The following was intended to be published as a poster, stuck up along the walls of the exhibition on dispossession at the National Gallery alongside graffiti such as 'How beautiful it is to be homeless! Let’s go to Philippi and take pictures!', 'Forget your misery, contemplate theirs', 'We will break out of your picture frames', 'For a real exhibition of dispossession look in the mirror', 'Behind every representation: a corpse. Behind every cultural commodity: a cop.' Et cetera (A list them all can be found on the page Theses to be tested on the streets of Cape Town). Unfortunately I could not figure out a way to carry out this action and get away with it: one more subversive scheme that never got off the ground. 

There are some who take the absolute domination of all space by capital and the state -- expressed at the level of communication by the monopoly on all legitimate expression in the streets claimed by advertising and traffic-signs -- to be a god-given fact of life. Such people would abominate the compulsion by an individual to improve an idiotic exhibition arranged by bureaucrats who claim to represent everyone. Naturally, to such upstanding citizens I have absolutely nothing to say. The point, as the situationists put it in their manifesto, is that 'under the existing dominant society, which produces the miserable pseudo-games of non-participation, a true artistic activity is necessarily classed as criminality. It is semi-clandestine. It appears in the form of scandal.' The only public indecency is private misery. The primary artistic activity of our era belongs to the work of the negative; it involves various imaginative forms of making private misery public. This nitty-gritty airing of public secrets functions as a necessary preliminary to the to the positive creative activity of the future: the playful construction of a free life by those who live it. 

— “What was that sound we heard
fall on the snow?”
— “It was a frozen bird.
Why must you know?”

– John Wheelwright, Why Must You Know?


At the beginning of this winter a hail-storm blanketed Cape Town with white for the first time in living memory. For some this was no more than a meteorological curiosity. For others it was yet another inauspicious start to yet another bad year. To a small group of people on the margins of a city whose geography expresses the structure of power made flesh; it presented an extreme intensification of miserable conditions enforced on them by that same power.

In a country where the nature of power is outlined in black and white; the peculiar conspiracy of fate seemed loaded with significance. But now is not the time to speak of metaphors. I address you in order to point out certain facts that have been hidden from you, as well as the reasons for which they have been concealed. I speak of the people I have known, the troubles they face, what it all has to do with you and me, and what I have done about it.


The fact that we are still strangers is no coincidence. Everybody knows the times we live in are no good. What remains to be told are those tales whose outlines demonstrate (more clearly than most) certain truths: truths which hold a certain explosive power: a potential to explode (when used well) all that has kept us separate from one another, from ourselves, from the adventures buried alive beneath the streets.


Three months ago, in the wastelands adjacent to Symphony Way in Philippi East, a few people occupied an empty piece of land and built homes there. Like most of us, they owned no property, and had to pay rent for the shacks they lived in. Some moved because they could not afford rent any more, some because of problems with landlords, some because they didn’t want to waste their time and energy paying just to live in a shack.

The government, which had done nothing for them up to now, sent thugs in uniform to destroy their homes, steal their furniture, and assault those who resisted – all for the sake of unspecified plans made by unknown bureaucrats to build state housing on this land at some unknown point in the future. Refusing to remain homeless for the sake of empty promises; they re-occupied the land and were attacked half a dozen times over the course of these few months. With their homes repeatedly destroyed they are now forced to live in the bush by day, erecting a tent by night to avoid having their only shelter stolen by the cops.

In a recent communique they put their plight this way: 'On the 1st of May, a public holiday which celebrates the resistance of the workers and the poor against the oppression of the rich, the City again took the side of the rich and stole our building material. This is thousands of Rands worth of our property which we don't think we will ever see again because they don't tell us where they have taken it. Without this material, we have nowhere else to go because even if we had a little money, we can't now rent somewhere to build a shack there.

So we have nowhere else to go. Since Wednesday, we have been sleeping out in the open, in the rain. While we sleep in the bush, at least the snakes have forgiven us for moving onto their land. They don't chase us away and now treat us with respect. They have become like our brothers and sisters.

But the same cannot be said for our government...'

These people are not strangers to me. I have seen for myself the way they are forced to live. I have spoken to grandmothers coughing on windswept beds in the middle of the bush and played with babies who lost their shyness of strangers from frequent acquaintance with the police. Although I do not live in a shack (less than a quarter of South Africans do); their rejection of some of the constraints of capitalist daily life moved me precisely because I recognised that the collective project contained in their rebellion - the creation of a free human community - was also my project. Naturally I was moved to help them with the immediate tasks of survival. So we secured some surplus food that would otherwise – like half the food produced globally – have been wasted. At the same time I recognised that, whereas organised groups are better equipped to assist with such tasks; anyone can strike against the dispossession that oppresses everyone. This seemed to me the most effective course of action. Solidarity begins at home.

