Who’s behind the protests?

2010-11-23 00:00

ANYONE who follows the news will have read and heard about the recent series of service-delivery protests around the country, including in the Western Cape. Most casual observers believe these protests signal a groundswell of dissatisfaction with service delivery — because that is how they have been reported in the press.

Sometimes this is true. But sometimes it isn’t. Each service- delivery protest takes place in a specific context, and is driven by different agendas.

Two weeks ago, three vehicles were burnt during a so-called service-delivery protest in Khayelitsha. Ironically, each of these vehicles was busy delivering a service to the community. One was delivering matric exam scripts to the marking centre. Another was fetching disabled people (for whom the city provides a special, subsidised transport system). A third was transporting children to a camp for abused children. The fourth vehicle escaped the blaze, but was stoned. It was an ambulance responding to an emergency call in the community.

It is beyond irony that services are destroyed in the name of service-delivery protests.

In the television footage of these protests, further evidence of service delivery to the area was abundantly clear: tarred roads, storm- water systems, overhead electricity wires and refuse bags awaiting collection (although their contents had been strewn across the street by protestors).

And in Khayelitsha’s TR section (from which most of the protestors allegedly came) construction workers were being prevented from going onto site to build houses the people were supposedly demanding. In a nearby settlement, where an electricity sub-station was recently built, members of the local community are refusing to allow the electricity servitude to cross their land, thus preventing the city from supplying electricity to the surrounding shack settlements.

Service delivery is by no means perfect in Khayelitsha. But one thing is certain, there would be far more of it, if it were not for service- delivery protests. Various forms of community conflict are the main reason that delivery is held up for years. That is one of the key reasons it is far easier and much quicker to build a stadium than it is to upgrade an informal settlement.

The latter is wracked by community conflict, which usually turns violent, about who should benefit, who should move to make way for installation of underground services and who should get work on the project, etc. Almost every issue results in conflict which takes months to resolve and adds hugely to the cost.

And every time there is a so-called service-delivery protest in an area, more resources are used up to prevent wanton injury and crime caused by people with other agendas. The massive redeployment of scarce police manpower and vehicles to riot scenes means that other areas across the city are deprived of their services.

But in the current situation there is an additional dimension. Local government elections are due in about six months, and hundreds of local activists are competing with each other to be the chosen candidate for their ward, or to secure a place on the list. Building a following and a public profile through protest action is certainly one way of promoting your candidacy.

In the African National Congress-dominated wards of Cape Town, there is yet another dimension at play because the ANC is determined to do whatever it takes to unseat the Democratic Alliance-led coalition in the city. The ANC’s agenda is to create the illusion of spontaneous community anger at lack of service delivery, to reinforce its lie that the DA does not care about the poor.

This contextual analysis of the reasons for some service-delivery protests is usually met with a combination of cynicism and derision by most journalists and commentators. They tend to believe that this is an excuse politicians use to disguise government failures. And we accept that there is always room for improvement, especially after a decade of massive urbanisation in Cape Town which shows no sign of slowing down.

But this time, we do not need to make any deductions or inferences about the cause of the service- delivery protests. Because, believe it or not, the ANC Youth League called a press conference to announce its strategy publicly.

On November 12, the ANCL issued a press statement announcing a 14-day period of “non-stop serious protest”, while demanding that the Department of Education compensate for the fact that pupils’ exam scripts had been burnt.

This comes after repeated calls by ANCYL Khayelitsha leaders Andile Lili and Loyiso Nkohla to make Cape Town “ungovernable”. And after Julius Malema’s call to drive the DA “cockroaches” out of the Western Cape with “Doom”.

Is anyone out there joining the dots?

Not long ago, a newspaper group ran a series of full-page advertisements with headlines such as “Why standing for the truth means never standing down”. The advert promised the reader that “We won’t rest in our relentless mission to always bring you the truth because, ultimately, that’s what separates good journalism from bad”.

We agree. We also know it is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to get to the full truth of any situation. But, in the context of service- delivery protests, appropriate coverage of the ANCYL’s press conference, where it voluntarily exposed its real agenda, would have been an important step in getting closer to the truth.

• This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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