In the run up to the contentious Senegalese elections on February 26, thousands of mostly young people have taken to the street under the umbrella of the M-23 movement. In the process of the army trying to control the situation, there was an attack on a zawiyah, a religious gathering place in Senegal. Looking at some of the Dakar blogs in the afermath of the attack, interesting reference is made to youth chants invoking “the theft of our time”—the attack on the mosque is an attack on a particular notion of time—a time where one’s identity, status, background or preparation does not count—is kept “out of the count.” All of these markers are dismissed as a basis that tells me how to frame you—not just how to interpret you, but how to set you up to take the fall, to show yourself in terms of what you need or are capable of doing—all of this is dismissed in this notion of “our time.” This is not about the present moment being “our time” to inherit or to rule; it is not a time bequeathed, earned or waited for. It is a time immune to registers; it cannot be summed up, portioned or distributed—it may be discernible in the context of the mosque, but it also exists everywhere. And yet, it is this time..stolen time, upon which contemporary political power depends, scavenges. It is this time which is stolen that enables leaders to hold onto their territories and privileges.
What is particularly striking about many youth in the so-called Global South today is the disinterest in “holding” territory. So-called gang violence may persist in many places, with its classic defense of turf and local economy. But belonging increasingly entails “fanning out”, showing up in all the places where one apparently doesn’t belong. The “holding cells” of neighborhoods may still be replete with intricate lingos and stylized defenses, but even the most computer virus-infested barrios, bidonvilles and kampungs continue to pack in kids to social media sites with slow but activated connections. As an Angolan hip hop crew, Futuro Supremo, advise, if you wait for the invitation, you’ll only get to the party lying down. And in one of the world’s densest urban neighborhoods, Kampung Rawa (Jakarta), youth show up at drama and music clubs, mosques, political meetings, and civic ceremonies without a clue about what is going on. Nevertheless, they take their positions and make vociferous contributions to whatever the proceedings may be. There is no attempt to overtake or overturn; others are graciously given their space. It is more a matter of deciding that there is no good reason for them not to be there, even if reasons for them to be there may be difficult to find.
What we see here is an indifference to eligibility. Generations before them had succumbed to the notion to wait their turn, bide their time, prepare themselves to take on the mantle of whatever. But the past decades have seen the status of “youth” turn into a never-ending deferral—of employment, marriage, and other trappings of adulthood. Hard sacrifices for education have indeed been worth something, but too often that something is a near-permanent low level managerial job in a service occupation that is a cruel commentary on past years of learning. As the Indonesian hip hop artist Jalan Surabaya explains, if you are going to spend all your life training to sound stupid, then certainly sounding stupid is something that you can do right now. Instead of waiting to make your move, first make your move, make it big, and then wait and see what happens. At the same time, there is no need to “stick around”. Taking care of home is now frequently something better done from elsewhere. Better yet, make home into something no longer easily recognizable. As Rafiq, an twenty year old motorcycle taxi driver in Kampung Rawa explains, keep “the bigshots guessing about what is going on, so they never know whether you are “for real” or not.
With these attitudes, youth are not only saying something about themselves but about the cities they inhabit in general. Particulary about what is just or what is not.
There is recognition here that more could always be done and that there is usually a tendency to settle for less than what might be possible. But these are important recognitions as justice is not a specific disposition or destination, but a matter of timing, of something always being worked on, worked out.
Notions of justice necessitate considerations of what suffices, what is enough—what kinds of income, education, rights, or provisioning is sufficient to recognize a sense of equity. Everyone doing or having the same thing, instead of equalizing capacity, would always efface the sense that not everyone comes together from the same place, with the same sense of things, or aspirations. In the relationship between coloniality and urbanization, the majority of city inhabitants in the so-called South lived through highly entangled relationships with others of different backgrounds and capacities. They consolidated territorial and social distinctions while, at the same time incorporating each other into different understandings about what it would take to survive the city. The commonality of these different understandings was that any practice, any idea, or agenda of inhabitation was never going to be sufficient—there would always be more to do. On the other hand, great value was placed on the notion of the incremental—to do things a little bit at a time, and each thing had its own time; even if one could build all at once, or buy someone out completely, such moves seldom took place because there was a sense that “time had its own time.” Wherever one was at the moment, it was good enough, for now—not in general, but for now. What was thus more important was the sense of cities as projects that were incomplete. As incomplete, then, nothing was foreclosed, wrapped or summed up.