After a brief mention of the occupation in the press, which was named Marikana by the participants, the ongoing struggle has subsequently faded into the background of everyday repression whose ubiquity is considered un-newsworthy. A social order scandalised by spray-paint on art-gallery walls indifferently sprays X marks on the walls of homes demolished in the name of the law. When the way “This city works for you” everyday – to serve and protect images, to dispossess human beings – is so taken for granted; an act where this situation is reversed by attacking the sanctity of images would not be so easily ignored. Where the enshrined image everywhere serves to disguise the facts of life, the truth must take the form of desecration.

To abolish a world ruled by false facades; one must first deface it.


The whiteout surrounding the violent dispossession in Philippi actively serves to support it. The same whiteout surrounds the massacre of the Marikana miners whose lives the people of Philippi commemorated in the most fitting way possible: by rebelling against the regime that murdered them.

These two particular moments expose explicitly the permanent and universal dispossession of everyone implicit in the general movement of the dominant society. These general conditions are what connect the people of every Marikana to you and me; it is this general movement that everybody can combat in their own lives. If the possibility of such living solidarity is now smothered under the glacial isolation organised between each and everyone - a desert whose frigidity debilitates the limbs and chokes the voice - the seeds of such possibility are also what threaten at every moment to burst, like the first shoots of spring through the frost, from beneath the surface of our miserable mutual indifference.

In both Philippi and Rustenberg, the whiteout assumes a double-edged form within the organisation of appearances: it is “the secrecy that is vital in so many regards for the smooth functioning of power in modern society, behind the thick screen of its glut of ‘information.’”

On the one hand, the dominant society indulges in an orgy of anguished self-criticism which has become a sophisticated industry supporting a sector of salaried-professionals and the institutions they serve: universities, NGOs, museums, galleries, broadcast and print corporations. The scandalised exhibition at the national gallery is one product of this industry. This was one reason why it was chosen.

On the other hand, all this pseudo-critique and pseudo-communication serves, by way of its monopoly over the necessary resources, only to suppress any honest criticism, any direct communication arising from and among the dispossessed themselves. A survey of the exhaustive “coverage” of the Marikana massacre by a professor Jane Duncan revealed what should be obvious to everyone who has read a newspaper: only a negligible fraction of “reports” on the events presented the direct experiences of the participants themselves, the rest presenting the statements of various officials. If anyone able to apprehend the old adage “the official truth hides the truth about ‘officials’” wanted to find direct reportage of even the basic facts – let alone more substantial communications from the participants themselves – they would clearly have to look elsewhere. Not co-incidentally, the spectacle – the organisation of separation – is precisely constituted so that there is nowhere else look.

Like every other form of power in the society of generalised abstraction; the existing powers of communication have been turned into an independent force standing above and against us to the extent where they have practically become their own opposites: the autonomous movement of non-communication.

Grasped in the concrete language of acts addressed to you in your experience of everyday life; news “coverage” can only be understood in the sense of “cover-up”.

“We loved Steven. He fought for our rights. Let's go back to work to honour him.” (AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa to miners on strike against the murder of their comrade, 15 May 2013) 

Nowhere can the pattern and purpose of this camouflage be more precisely discerned than in that polyphonic paean to submission called social commentary. The dominant society must appear basically good ensure its own survival. Since this image everywhere contradicts the miserable lived reality; the universally fucked-up state of things is presented as a series of separate (tragic) disasters, allowing blame to be democratically distributed among certain details of the dominant society as well as among the disaster victims themselves, who are encouraged to submit to their fate, and the society which produces it, for their own good.

The blizzard of chatter surrounding the Marikana massacre amounts to nothing more than this distribution of blame. Those such as Saint Desmond Tutu who proceed not only to condemn miners massacred by police bullets but to spit on their graves by stuffing disgustingly insulting words in their mouths such as "When we march, we demand, we destroy and we loot. We care not whether our demands are reasonable, or what actions we take" reveal the most repugnant aspect of a process where the scandalous reality of an unambiguous sequence of events (“The police were there to break a strike; the miners refused to disperse and appear to have tried to defend themselves when attacked; the police killed them with government approval.”) becomes a banal spectacle decorated with official enquiries, obscure revelations and expert testimony. Truth is defused not only through deliberate distortion but also by its representation as a diffuse mystery approachable only by authorised specialists and usable by no-one.

