Sophie Oldfield, Edgar Pieterse
The purpose of this brief discussion note is to provide an introduction to the political environment that frames the practices of urban social movements in South Africa. There are numerous layers to this discussion and it is helpful to peel these apart before one gets into a more contingent analysis about the fluidity and dynamisms of urban political processes as illustrated through a few examples. The first layer we will consider is the formal legislative framework that shapes the democratic space for the activities of autonomous civil society organisations, including progressive social movements. A second layer is the recent historical patterning of urban social mobilisation and associated organisational and institutional dynamics. This discussion blends into the third layer, which involves a (rather crude) categorisation of various types of civil society organisations, including social movements. Within this layer it becomes crucial to make connections with the historical patterning of social mobilisation and how formal political parties and their cultural practices influence the agenda and practices of 'autonomous' urban social movements. It is in this fluid, and difficult to read, terrain that profound questions arise about the emerging nature of progressive social movements in South Africa. These three layers unfold in an interrelated manner through discussion of the meso and micro scales of urban politics in this note.