Media: South Africa’s Poor Renew a Tradition of Protest

7 09 2009

September 7, 2009

SIYATHEMBA, South Africa — This country’s rituals of protest most often call for the burning of tires, the barricading of streets and the throwing of rocks. So when the municipal mayor here went to address the crowd after three days of such agitation, the police thought it best to take him into the stadium in a blast-resistant armored vehicle.

Protesters chanted slogans in the township of Siyathemba in late July. Such “service delivery protests” have become a regular occurrence in South Africa.

Protesters chanted slogans in the township of Siyathemba in late July. Such “service delivery protests” have become a regular occurrence in South Africa.

Chastened by the continuing turmoil, the mayor, Mabalane Tsotetsi, known as Lefty, penitently explained that all of the protesters’ complaints would be given his full attention. But by then official promises were a deflated currency, and rocks and bottles were again flying as he retreated.

The reasons for this community’s wrath — unleashed first in late July and again briefly a month later — were ruefully familiar to many South Africans. “Water, electricity, unemployment: nothing has gotten better,” said Lifu Nhlapo, 26, a leader of the protests here in Siyathemba, a township 50 miles east of Johannesburg. “We feel an anger, and when we are ignored, what else is there to do but take to the streets?”

Civil unrest among this nation’s poor has recently gotten worldwide attention, and is often portrayed as unhappiness with South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma. Actually, these so-called service delivery protests have gone on with regularity for a long time. They vary in intensity — mild, medium and hot — and their frequency seems to rise and fall without a predictable pattern.

Oddly enough, the protests can be seen as a measure of progress as well as frustration. Since the arrival of democracy 15 years ago, the percentages of households with access to piped water, a flush toilet or a connection to the power grid have notably increased. Those people left waiting are often angry, and so far their ire has not usually been directed at the president — who has been able to use the protests to his political advantage — but at municipal officials they consider uncaring, incompetent and corrupt.

“No one wants to be worse off than their neighbor,” said Kevin Allan, managing director of Municipal IQ, a company that monitors the performance of local government. “People get impatient.”

The places most ripe for unrest are neither the poorest communities nor those with the longest backlog in setting up services, he said. Most commonly, the protests are rooted in informal settlements that have sprung up near urban areas, where the poor who do not receive government services rub up against the poor who do.

Whatever the causes for the protests, the governing African National Congress appears to take them quite seriously. Party leaders have been dispatched to hot spots, where they usually end up investigating their fellow party members. Local government, like national government, is largely dominated by the A.N.C.

In Siyathemba, the emissary from on high was Mr. Zuma himself. On the afternoon of Aug. 4, his helicopter set down on a rocky soccer field, with bodyguards and a BMW waiting. He eventually proceeded to the town of Balfour, the seat of municipal government. Mayor Tsotetsi, at home at the time, rushed back to the office to meet his unannounced visitor. Commentators had a good laugh about that, presuming the mayor a goldbrick who likes to knock off early.

“There is no place that will be hidden from me,” Mr. Zuma announced, leaving the impression he was now a sort of caped superhero who would pop up wherever malingerers were not earning their government paychecks.

Though the president also denounced lawbreaking by protesters, his visit seemed an endorsement to those here who had vented their anger. “Zuma agrees with us, that all these mayors and councilors who are not performing have to go,” said Zakhele Maya, 26, another leader of the demonstrations.

Siyathemba has a population of about 6,000 and an unemployment rate of 82 percent, more than triple the nation’s rate, according to official statistics. Most here live in shacks of corrugated metal, the roofs kept in place with strategically placed rocks. Many of the dwellings sag in the middle as if they were melting in the hot sun.

Clusters of shacks here look about the same, but some are settlements that have been “formalized,” which means that the hovels, however dilapidated, have electricity inside and a water tap and flush toilet nearby. Those people living in communities without this imprimatur must light their homes with kerosene or paraffin and wait in lines, pail in hand, at a single communal spigot.

“This is no way to live,” said Mercy Mbiza, 38. “We have to dig a pit for a toilet, and when it’s full, we dig another. They tell us we are on a waiting list to get services. Whether I will die first, I don’t know.”

Rumors — true or not — are dangerous combustibles in places like this. People are suspicious that money meant for them is being stolen or wasted by the big shots in Balfour. Some goings-on simply make no sense.

For instance, Arlene Moloi’s house has four pillars and a roof and only emptiness in between. The municipality paid someone to construct it in 1996, but the builder suddenly disappeared after starting the job.

“The officials tell me they are waiting for the same man to come back and finish,” said Ms. Moloi, a 54-year-old widow. “But it already has been 13 years.”

The Siyathemba protests began with a meeting of disgruntled young people, some of them members of political youth groups, others players on sports teams. They compiled a list of their many grievances. They wanted more water and electricity, yes. But they also wanted better roads, a local hospital and a police station. Beyond that, they wanted jobs.

This list of demands was left at the municipal hall in Balfour. “Some of these things — hospitals, police stations — these are matters to take up at the provincial level,” said the municipality’s spokesman, Mohlalefi Lebotha. “Where is the money for these things, not just to construct them but to sustain them?”

At first, Mr. Tsotetsi did not meet with the disgruntled. Nor did he call a special session of the municipal council as the protesters had demanded.

This slow, even indifferent response seemed to mock the petitioners’ seriousness. After a mass meeting on a Sunday, many protesters took to the streets. The police confronted them, relying on a rather indiscriminate spray of rubber bullets.

The crowd fought back, shouting “azikhwelwa,” meaning that everything must shut down: no one goes to work, no one attends school.

“People knew how to act from the days of the liberation struggle,” said Mr. Maya, the protest leader. “We sang the songs, telling those who are scared to step aside so the brave can move ahead and advance the struggle.

“In South Africa, the struggle is not yet over.”

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