The glut of cant about dispossession spewed from every orifice of the spectacle likewise disguises and defuses the simple facts. When the shacks of the Marikana occupiers are destroyed; the materials used to build them are also stolen by the state. At the same time, materials to build new shacks are provided by the ‘disaster relief’ agencies of the state when fires and floods spread through informal settlements. Yet the only significant publicity surrounding the Marikana occupation concerns moronic technicalities regarding the legal eviction process observed or ignored by the state. Nobody mentions the fact that the majority of evictions disregard the legal process just as all other legal rights enjoyed by people on paper exist in fact only for paper people. Nothing is said of the fact that double the number of people are evicted by the state than are housed by it. No mention is made of the fact that the materials ‘delivered’ by this society as part of its ‘disaster relief’ are the same as those ‘disappeared’ by it during deliberately produced disasters. Such trivialities are simply taken to be in the tragic nature of things. The State giveth and the State taketh away.

Whether composed of pseudo-critical commentary or of hail-stones; whiteouts hide the ground on which we stand under a vast accumulation of frenzied debris.

Against this teary-eyed blur; those who struggle to make public such basic truths can appear more scandalous than the realities they reveal. Partly, this has to do with the perspective of the spectator. In what passes for daily life; everyone is encouraged to be the master of a private realm which they furnish with personally selected occupations, commodities and ideologies. Since they are given no choice regarding the disasters revealed to them in the realm of history; they are led to see their daily life as a refuge from and a compensation for a miserable reality they can neither understand nor control. “Those who don’t move can’t feel their chains.” Here apprehension is practically impossible until, outraged by the miserable circumstances of their daily lives, people rise to take arms against history, and by opposing, make it.

“When we carefully connect ourselves to electricity the state sends armed men to disconnect us. When we formalise our own shacks the state sends armed men to demolish them. We are forced, sometimes at gun point, to live as we do.”

Jadhu Place on Fire Again, Abahlali baseMjondolo statement, 27 June 2012

If the spectacle is pornography for eunuchs; abstract criticism is castration.

Those who content themselves to cheerlead or criticise one or another aspect of this society from the sidelines disguise the fact that everyone is everywhere dominated by the same force. They take the particular poverties of their own miserable lives for granted – perhaps under the pretence that they are privileged - and so contribute to the whiteout whose flurry buries reality beneath a vast ruse. Friends; when those in struggle turn to you and speak of how they are made to live; they do so because it concerns your own life most intimately.

“Why must you know?” The whole organised force of civilisation works to obscure the answer. “Why must you know?” The prevention of people from even posing the question is the chief product of political-economy. “Why must you know?” “Why must you know?” “Why must you know?” Friends; you know the answer already.

The guns point at you.


Like many spectators to the struggles raging through the workplaces and townships of this country I wanted to do something but remained impotent. Over the years I’ve tried almost everything presented to me: I’ve taught classes for refugees, attended marches and meetings in the townships, organised food for the homeless, written leftist journalism and academic reports, and hatched numerous schemes, all of which shared at least one thing in common besides getting nowhere – they all required as prerequisites the obliging actions of others. Only once I began to plan and do things by and for myself have I been able to participate, however modestly, in the making of my own history.

Those who claim to represent the people of Marikana also claim to represent you and me. The repression they direct at those who refuse to stay in their place is directed against me the moment I revolt against my own dispossession. From the start, however, I find my rebellion engulfed by the same whiteout whose which works to nip all revolt in the bud by concealing the chains against which it rages. Like everyone in their own way; I have had to confront the allegation that I am privileged to enjoy exactly what I am forced at gunpoint to do without!


The whiteout under which we find ourselves cannot be apprehended merely in terms of a monopoly over the means of communication. Language itself has been colonised. In a world that is really upside down; words themselves are turned on their heads and come to signify their opposites in the official language: communication, democracy, wealth, poverty, liberty, obscenity, culture, dignity, accomplishment, health, crime, love, responsibility, intelligence – from the lofty to the mundane; the concepts used to understand and define life are applied to their opposites, in our own mouths and minds as much as in those of officials. The dominant language, like the dominant society as a whole, is the only one we have – we produce it even as it moves out of our control and comes to produce us. Only when we begin to appropriate it through struggle can language come to be our own, capable of expressing and comprehending truthfully our everyday reality. In this “struggle to make sense of struggles so as to help make them go further” words and deeds come to take hold of the ideas that can make them truly dangerous. The climax of this process is described in a first-hand account of one of the struggles of the past:

“Radical theory, reputed to be so difficult by the intellectuals who were unable to live it, became tangible for all those who felt it in their slightest gestures of refusal, which is why they had no trouble exposing on the walls the theoretical formulations of what they desired to live.”

