SACSIS: What the State’s Response to the Anger of Protesting Communities Is Not Telling Us

What the State’s Response to the Anger of Protesting Communities Is Not Telling Us

By Ibrahim Steyn

As many poor working class communities continue to protest against the post-apartheid state’s failure to meet their material expectation of democracy, the only real difference between Mbeki and Zuma’s responses to the protesting voices is that whereas the former has been callous the latter seems more sympathetic. The fact that Mbeki hardly commiserated with protesting communities during his tenure and obstinately denied that South Africa was experiencing a so-called “service delivery” crises in 2007, doesn’t mean he will necessarily disagree with Zuma’s recent statement to the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the concerns of the protestors are genuine and that there are problems with the state’s delivery apparatus.

As a matter of fact, like the ANC-led administration under Zuma, the Mbeki regime also cited a lack of capacity, poor communication, political infighting and the unscrupulous behaviour of some municipal officials as the main reasons for the state’s delivery conundrum at the local level. Hence, it’s not wrong to surmise that the main text of the ANC-led government’s response has not changed much since April 2009, but the way it’s being communicated has. Either way, the response is superficial! And attempts to pacify poor people, like that of the Minister of Sustainable Human Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale, who recently decided to spend a night in an informal settlement, won’t alter this view.

The original source of the protesting communities’ anger is threefold: a disjuncture between legal thought and grassroots expectations of socioeconomic rights, a neoliberal mode of governance and liberal democracy’s limited assumption of political participation, as will become clear below.

Who are the protestors? They are predominantly young unemployed men and women who are demanding material entitlement to the socioeconomic rights that have been guaranteed to them and their poor communities by the South African Constitution since 1996, very simply put. They are persons like Nosizwe from Barcelona in Cape Town, who told a journalist during the April 2009 elections: “We have many problems in Barcelona. We have no roads, no houses, no water. You can see yourself. We’re living on sand here. We’re living in a swamp. Winter’s arrived; we’re going to swim in floodwater. Each year’s the same story.”

The reality is that these rights are conceived as “access-rights” and not concrete entitlements. They offer no guarantee of concrete relief and so have no automatic effect on socioeconomic hardships, which raise questions about their redistributional effects.

The Court uses a procedural test to measure compliance with the Constitution’s socioeconomic rights framework. As long as state departments can demonstrate that their respective policy programs guarantee adequate access, but that social demands are not affordable, they’ve passed the compliance test. The effect is that without some socioeconomic resources poor people will remain deprived of any substantive experience of these rights, which explains why Irene Grootboom remained waiting for her house, eights years after the famous Grootboom case, and eventually died without it, in 2008.

To be sure, I’m not implying that the poor cannot use socioeconomic rights as a political tool to demand social change. However, the Court’s socioeconomic rights jurisprudence seems to defy the very interests that prompted the inclusion of these rights into the South African Constitution. Its emptiness militates against the potential for these rights to have concrete meaning in the lives of their beneficiaries.

The socioeconomic rights predicament is compounded by the state’s neoliberal political logic. It refers to a mode of governance geared towards bolstering the health and growth of the economy whilst being less concerned with the poverty reduction effects of economic growth. A market rationale is imposed on development planning and policy discourses, which means that decisions regarding the provision of social services are submitted to cost and benefit considerations. The focus is on keeping costs low without necessarily decreasing the quantity of a particular service and on getting the poor to pay their bills.

However, submitting social policy to market rationality in a highly stratified society – like ours – compromises the quality of services that are being delivered to poor working class communities who lack the choices enjoyed by those in the middle-to-upper echelons of society, and causes them to go without basic social amenities, like electricity and water, for long periods of time.

For example, a 2008 report on housing delivery by the Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions (COHRE) reveals staggering details about the quality of the houses that are being built under the eThekwini Municipality’s low-cost housing scheme. According to the report, many of the houses that were visited by the COHRE researchers had large cracks and no ceiling or waterproofing under the roof tiles. All of the houses were one-roomed with a secluded toilet, which thrust enormous social stresses on larger sized families, especially the women.

