man who has a cornfield which is invaded by birds.  He chases the birds from one part of the field and they alight in another part of the field…we squatters are the birds” (Stadler 1979, 93). Shack-dwelling is holding power over land. Influenced by Mpanza, some shack-dwellers staged a rent boycott after moving on to new land under the banner Asinamali (“We have no money”) campaign.[2] Zinzi and other Abahlali members cite Sofasonke and Asinamali as precursors of their own activist network.

The Nats, the party of apartheid elected in 1948, soon passed, and later rigorously enforced, legislation that struck out against life in shack settlements. The notorious Group Areas Act led to the racial rezoning of Mendini Hills, while the 1950 Population Registration Act, and the 1951 Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, reinforced segregation and the threat of forced eviction. Empowered by these acts and in an effort to ruralize black workers when they were not on the job, municipalities demolished whole communities, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Zinzi’s family was evicted again. Among the communities targeted were those famed as vibrant intellectual, arts, and cultural centers, such as the racially mixed Cato Manor in Durban. This forced removal in the early 1950s was halted at least three times through street protests led by organizations of women.

During these years, the apartheid regime continued to finance various projects, borrowing some $200 million from the World Bank for infrastructural development, including in shack settlements. By the mid-1980s, the streets of Mendini were rendered “ungovernable”—a strategy of decentralized civil disobedience—by the ANC and other antiapartheid organizations like the UDF (United Democratic Front). As Zizi recalls, another woman—Winnie Mandela—was a central figure to those heady times. Along with violent suppression, the apartheid regime attempted unsuccessfully to recuperate dissent by setting up segregated local councils. These efforts to retain apartheid, however, only served to further politicize urban land.

Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the promise of housing—as a separate entity from land—became a key metric of new citizenship. The post-apartheid state has built nearly three million houses under a new South African Constitution, in which Section 26 guarantees the progressive realization of adequate housing. The ruling ANC, under the election banner “A Home for All,” has endeavored to cultivate participation in formal democratic institutions—such as voting, joining local ward committees, and community policing forums—while acting swiftly to demobilize rebellious popular politics in places like Mendini. Six months after his election, President Nelson Mandela called for an immediate end to labor strikes, street protests, and consumer boycotts, explaining that their purpose—to destroy apartheid—had been achieved. These new demands for compliant so-called “non-racial” citizenship coexisted with the rushing in of neoliberal reforms and empowered vestiges of the old system—many police occupied the same positions, for example. As early as 1994, residents of Mendini have continued to take to the streets, particularly when their homes were threatened.

Covid times are no exception. The Abahlali Women’s League said in a press statement: “It has been promised by national government there will be no evictions during lockdown. But by day five of the lockdown [the municipal government with private security forces] had already attacked us, violently, and unlawfully…They destroyed our homes and left many people injured…They are undermining us and rendering our rights useless…Is this happening because we are not counted as human?” The Abahlali Women’s League, here, posits evictions during Covid-19 as further evidence of dehumanization through social abandonment. However, they also suggest that the post-1994 moment, which was thought to open new avenues for activists and community organizers in the streets and the courts, is being swiftly reconfigured. During South Africa’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns, curfews were imposed and mobility barred across the city. The courts went virtual, transforming them from sites of community politics. Gatherings were not permitted, and emergency measures further legitimated their policing. Yet, anti-eviction protests persisted.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), a leading legal organization, observes that evictions not only continued unabated during the Covid-19 moratorium in South African cities, but that the pandemic was broadly exacerbating conditions of precarity in shack settlements (Socio-Economic Rights Institute 2020). In just one example on March 31, 2020 over 300 people were affected by evictions and demolitions in an Abahlali-affiliated shack settlement in Durban not far from Medini Hills. Two people were shot with live ammunition and three with tear gas canisters. In other communities, during this time, landlords deployed the long-standing eviction strategies of disconnecting household water and energy supplies. According to SERI, South Africa, moreover, has responded to the pandemic with a de-densification programme, which includes removing poor urbanites to temporary relocation areas in the name of sustainable development. Fragile social networks and economic livelihoods, already disrupted by Covid-19, are further stretched thin in these relocations (Socio-Economic Rights Institute 2020; Chance 2018).

As I have argued, practices of “ungovernability” in relation to housing and evictions—that were foundational to South Africa’s celebrated democratic transition—have been sustained and criminalized in recent decades. In the post-apartheid period, “ungovernability” has been characterized by urban unrest, including street protests, labor strikes, and xenophobic pogroms. These protests have been claimed and sponsored by unemployed youth, anti-apartheid veterans, church leaders, and especially women. Residents refer to street protests as well as everyday practices of community building, such as occupying land, constructing shacks, and illicitly connecting to water and energy infrastructure, as being “ungovernable.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, in spite of a moratorium, evictions continued in shack settlements like Mendini Hills. Protests, meanwhile, were cracked down upon in the ostensible interests of public health.