All around us this struggle continues to rage in new yet familiar forms. The same movement which transformed the South African struggle for liberation into the spectacle of equal-opportunity apartheid has transformed the formerly sleepy streets of cities around the world into battlefields. The lines are drawn between those determined to defend a society where the conditions of life are compulsorily defined as abstract fragments and those determined to define the conditions of their own lives as a practical whole.

Language and the ideas it expresses constitute the terrain in which this struggle over the definition and realisation of desire is fought.

The spectacle is the prison of desire. Within its confines the living conflagration in the hearts of men and women is permitted nothing but abstract representation for fuel. The dangerous rowdiness inherent to this life and this fire eventually fizzles into a routine combustion incapable of burning even dry toilet-paper. “When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream.” The desire for any freedom (that of expression, for example) is only permitted if it remains abstract. All other desire is banned. Those who dare to take such seductive promises of freedom seriously, as when practicing them on the walls of a building, an occupation or a wildcat strike, face the same violent repression meted-out to any attempted jail-break. Despite its dangers – in fact precisely because of them – such action serves simultaneously to expose more clearly the nature of the dispossession which oppresses us all as well as the means by which to escape it.

In practice the only actions permitted through “the appropriate channels” are those that ensure everything stays the same. “Justice” and “Freedom” in the abstract translates in practice to “Be poor” and “Shut up” precisely because such abstraction involves a deliberate separation – both ideological and practical – from the concrete conditions of our everyday lives. The imaginary privileges with which such abstractions shackle and gag us must be subjected to a ruthless critique with methods consistent with our goals. These goals are “to be able to shape the cities from below” as in the living communism championed by abahlali around the country: “The idea is the full and real equality of everyone without exception. The practice, well, a community must collectively own or forcefully take collective ownership of natural resources.” Slavery will remain a reality wherever real individuals are shackled on behalf of an imaginary community – whether represented by state institutions such as the National Gallery or NGOs such as corporations and trade unions. In practice abstract rights enforce concrete wrongs. When our own image holds a hand over our mouths and a gun to our heads; we must bite the hand that beats us if we ever hope to speak and act for ourselves.


This was the situation I faced when determining a course of action for myself. Peoples’ representatives housed in parliament. Representations of people housed in galleries. People themselves at home nowhere. NO PLAYING ON THE GRASS. NO FREE SLEEPING on the benches. NO SITTING on the steps. NO LOITERING on the street corners. NO DRINKING in public. NO TRESPASSING everywhere else. Objects everywhere guarded by the forces of law and order to prevent the humans who suffer under their colonial occupation from effecting an eviction against them. Surrounded on all sides by the monologue of the commodity whose sentences are streets, whose words are bricks, whose paragraphs are buildings whose blank concrete facades express nothing more than the resigned and resolute turning away of person from person. Whose law has made talking back a crime.

It was necessary to reveal my chains before I could break them. Moreover; it became clear that merely to reveal my chains in a useful light I would have to strain against them. I decided to talk back. Moreover; I determined to do so in a manner designed to take back – if only for the briefest of moments – the world whose fabric is every day forced at gun point out of my hands. It should be made clear here that my desire is not directed at having but doing: to be conditioned in a common task of self-creation with those around me; to participate actively in the communal transformation of life and reality constantly taking place around us; to commune with my fellows using whatever worldly materials are at hand; to enter into playful mutuality with the creation among which I have been placed; to share in a collective undertaking of sensuous intercourse:

“The poverty of the proletarian consists in this: his work has substance but no freedom; his leisure has freedom but no substance. What he does of consequence is not his, and what he does that is his has no consequences; nothing is at stake in his play. It is this social alienation, this desperately felt need to see their own action, to do something that is really theirs, which causes masses of people to take up crafts or vandalism; and still others to try to suppress the split by attacking the separation in a unified way, by taking up coherent vandalism: the craft of the negative.”

