Social Movements as Agencies for Collective Action: Redefining Urban Commons in South Africa

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"This paper seeks to situate a debate about the prospects of the environmental justice movement to redefine the urban commons and investigate the prospects for collective action in South Africa. Common property resource literature is clear about the rights of individuals on private and public lands. Yet situating the environmental justice movement means negotiating and redefining the rights and privileges of private ownership. I will argue in this paper that in the environmental justice discourse, private land maybe more like common property in more ways than is usually recognised. Indeed these contestations require that there is a redefinition of rights of use on private land in order to take care of the 'common good'. Social justice movements require that those aspects of land use that affect the community's quality of life and shared environment be managed as common property. I will use cases from South Africa to look at the 'carving' out of new urban commons in South Africa. This will be reviewed drawing from common property literature that point to the important aspects of defining 'successful commons' and successful collective action for commons management. According to Ostrom (1990) a successful common is defined by the extent to which a system is facing significant environmental uncertainty and there is a social stability in the group of users. While there may be doubts to the existence of a single, coherent environmental movement mobilizing under the comprehensive banner of environmental justice in South Africa, there is evidence that there is an expansion of space for collective action. Evidence shows an environmental awareness awakening in civil society particularly amongst those most affected by threats to the urban commons. There is evidence that the carving out of the urban commons may also yet present opportunities for the redefinition of private rights which will affect management institutions in South Africa."



collective action, urban affairs, social movements