VOA: South African Poor Protest Conditions


South African Poor Protest Conditions
By Delia Robertson
27 October 2009

For at least three years, as the country’s winter months begin to bite, poor South Africans have taken to the streets in increasingly violent protest, frustrated at what they see as government failures to address their needs. This year, those protests have continued well into warm weather.

They are usually called service-delivery protests and the unstated implication that people are protesting because the South African government has failed to deliver services such as electricity, water, sanitation, health services, homes and even land.

However, the issues underlying specific protests are often much more complex and may include corruption – perceived or real – in a local municipality, competition for land or resources, skills development, and even disputes between different groups in a particular community.

Regardless of the over-arching reason offered for a particular protest, a common thread in all protests also seems to be poor communication. Steven Friedman director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, is one of several experts who argue that many protests are less about delivery of services than about the failure of government at all levels to know exactly what it is that people want. “But if you for example look at the history of attempts in south Africa since 1994 to address poverty and deprivation, the biggest problem in the last fifteen years has been the fact that government just doesn’t know what people want and what people need,” he said.

Friedman, whose center is an initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, says the failure in communications goes even further, he says government departments are not informing communities about plans for those communities.

“In many cases, let me say, in the current protests people are not even complaining about not having a say, although I am sure they would like one, they are complaining about not being given basic information. It is pretty common for people to say, well they never tell us what they are doing. Well it is not above government’s capacity to tell people what they are doing,” he said.

Sbu Zikode is the president of Abahlali base Mjondolo, an organization of shack dwellers based primarily in KwaZulu-Natal. He also tells VOA that many of the protests result from a failure to communicate by government departments – whether to inform or to hear what communities say. He says this comes down to a failure to recognize the humanity of the poor. “So what we have seen, is that the humanity of the shack dwellers in particular has been seen, communities have only been seen as the passive receivers of services; people who do not count, people who do not matter in our society,” he said.

Both Friedman and Zikode note that the current national government led by President Jacob Zuma has appeared to shift its approach and is far more open to dialogue than in the past. A minister spent a night in an informal settlement, minister and senior politicians from the ruling African National Congress, ANC, have been dispatched to hot spots.

Even the president made an unannounced visit to Siyathemba township in Balfour in Mpumulanga province. He told protestors his government will be changing the way it responds to problems in poor communities.

“And I thought it was important for me to come physically on my own, to hear, to see, to check, to hear what the people are saying, so that we can see how we address those issues. And [it] is an ongoing thing, there is no place that is going to be hidden that I am not going to go to, to check so that places like Balfour, which seem to be very remote, that is the places I am going to be going to unannounced, all the time, to get to know what are the problems, why can’t we deliver certain things,” he said.

Mr Zuma’s promise has had at least one consequence he may not have anticipated. In a particularly violent protest earlier this month in Sakhile, a township near Standerton in Gauteng province, protesters were even more angered when their demand to speak directly to the president was turned down, and they warned there would be no order in the township until that happened.

The protests and the depth of the problems faced by poor South Africans often leads to a perception that little or no progress has been made since 1994 to improve their lives. Friedman and Zikode hasten to point out this is not the case.

The government has built over 2.6 million houses and provided subsidies for another three million. Millions more now have clean water on tap in their homes, access to a nearby health clinic, and schools for their children.

Protests usually begin as the cold winter months draw in, causing greater hardship in poor households with no heat and hot water. But this year the protests have continued well into the warm weather. Some observers say this is a consequence of the recession caused by the global financial crises. Others say over-ambitious promises made by Mr. Zuma’s ANC in the run-up to a general election in April, resulted in unrealistic expectations among the poor.

In his mid-year budget presented Tuesday to parliament, new finance minister Pravin Gordhan reported that South Africa has lost 500,000 jobs in the past 18 months, and that revenue collection for the year is expected to be down by $9.3 billion.

Gordhan said the situation would be worse if the country had not entered the period of global recession on a strong foundation with a budget surplus, but warned that South Africans will have to rise to extra-ordinary heights to meet the needs of their fellow citizens, especially the poor.

“We must prepare to do extraordinary things – the ordinary will not deliver the jobs that are sought by young school-leavers, shelter for those who are homeless, training for those who need skills, new opportunities for businesses in difficulty, or an environmentally responsible development path,” he said.

And if Zikode and Friedman have their way, that effort will also have to include an extraordinary improvement in communications between government officials and the people of South Africa.