In This Review

Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements
Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements
By Trevor Ngwane
Pluto Press, 2021, 240 pp

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in some 46 of South Africa’s informal urban settlements, Ngwane’s probing study focuses on local governance structures called amakomiti, the Zulu word for “committee.” All but one of these settlements maintained at least one community-run committee, which was more or less responsive to popular needs and served as an intermediary between the local population and formal state structures, helping ensure the delivery of key services such as clean water and electricity. At their best, these local committees clearly improved people’s lives. Ngwane describes them as inclusive and democratic but actually says little about how they chose leaders or about the level of political participation in the neighborhoods. Some of his most trenchant analysis concerns the interaction of the committees and the African National Congress, the only political party that appears to have a significant political presence in the settlements. But Ngwane found that the ANC played a meaningful role in only roughly one in six communities. Although the ANC still garners a good deal of legitimacy from its historic part in the struggle against apartheid, Ngwane’s respondents mostly viewed the ANC as indifferent to their welfare, even as the party seeks their votes.