Delivery protests growing more political

22 07 2009

Published: 2009/07/22 06:26:27 AM – BusinessDay

SERVICE delivery protests have accelerated since April, in what may be an indication of growing impatience not long after the making of election campaign promises.

Winter has always been the peak protest season in SA. “Perhaps it’s because that’s when people are most uncomfortable,” says Karen Reese, an economist and co-founder of Municipal IQ, which monitors service delivery across municipalities.

Cape winters are particularly uncomfortable, accompanied by rain and misery, especially for shack dwellers. However, Anti-Privatisation Forum spokesman Dale McKinley feels it is wrong to believe that all protests are over lack of service, or that they come and go.
“Every single protest has been grouped under service delivery and that’s not true,” he says.

Some protests, he argues, may best be classified as “political protests” since they represent a demand for representation and accountability among local leaders.

“It’s not just about the delivery of an RDP house but goes deeper than that; it’s about who has a voice in this country,” McKinley says.

Problems may also occur when the state, in a desire to provide services quickly, neglects to consult widely enough, says Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University. P rotests are complex and each must be treated on its merit.

In the past three months, demonstrations have broken out in settlements from Du Noon in Cape Town, Zeerust in the North West and Orange Farm in Gauteng.

Yesterday, police fired rubber bullets to disperse about 200 hostel dwellers in Thokoza on the East Rand. Unhappy with hostel renovations in particular, they threw stones, damaging several hostels. At least 17 people were arrested.

Reese believes that, unlike previous years, protests have become much more generalised. “Previously, service delivery protests were around specific issues, although you still have that and it often acts as the trigger,” she says.

Protests also seem to have become more violent, including looting and the stoning of cars . “It is of late an accelerating trend; it’s picking up momentum,” she says.

Earlier this month, two people died in Mpumalanga when marauding residents set fire to three councillors’ homes, including the home of Piet Retief mayor Mary Khumalo.

McKinley says violence is not about people going out “pro-actively” to destroy something. Instead, it normally reflects authorities’ hostility towards protesters’ grievances as well as a failure of policing.

“We must bear in mind that the state has also become more violent,” says Pithouse, arguing that in a democracy it is unacceptable for a demonstrator to die.

Municipal IQ says just over halfway through the year, 13 % of the major service delivery protests recorded since 2004 took place last year . It suggests that should the trend continue, the number of protests this year will exceed those of 2007 and last year and come close to the 2005 peak when 35 protests were recorded countrywide.

Rooted in SA’s struggle against apartheid, protests are hardly mindless outpourings of anger, says McKinley. “It’s an understanding of how power works,” he says. The poor, recognising their limitations in using democratic processes, rely on their collective strength.

McKinley says what the poor are demanding is quality leadership, something unlikely to happen until there is a serious political movement coming from the left. “What’s lacking is an organised voice of the poor and the working class,” he says.

Recent demonstrations appear to have been encouraged by the change of guard in the government, which portrayed itself as a champion of the poor. Pithouse says people take past promises very seriously.

“They see them as a contract between themselves and the state.”

Reese ascribes the protests to relative deprivation inherent when one municipal ward is better off than the neighbouring areas. Service protests are also an urban phenomenon, although Municipal IQ says there is a trend towards non-metro areas.

Last week, Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka blamed the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) for the latest protests in Mpumalanga and Diepsloot.

But Reese does not make much of the third force theory, suggesting instead a widening gap between expectations and capacity.

“If there is a third force, it is acting on valid concerns,” she says.

johwaw@bdfm.co.za

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