Most of those who cannot afford to fix up their houses indicated that they were better off in their shacks. In the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan, protesting communities rejected the government’s RDP houses. They argued that the houses were built on clay soil and lacked privacy: the cracks in some of the houses are so huge that neighbours can see each other’s every movement.

In the case of electricity, despite cross-subsidisation, ESKOM’s full cost recovery policy has led to consistent increases in electricity tariffs, which have fuelled massive disconnections since the mid-90s. Over the years, many poor households with electricity access have either been disconnected by the state or decided to disconnect themselves, in the case of prepaid meters, because electricity has become too expensive. David McDonald has calculated that there were two million disconnections by 2002. This figure makes nonsense of the Department of Mineral and Energy and ESKOM’s celebrated claim that a total of almost three million homes have been electrified since 1991.

Meanwhile, data by Earthlife Africa shows that Industry accounts for about two thirds of electricity consumption in South Africa: (68% according to the 2002 Energy outlook) commerce 10% and domestic consumers about 17%. Yet poorer customers are charged higher electricity rates than business and affluent consumers. In 2002, Soweto residents were charged 28 cents per kilowatt/hour while Sandton residents paid 16 cents and big business paid seven cents. In rural areas, poor consumers were charged 48 cents per kilowatt/hour.

This has led to a situation in which nine out of 10 households in Soweto were behind in electricity payments, and six out of 10 had their power supply cut during the period 2001-02. The evidence reveals that it has been business and affluent consumers that have disproportionately benefited from Eskom’s so-called low-cost electricity supply.

More harrowing, the state declared a national electricity emergency in 2008 when companies experienced blackouts. Yet many poor communities have and continue to be without electricity since the dawn of our democracy. Poor people are regularly maimed and killed by fires in shack settlements because the state refuses to electrify their shacks.

Curiously, the state signed a long-term deal with Alcan in 2006, a Canadian aluminium corporation, to allow it to build a smelter at Coega. It is mindboggling why the government would want to sell electricity to a foreign company when it complains about shortages here at home! The cost of the power to Alcan has been kept secret, but energy activists opined that the amount of energy that Alcan will purchase is said to be equal to half of the consumption of the City of Cape Town and more than the current consumption of nearby Port Elizabeth.

This is a clear illustration of how the state with a 90% stake in Eskom is using its political power, entities and the law to support shareholder interests whilst the social needs of the working poor and unemployed are being submitted to budget calculations.

Finally, although the Constitution guarantees public participation in municipal affairs, South Africa’s liberal democratic framework, like anywhere else, creates an incestuous relationship between the political elite and their electors. It is preposterously assumed that an electoral victory for the ruling party means that every policy decision of the political elite correlates with the wishes of electors who are not part of the decision-making process.

In addition, participation in local formal channels for citizenship participation is often used by power-holders as a stratagem to legitimise preordained decisions and to contain mass resistance against the socioeconomic status quo. Those who reject this kind of farcical participation are being criminalised and are being subjected to gratuitous police brutality.

Meanwhile, it’s an open secret that most ward councillors are not living within the communities whose needs they are supposed to resolve and therefore are not in touch with their everyday life experiences. They are nominated and elected by members of their respective political parties and so tend to use ward committees as adjuncts of the local party branch, ostracising the voices of non-party activists. It is inconceivable that party activists can speak for the whole of society.

The awkward truth is that when people are not directly involved in the decision-making process, discontent is inevitable. What is required is a radical democratic effort by the working class and the poor to reduce the state’s centralised bureaucratic control over the development process, on the one hand, and to increase the political power of the masses to direct the course of social transformation, on the other.

This political project is a necessary precondition for achieving a socialist alternative of local government that prioritises social needs. It requires trade unions, social/community movements and certain NGOs, who are advocating an alternative vision of state-society relations, to build concrete solidarity links between their different struggles.