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Taking Back the Commons: Decommodification, Deconcentration, and Democratisation

Ruth Hall and Moenieba Isaacs
Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape
South Africa


The battle is on for Africa’s commons, but not all is lost. Beyond the onslaught of corporate, elite and state-backed land and resource grabbing that is rampant across the continent, this talk calls for more attention to the many spaces in which commons are not merely being defended but claimed and produced, across urban and rural spaces – from land occupation movements in inner cities to illicit and illegal fishing, from pavement dwellers to guerrilla gardeners. Meanwhile, narratives of vacant, idle land or terra nullius, which have echoed since colonial times, have been reinvigorated in the wave of climate financing that seeks to enlist African territories to offset carbon emissions elsewhere. We propose two meanings of ‘taking back the commons’. First, the onward march of commodification, amidst crises of survival and social reproduction, financialisation and labour precarity are spurring counter-movements as people claim or reclaim, either in overt political formations or more incrementally and individually, entitlements to natural resources and to territory. These are not the classical commons (those that have endured, in some views, since time immemorial) nor the new commons (of the internet and other technologies) but rather new ‘old’ commons. We propose a framework for thinking about the politics of commons being produced by grassroots movements, organised around a conception decommodification of tenure and rights; deconcentration of ownership and control; and democratisation of governance through bottom-up institution-building. And we reflect on the degree to which these hold the promise of building an emancipatory politics. Second, we focus on the role of researchers in this current conjuncture and question our positionality and responsibilities, given the spaces of opportunity and privilege we occupy. We discuss the notion of ‘scholar-activism’ in relation to the commons, and illustrate some elements of how we interpret the possibilities and modalities of enlisting African scholars – and allies from around the world – in forms of solidarity with the taking back of the commons.