Those who make their careers out of representing people like me, whether in governments or galleries, do so by theoretically opposing this absolute poverty of the proletarian condition. Such opposition is nothing other than more or less sincere, more or less sophisticated bullshit. Those who oppose dispossession only in theory invariably enforce it in practice. But when you play with pictures of the poor they may begin to play back.

The only action allowed is that which ensures everything stays the same. The spectacle makes a place for the pseudo-opposition of its professional critics precisely because they play a necessary role within it. The success of such specialists is based on their ability to exploit this tendency, skirting the boundaries of acceptability to build their careers. Banksy, one of the most skilful practitioners of this art is also one of the most lucid: “I love the way capitalism finds a place—even for its enemies.” Like the Julius Malemas & Andile Mngxitamas of this world (not to mention the Elvises & the 50 cents, the Maos and the Lenins) such people are able to milk the image of rebellion precisely because they do not dare attack the poverty which oppresses us all. By providing a representation of rebellion, they support a regime which survives by providing a representation of freedom.

Capitalism does indeed “find a place”. Its false enemies, like Robert Mugabe and himself, it places on a podium to be ogled by spectators. Its true enemies it buries, either under the ground like the Marikana and Asturias miners, or under a blizzard of lies like the comrades in Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Situationist International. How dangerous to the ruling order were the stunts pulled by Banksy at the beginning of his career – when he installed his ‘guerrilla’ artwork in various galleries without permission – is revealed by the rewards granted to him today, where his artwork sells for millions.

Those capable of understanding the old saying “if elections changed anything they would be made illegal” will have to go beyond clever tricks for the amusement of the rich if they hope to accomplish their goals. Like proletarians in struggle since the beginnings of slavery – and for the same reasons – they need be “not at all particular as to the legality of the means by which to secure their own ascendancy.” Like abahlali around the country they will have to refuse the representation of such specialists, take emancipation into their own hands and recognise that “if development is defined without us it will not be for us... There is no democracy for us in the state. The only democracy for us is that democracy that we build for ourselves.” As long as the modern slaves who produce this world against their own interests are forced to work in order to survive, the opposition between dictatorship and democracy may be true in theory, but in practice both will keep the boots at your throat just the same. The experiences of the two Marikanas (there are more around the country, such the occupation in Durban) show that today both are in power at the same time: A paper democracy for the officially regulated territory of the state, an open dictatorship for those territories occupied by the marginalised underclass. If this is conclusion of modern revolutionary theory is true, we are confronted with the question of how to make use of this truth.

Unless they are appropriated and radically altered in our own struggle; the products of a disastrous history, whose horrors continue to terrorise the living, only serve to keep us stuck in the past. Even revolutionary theory, when it becomes a ruling power -- as in Venezuela, Cuba, the marxist, nihilist, avant-garde artist, situationist and anarchist subcultures of all lands -- becomes a tool of modern slavery. Far from commanding respect, such relics demand to be treated with the proper degree of contempt. Only those aspects of theory which can serve usefully in our own everyday revolutionary project (which itself only remains radical inasmuch as we wield it through the actions of our own lives and collective struggles -- and never when it avoidably disarms the actions of others) deserve any respect. The rest is ideological dead weight -- an unmistakably reactionary commodity. As has been discovered everywhere; we can expect nothing of anything that we ourselves have not appropriated and altered.

This radical alteration can be made of nothing other than the convergence of concrete steps taken by individuals who move in the same direction because it is the only one leading to the possibility of a new life. Naturally no such individual action could constitute a final definitive break with the past.*

These basic words and gestures I address to you, dear reader: they too demand to be seized, corrected, altered and surpassed.

What are you going to do about it?

Siddiq Khan
June 2013

Green Point Soccer Stadium at night

* The fact that such pretentious claims abound in the thoroughly falsified realm of spectacular history -- as is the case for the 1994 elections or the World Trade Centre attacks, the advent of Jesus and Mihammad, Hitler and Hiroshima -- renders their existence all the more dubious. Although targeting both the private (gallery, language) and public (street, culture) territory occupied by the commodity-economy, appropriating tactics developed over the course of the world revolutionary movement (graffiti and wall-posters, both widely used for popular subversion); the severe limitations of my own intervention include the geographic: unless social revolt escalates exponentially, few of my fellows in other areas of the city -- let alone the country and the world -- will ever get a chance to read this poster. The other basic limitation is temporal: unless it immediately influences events which mutate and rapidly multiply in viral fashion, my action will appear as no more than a meteor across the blank face of submission that dominates everyday life in all directions.