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Can Durban Recover From City-scale Neoliberal Nationalism?

Looting Durban

by PATRICK BOND

his is the South African city of Durban’s first week since 2002 without City Manager Michael Sutcliffe. He became well known across the world as a target of community and environmental activism, for catalyzing a $400 million stadium for the soccer World Cup in 2010, and for hosting the COP17 climate summit last month, in a city of 3.5 million of whom a third are dirt-poor and another third struggle as underpaid workers.

Why did they put up with Sutcliffe’s mainly malevolent rule? Alongside constituencies of fisherfolk, streetchildren and informal traders, many grassroots groups like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the Chatsworth Westcliff Flatdwellers, Abahlali base Mjondolo shackdwellers and Clairwood Ratepayers and Residents Association have long condemned race- and class-biased municipal policy and Sutcliffe’s viciousness. But the prestige of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement means the ruling party has been comfortably re-elected since the days of Mandela (1994-99). Until the leading trade unions break their alliance with the ANC, that won’t change, and ruthless men like Sutcliffe will stay at the top of government.

With ambitions of urban restructuring akin to Haussmann of Paris and Moses of New York, Sutcliffe was a most divisive leader. Raised in Durban and granted a PhD in geography from Ohio State University, he was a very rare white technocrat who wielded enormous political power through skilled manipulation of factions within the ruling party. To the surprise of many, he amplified his power by making a quick loyalty shift in 2007 from former president Thabo Mbeki to local favourite Jacob Zuma.

Sutcliffe’s one-man reign terrorized many poor and working people, and also irritated the white petit-bourgeoisie who saw him as a rabid Stalinist, especially when without consultation, he changed more than a hundred colonial-era street names (such as Moore Rd to Che Guevara Rd). But shifts in appearance matter little, when with Sutcliffe’s facilitation, the city’s apartheid structures also evolved into even more discriminatory and exclusionary zones, like the new edge city of Umhlanga – with the southern hemisphere’s largest shopping mall – and nearby ‘gated communities’ such as Mount Edgecombe.

Sutcliffe’s departure interview with the Financial Mail last week was revealing: “As far as the decisions go, there are no regrets; we did what was necessary and had to be done.”

No regrets? Wikipedia’s entry on Sutcliffe lists his legacy as “street renamings, the loss of the city’s Blue Flag beach status, illegally banning protests, banning posters, serious human rights abuses in the city’s housing program, the failed privatization of the city’s bus system, allegations of spin-doctoring, the failed uShaka Marine World, threats to withdraw advertising from newspapers employing journalists critical of the municipality, lack of action against environmental destruction, favouritism toward ANC-aligned individuals and businesses, unlawful and at times violent violations of the basic rights of street traders and shack dwellers and corruption.”

Speaking to Durban’s Daily News (the largest English newspaper) last week, Sutcliffe was adamant: “I have never been and will never be involved in fraud and corruption.” Yet even the provincial ANC requested a forensic investigation after the national auditor-general’s 2009-10 report on the city identified “irregular expenditure” of $65 million that year and “irregular housing contracts” of more than $400 million during Sutcliffe’s reign. Three other municipal officials were also implicated.

For example, contracts for building more than 3000 houses (at more than $25 million) involved Durban’s notoriously ostentatious Mpisane family, which faces multiple prosecutions for tax fraud and corruption. In 2010, Sutcliffe told The Daily News, “The reports that these houses were built to sub-standard levels are absolute nonsense and part of media frenzy. I challenge anyone to visit every single one of those houses and they will see that the houses are not falling apart.”

The National Home Builders’ Registration Council then found defects in more than 1000 Mpisane-built houses, with more than a third requiring structural rehabilitation.

The closest to a confession by Sutcliffe was last week in The Daily News: “We have not followed every single supply chain mechanism in the book because we needed to ensure service delivery took place efficiently. We have been able to build more than 22,000 houses in one year because we fast-tracked procedures.”

But many thousands more houses should have been built, much more quickly and with much better quality and less cronyism. By the time of the World Cup, Durban’s housing backlog stood at 234,000, yet as the Academy for Science in South Africa determined last May, the annual addition to the city’s low-income housing stock had dropped from 16,000 to 9,500 by 2009, and “given the current budget the backlog will only be cleared by 2040.”

In mid-2008, Sutcliffe had told the Mail&Guardian newspaper, “We can address the housing backlog in the city within seven or eight years”.

One reason for a worsening housing crisis was that Sutcliffe diverted city reserves into building the Moses Mabhida Stadium in 2008-10, notwithstanding a next-door world-class rugby stadium (Kings Park) available for upgrading. Cost overruns skyrocketed the prestige project’s price from $240 to $400 billion, with the usual tiny set of ANC-supporting tycoons winning construction contracts.

The combination of incompetence and arrogance proved hugely expensive, for as opposition city councilor Dean Macpherson complained a year ago, Sutcliffe “didn’t see fit to consult with the [popular rugby-playing] Sharks before Mabhida was built and now we have a stadium that the Sharks won’t move to, basically stands empty and will cost the ratepayers of Durban billions to fund in the future.” Sutcliffe’s hope for justifying Mabhida Stadium by hosting the 2020 Olympics was dashed in mid-2011 by rare national budgetary common sense.

Last year featured many such allegations against Sutcliffe, as an open feud with former city mayor Obed Mlaba left blood dripping from knives in both their backs. Last January, Sutcliffe publicly announced that he wanted another five-year contract. But he had made too many mistakes and enemies, and his ally leading the provincial ANC, John Mchunu, had died the year before.

