Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


SA's poor losing patience
Zolile Mtshelwane
Published: 11-JUL-05

Johannesburg - As delegates to the World Economic Forum's Africa Summit discussed hefty issues of the world economy in Cape Town's exclusive Conference Centre last month, several hundred members of a squatter settlement were protesting against the lack of housing and general service delivery hardly 20 minutes down the road.

The protesters, from a settlement curiously called Happy Valley in the Khayelitsha area, blocked roads with burning barricades of tyres, old mattresses and anything flammable they could find, and demanded housing, water, and proper sanitation.

As they sang and did the toyi-toyi dance, some threw buckets of raw sewage onto the streets.

"We want to show this government that they must pay attention to us," one of the women protesters told journalists.

The Happy Valley protest at the beginning of June is the latest in a wave of upheavals that started in the Entabeni township in Harrismith in the Free State province last year.

Since that September afternoon in the Eastern Free State, when police opened fire on the protesters, killing one person, the protests have spread rapidly to other provinces.

In all these protests, the residents burned tyres, blocked roads with barricades and stoned police, who retaliated by firing teargas and rubber bullets and arresting scores of protesters.

Only in Kliptown, in Soweto, Gauteng, did the residents march peacefully to the local police station. The demands in all these protests revolved around a what has become a buzzword in South Africa's political lexicon: service delivery.

The protesters understand this to mean delivery on the ruling ANC's election promise of "a better life for all". This promise, at least in the understanding of the protesters, should translate into the delivery of houses, water, sanitation, jobs, health, social and recreation facilities.

Make no mistake, the ANC government has certainly delivered on some of these, especially in the areas of housing, running water, and clinics. But delivery has been slow, encumbered in many cases by bureaucracy and by the sheer magnitude of the backlog in development inherited by the ANC in 1994 following decades of apartheid-inspired neglect.

In all fairness to the protesters, they have been patient. But there is a limit to the patience of people who, more than a decade after the advent of democracy, still live in conditions that can only be described as disgraceful.

These include dwellings constructed of wooden planks, plastic sheeting, cardboard boxes and rusted corrugated iron, without running water or proper sanitation.

The local councillors, the majority of whom are ANC members, are, in the eyes of the residents, better off. Many of the councillors' lives have become better, the protesters argue, but the conditions of the poor are not becoming any better.

In some instances, the protesters have even accused councilors of being "corrupt": a serious accusation, but the perception exists. Asked about the wave of protests, ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe did not outrightly condemn the upheavals.

"We need to ask ourselves what it is that we have not done that leads people to embark on such action," he was quoted as saying.

These protests raise a lot of questions about the continued stability of South Africa's political situation. Are these upheavals going to spread? Is it possible that what the ANC calls "the poorest of the poor" have become embittered by the slow pace of delivery and are prepared to vent their anger loudly and violently?

Does the government possess the willingness to crack the whip to get lackadaisical local councils to deliver? Is it possible, as some in the ANC have been quoted as saying, that there is a "hidden/third force" stoking the fires of discontent?

The delegates at the WEF must have seen the images of the burning tyres in Happy Valley beamed on national television from the comforts of their hotel rooms.

I wish I was a fly on the wall in those hotel and conference rooms to gain an insight into how they thought these "poorest of the poor" can be made to feel they have a stake in their country's, and the world's, economy.

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