As such, districts in cities such as Jakarta, Sao Paolo, Karachi, Bangkok were full of people where everyone considered themselves eligible to make demands, propositions, and critique. The viability of postcolonial cities has largely depended on situations where many different things can take place in the same place at the same time without people judged or implicated by this plurality. Where there are many different things and ways of life to witness, but where there is no obligation to witness them. Here, the dense proximities of different statuses, backgrounds, orientations, and capacities do not mean that people don’t make distinctions using such categories. Ethnic groups are likely to dominate specific micro-territories, such as neighbourhoods or blocks. Poor areas are often clearly distinguishable from contiguous middle or working-class areas. Differential histories of settlement are often registered by distinct economic activities, transient mobilities or concrete involvement in local affairs. Densities among co-residents enforce an intimacy that often cannot be managed outside of the mediation of shared identity.
At the same time, the insufficiencies of salary, the frequent interruptions in work careers, and the demands on the labor market required the ability to generate income from continuous renovations in the ways in which materials, networks, spaces, and actors are put together. New entrepreneurial initiatives require access to inexpensive yet reliable labor, the acquisition of assets often times requires pooled resources that are not subject to competing loyalties or obligations from kin or neighbours, short-term work opportunities have to be accumulated in rapid succession, and different social positions can often complement each other in terms of their respective knowledge of the city and access to particular kinds of resources or favours. All of these facets are continuously replenished through different kinds of urban actors operating or living in close proximity to each other.
Much of the interaction among residents never went anywhere, often never accomplished anything. But instead of this apparent failure acting as a deterrent, it tended to keep the game going. The difficulties of everyday life in places like Sao Paolo, Jakarta, Karachi feed an intense hunger for justice and equity. But there is also a wariness of pinning things down too much, of instituting policies where capacities and conditions are calculated and compared. There is often a preference for keeping things incomplete. Everyday life may be full of antagonisms, misconstrued behaviours, evasions, tricks, and manipulations but they are also the conditions that give inhabitants something to work with, something to try and put right, something that brings people together that otherwise would keep their distance, and thus a platform for the incessant rehearsal of different ways to “work things out.” Now of course all of this is a lot of work and a strain for residents already overwhelmed with trying to make ends meet. But it is in these rehearsals where residents often feel that new vistas are opened up, where at least they are exposed to worlds otherwise inaccessible, even though there are no guarantees that they can take advantage of them. After all, it is just the city.
While most will talk about fundamentalism as the return to and adherence to a set of unchanging truths about life and how to act within it, I want to read urban fundamentalism as opening up a space and time of the miraculous. By the miraculous I means the ability of urban residents to act without being eligible to act—where something is put in motion, put in place regardless of whether individuals have any recognizable capacity to do this. The miraculous thus becomes a way enabling the city to do the job of the city.
For the city was to e the place where people could change their lives, leave behind the strictures of claustrophobic accountability and obligations. The haunting of guilt and ancestors, the pull of the land, and the anchorage of people within ecologies of seasons, crops, and spirits could be dispensed with in favor of a more systematic, rational formula of self-design, and the shared benefits of public life and urban citizenship. Of course as there were few real examples of such an idea, the imagery of citizenship was to be more a matter of accords and deals. The city had to be made sufficiently liveable—in terms of the salubrious, industrious, the moral—in order for it to be profitable. In opting for a more civilized existence, those inhabiting the city also were more inclined to leave civilization behind as well, as the capacity to fight and disrupt could also be intense. The irony here is that the evidence for the transformation of human possibility inherent in ideal model of the city may largely come from the section of the urban population which, in the so-called Global South, we know little about. This population is a kind of phantom majority—neither strictly poor nor middle class nor rich but who have found some way to do slightly more than just hang on, but at the same time, are never powerful enough to impose their own visions of city life. These are the teachers, factory workers, civil servants, service workers, cops, drivers, clerks, technicians, small storeowners….
They always had to roll with the punches, do things that they perhaps never imagined themselves doing. For as Ackbar Abbas puts it, too often urban politics is the politics of disappointment—about the “not there” in what is there; it is about being transported to a place you didn’t think you were at. Urban residents no matter what their background for the most part wanted a version of the good life and they were willing to make a lot of sacrifices to try and get it. But all the effort urban majorities across the Global South made to disentangle themselves from kin and neighborhood ties and obligations and to turn themselves into enterprising individuals inorder to give them a shot at this good life often only produced a sense that, damn, this is nowhere and that it is too late to do anything about it. All the investments in property, education, and making their lives legible only got people deeper into debt, further away from where the real economic action is, more isolated, and more insecure. At the same time, all of the efforts that this same majority made to compensate for a job that didn’t pay enough—for building livelihoods and living spaces incrementally over time, for honing highly adept strategies for working with others to increase their exposure to opportunities and the larger world—while still holding—may suddenly fall apart as well.