Other complaints mounted: Sutcliffe’s supersized salary and bonuses (higher than Zuma’s); brutality against street children removed prior to major events and against fisherfolk trying to use beach piers; the celebrated 2010 beachfront rehab’s still-empty storefronts and dead palm trees; and the unprocedural street renaming, culminating in November with a Supreme Court decision against Sutcliffe on the first nine changes.

Sutcliffe’s last month on the job must have been even more frustrating, beginning on December 2 with yet another defeat in court against activists demanding the right to march in central Durban. Opposed to the COP17 UN climate summit, their desired route passed the US Consulate, City Hall and the International Convention Centre. This was approved by a local judge who made Sutcliffe pay court costs.

Then came revenge. “Obviously smarting from his failure to impose his will on our right to assembly and protest, he hired 150-200 ‘Host City Volunteers’,” explained Rehad Desai of the Democratic Left Front. “Paid R180 for their services,” these “Green Bomber goons” – as Desai called them to remind of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe paramilitary – wore distinctive green tracksuits with Durban and COP17 logos.

After seeing critical posters at the December 3 march of around 8000 people, Sutcliffe’s volunteers began “singing pro-Zuma and pro-COP17 slogans. Their presence on a climate justice demonstration remains a mystery. [Climate activists were] denied water, beaten with fists and had their banners torn down. The rural women, representing countries from all over Africa, were taunted by certain Green Bombers with crude sexist abuse.”

Five days later at City Hall, Desai and two other activists from Greenpeace and ActionAid were attacked by the Green Bombers, simply for holding up posters: “Zuma stand with the poor not the corporations.” Remarked Sutcliffe in The Witness newspaper the next day, “They deserved that reaction from people. People were outraged, especially after what happened at the weekend. Why vent when they had the opportunity when the president had come to listen? Surely that’s not right.”

To ‘vent’ by silently holding up a poster in City Hall deserves a beating?

Critical academics label this thuggish ideology ‘neoliberal nationalism’: a vindictive, anti-poor deployment of state power and resources, combined with revolutionary-sounding bombast, reviving Mbeki’s ‘talk-left, walk-right’ moves. We saw this most vividly in Sutcliffe’s 2009 attempt to evict low-income informal traders from the century-old Warwick Early Morning Fruit/Vegetable Market on behalf of a crony’s shopping mall project, which only mass community protests reversed following a late-night police attack.

But ironically, the year before, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) awarded Sutcliffe the Gilbert F. White Distinguished Public Service Honors and the James R. Anderson Medal of Honor in Applied Geography. Sutcliffe’s sponsor for the award, Kevin Cox (a faraway Marxist who supervised Sutcliffe’s doctoral thesis), described these awards as “among the most prestigious recognitions in geography… Over a lengthy career as political activist and trusted member of the ANC government, Mike has proven himself to be an applied geographer par excellence and with a strong pro-people bent.”

According to the AAG website, the Anderson Medal of Honor reflects “the most distinguished service to the profession of geography” and “A medal is so distinctive an honor that it is bestowed only if the accomplishments are truly outstanding,” while ‘Public Service’ means the awardees “gained more than usual recognition by co-workers, public officials and fellow citizens, and have clearly influenced the progress of the community.”

No doubt, Sutcliffe gained more than usual recognition and until last Friday he enjoyed huge influence. But by any reasonable measure these were of mainly negative consequence. For example, prior to managing Durban, his role leading the country’s Municipal Demarcation Board led to repeated protests by poor people against boundaries. And by generating vast geographic distances within most rural municipalities, he sharply curtailed local democracy.

While expanding Durban’s highways in a manner Engels described in 1844 Manchester – so that rich people could drive more quickly through poor areas – Sutcliffe oversaw other infrastructure disasters. Public transport declined, water systems failed and his shipping/petrochemical-centric urban industrial project threatens South Durban’s 200,000 residents with forced relocation and more pollution. And Sutcliffe’s promotion of the World Bank’s Clean Development Mechanism for Durban’s Bisasar Road landfill cemented environmental racism.

It could well be argued that Sutcliffe’s municipal version of neoliberal nationalism was structurally ordained, and that by focusing too much on his personal foibles we distract from a larger, more general problem.

That structural problem, sometimes termed ‘interurban entrepreneurialism’, bests many power-hungry officials. As City University of New York professor David Harvey noted 23 years ago in a seminal article, “To the degree that interurban competition becomes more potent, it will almost certainly operate as an ‘external coercive power’ over individual cities to bring them closer into line with the discipline and logic of capitalist development. It may even force repetitive and serial reproduction of certain patterns of development such as ‘world trade centers’ or new cultural and entertainment centers, waterfront development, postmodern shopping malls, and the like.”

Bearing that in mind, is it time for Geography (the discipline in which I also hold a PhD) to reject unequal and uncaring municipal rule? It’s opportune to ask, now, as the Occupy movement in so many cities insists on transferring power from the 1% to everyone else. Vainly, I might also hope that the AAG will rethink and revoke its two idiotic awards to Sutcliffe, perhaps as early as at the annual meetings in New York next month, so as to avoid acute embarrassment in the event the ongoing Durban corruption investigation leads to criminal charges.

Many of us here anxiously await Sutcliffe’s promised autobiographical account of his nine years in power, because the vast extent of his misrule needs book-length consideration. At the very least, the ubiquitous political potholes dug by Sutcliffe across Durban provide his successor, Sibusiso Sithole, an excellent road map of where to make ideological, policy, management and attitude U-turns.

Patrick Bond’s new books are Politics of Climate Justice and Durban’s Climate Gamble.