The production, defense, and destruction of ‘commons’ have preoccupied a variety of contemporary intellectual and political debates. Much hinges on the concept of ‘the commons’ in these works: from submerged histories of subaltern conviviality to a post-Leninist notion of militant praxis. Linebaugh and Rediker have written on the making of the Trans-Atlantic world with an attention to subaltern insurrections that preceded the iron cages of ‘labour’, ‘nation’ and ‘race’, as well as the revolutions across the Atlantic littoral; and they have inspired comparisons between past and present activist networks. DiAngelis proposes that commons are immanent in all acts of collectivism, and that ‘commons production’ persists despite relentless commodification and dispossession. A ‘commonist’ project is fostered, he argues, through everyday forms of mutuality un-fettered by capitalist measures of work and value.
All these thinkers view commons as conflictual, and their defense in the wake of enclosure as generative of the conditions of life in common. This paper questions this assumption from the city of Durban, between the end of the South African War and the deepening of political and economic crisis in the 1970s. It will not come as a surprise that zones of decommodification and mutuality in South Africa have been fundamentally racialized. What might be surprising is that similar forms of expert knowledge and practice have been drawn both to the cause of segregation as well as to the fight for universal access to the means of life. This paper explores this argument from the vantage point of the industrial-residential region of South Durban (Map 1, and Map 2, in relation to other parts of Ethekwini Municipality), an area that has invited considerable scholarly and activist interest, principally for leading the main community-based environmental justice movement in South Africa.