The concept of destituent power highlights that the ungovernable often appear invisible to the authorities due to their social abandonment. But, at other times, the same populations appear hyper-visible due to their criminalization or political mobilization (Gordon 2004). During the pandemic, there have been high profile assassinations of activists. In March 2022, two activists were shot dead in an Abahlali commune, which has been under threat of eviction (Makani 2022). Yet, as Abahlali members are quick to point out, “the anger” and the politics of the poor “can go many directions” (Chance 2018). So-called “food riots” in South Africa during the pandemic in July 2021, for example, while involving hungry marginalized shack dwellers in Durban also encompassed wealthy and middle-class actors, as well as those engaged in a politics of factionalism and xenophobia. The extreme scarcity of food in shack settlements, which is constituting its own crisis not helped by evictions, experts say point to economic downtown impacted by the virus and climate change, phenomena that biopolitics alone cannot explain.

In contemporary South Africa, sovereignty, as Agamben characterizes it, may very well be seen in the exceptional violence that produced the former “Bantustans,” or the migrant labor system. It may be on view in the legacy of forced evictions. However, as defining as the law in social life are the resilient, taken-for-granted habits and habitus of ordinary people: the toi-toy of anti-colonial movements, the songs of migrant laborers, or the healing practices of sangomas. By attending these, scholars might locate forms-of-life in Southern Africa that remain, but often are forgotten when the law is newly consolidated. In the post-apartheid period, “ungovernability” often is premised upon a collective self-identification of “the poor” that cuts across historically race-based communities. As governance is increasingly managed by a globalized private sector, “ungovernability” borrows practices of the liberation struggle, as well as from the powers invested in new digital technologies and the recently desegregated courts.

Protests by “the poor” have arisen not merely in reaction to the failure of the state and corporations to provide for the basic means for urban life, but also to the management of marginalized populations by means of forced evictions and police violence. As the lines between “the criminal” and “the political”—for all residents are treated as criminal in an eviction—have become blurred in public discourse and through these interactions, shack settlements and the state yet again have been set against each other. The state, however, is inhabited by the party of the incomplete liberation and composed of diversifying governing institutions. And, the state is just one factor in the increasing impact of pollution and global warming in housing struggles. In these ways during the Covid-19 pandemic, political spaces are redefined, state sovereignty is forcibly enacted, and new forms of citizenship and identity are congealed at the intersections of gender, race, and poverty.

Kerry Ryan Chance is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, and a Non-Resident W.E.B Du Bois Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Her book, Living Politics in South Africa’s Urban Shacklands is published by University of Chicago Press.


[1] Se-Ann Rall, “Council Vows to Get Rid of Shack-Dwellers.” The Mercury. October 30, 2006. Accessed March 28, 2022:

[2] Asinamali later was used by antiapartheid workers and township residents in the 1960s, as well as today in Johannesburg by the Social Movements Indaba (SMI).

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2013. The Highest Poverty. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Biehl, João Guilherme. 2001. “Vita: life in a zone of social abandonment.” Social Text 19(3): 131-149.

Chance, Kerry. 2018. Living Politics In South Africa’s Urban Shacklands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Boeck, Filip. 2009. “Agamben in Camp Luka: Death and the Public Sphere in a Kinshasa Slum.” Public Lecture in the Seminar Series of the Sociology and Anthropology Department, November 2, 2009,Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

Gordon, Lewis R. 2004. “Philosophical Anthropology, Race, and the Political Economy of Disenfranchisement.” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 36: 145.

Hansen, Thomas Blom, and Finn Stepputat. 2006.  “Sovereignty revisited.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 295-315.

Makani, Chris. 2022. “Prominent Land Activist Ayanda Ngila Gunned down in KZN—Abahlali Points Finger at ANC.” Daily Maverick. March 8, 2022. Accessed March 13, 2022: .

Marrow, Jocelyn, and Tanya Marie Luhrmann. 2012. “The zone of social abandonment in cultural geography: on the street in the United States, inside the family in India.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 36(3): 493-513.

Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI). 2020. “Submission on The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Housing Rights” to the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. Accessed January 5, 2022:

Stadler, A. W. 1973. “Birds in the Cornfield: Squatter Movements in Johannesburg, 1944 – 1947.” Journal of Southern African Studies 6 (1): 93– 123.



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