Why we destroy public property

2017-09-24 06:26
This 2010 file picture was taken as residents of Siyathemba township in Balfour, Mpumalanga, set alight municipal offices and barricaded roads with rocks, electricity poles and rubbish bins, in a protest against poor service delivery. Picutre: Leon Sadiki

This 2010 file picture was taken as residents of Siyathemba township in Balfour, Mpumalanga, set alight municipal offices and barricaded roads with rocks, electricity poles and rubbish bins, in a protest against poor service delivery. Picutre: Leon Sadiki

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Democratic South Africa is a troubled, wounded society.

The signs are manifest in moral decay, ethical indifference, devaluation of public property and unconscionable violence.

Examples are witnessed when resigned cynicism replaces justified outrage at the wanton destruction of schools, clinics, libraries and lecture halls.

What accounts for such seemingly irrational actions which, if anything, defer the ideal and realisation of a better life for all?

How to explain why largely poor people destroy the scant public amenities they have in the name of another “service delivery protest”?

When does civil disobedience morph from just political protest into unjust unruly behaviour?

“Service delivery” is the equitable distribution of basic infrastructure resources such as water, sanitation, housing and healthcare.

Municipal IQ, a website used to monitor South Africa’s 278 municipalities, describes such protests as organised collective action “galvanised by inadequate local services or tardy service delivery, the responsibility for which lies with a municipality”.

There is possibly a reason so-called service delivery protests have mushroomed.

People have grown intolerant of lack of service delivery and abuse of state resources, to the extent that they torch and loot public facilities without concern for tomorrow.

There seem to be variations in incidents of violent service delivery protests.

While these happened 10 years ago, they did not result in the mass burning of schools and university laboratories – as they often tend to now.

The democratic dispensation honeymoon period and rainbow nation relatively held sway.

People were willing to postpone venting their anger and hold off on demanding the realisation of the expectations that were built up during their struggle against apartheid.

Suddenly, people’s Job-like patience reached a tipping point.

The social compact holdingour society together began to fray and eventually exploded. This happened when the sacrifices expected from all were not made by some public leaders.

Instead, these leaders prioritised self-preservation at the expense of servant leadership.

When good governance was neglected and these leaders blamed apartheid and foreign agencies, people’s dissatisfaction had to find an outlet.

It is not surprising to find that, as University of Cape Town academic Sean Gossel argues, “the number of violent protests increased from an average of 21 a year between 2004 and 2008, to 164 a year between 2014 and 2016”.

Public violence, though, should not be perceived as actions committed only by a collective.

Public violence happens when individual leaders violate their oath of office to protect the resources meant for the public good.


Recent revelations from the #GuptaLeaks and various “state capture” reports can inarguably be said to constitute public violence inflicted by certain individuals upon the common good.

There are estimates that R100bn has been openly filched from the public purse due to state capture.

Public violence is manifest in corruption perpetrated by individual leaders dedicated to serving the narrow interests of certain foreign families.

Public violence is emphasised in maladministration perpetrated by civil servants, as indicated in the recent Auditor-General report, according to which irregular expenditure in the 2015/16 financial year was more than R41bn.

It should be a source of indictment to learn that, out of the 263 audited municipalities, only 49 received clean audits. Do these wilful self-seeking acts not diminish public trust and confidence in public leaders and institutions?

It should be remembered that fair and effective delivery should be emphasised at local government level, since this is the coalface of service provision.

Ideally, local government should be staffed by the most competent and ethical bureaucrats. Instead, we find it being run by inefficient and incompetent individuals who serve patronage networks.

If any lessons can be learnt from the Chinese mandarin-run bureaucracy, it is the governing party’s insistence on selecting the best of the best and subjecting the chosen few to rigorous examinations, regularised training and standardised performance appraisals.

And when the general public views such public violence of corruption committed with impunity, they deem it their right to subsequently embark on acts of civil disobedience.

When bureaucrats are seen not to face punitive consequences for their poor performance, this increases the anger of communities. Responses to such impunity vary according to people’s resources.

Those with access to legal instruments, such as trade union Solidarity, challenge the suspected culprits with lawfare. Those without these material means, like most economically disenfranchised communities in townships, resort to desperate acts of public property demolition.

Sadly, this Cassandrian structural context is not assisted by the evident impotence of law enforcement agencies to act in the public good.

For instance, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is enjoined by the Constitution to “be a lawyer of the people” and, in the process, “contribute to freedom from crime” and “promote a culture of civic morality”.

The proverbial jury is still deliberating whether the current NPA fulfils its core mandate to “ensure public confidence in the criminal justice system”.

Moral degeneration, in an extractive system such as ours, is therefore something committed by institutions and leaders who are primarily meant to serve as a bulwark against criminal actions and immoral behaviour.

Things fall apart when the centre can no longer hold and, as WB Yeats reminds us, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

This is the reason the Moral Regeneration Movement premises its programme of action on the acknowledgement that “the high levels of corruption manifest a deep loss of respect for human life; a profound lack of patriotism and care for others, and a sickening degree of greed and selfishness”.

Dehumanisation of the black body and psyche

What is even more alarming about the wounds inflicted on citizens in the democratic era is that they are an extension of those inflicted during apartheid.

One of the most damaging and lasting features about apartheid was its dehumanisation of the black body and psyche.

This dehumanisation, or rather objectification, came in the form of the denial of basic human rights to the majority of the population, so the struggle for freedom was based on the ideal of rehumanising both black and white people in our country.

As such, the violation of this ideal in the democratic dispensation – in evil acts of corruption and maladministration – should be seen for what it is: a crime against black humanity.

Service delivery protests do not take place in a vacuum and are more than an expression of voter discontent.

South African society is bedevilled by record high inequality, unemployment and poor education outcomes among mainly young people, who comprise the bulk of the population. Such a toxic mix renders our country malleable to social anomie, economic revolts and political instability.

The relationship between fair and effective service delivery expresses the ideal enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which “affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.

On the other hand, and perhaps this is where the confusion emerges, is the question of whether the struggle against apartheid was for freedom or democracy.

In other words, were expectations made when drafting the Freedom Charter in the 1950s watered down by objective factors both domestic and international?

Was it sufficiently communicated to the expectant population that democracy is a social compact with responsibilities and obligations from both leaders and the led?

Was the message communicated sufficiently that even more sacrifices and commitments would have to be made by all to reach the promised land after 1994?

Freedom for most people implies the state will ensure it guarantees – if not for all, then for most – that they do not suffer from poverty, unemployment and inequality.

For instance, in extending the social welfare net to more than 17 million people, poverty has been arrested somewhat for most families.

Democracy, on the other hand, as we have realised since 1994, only assures that there will be legislation enacted conducive to the attainment of opportunities for all, irrespective of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

Public violence, both physical and metaphysical, reflects systemic and structural problems.

These problems are partly exogenous, but are, in the main, self-inflicted, as highlighted by both self-seeking leaders and apathetic civil servants.

In this case, efforts such as the iCareWeCare campaign by the Gauteng government should be supported to help look after and protect public property and resources.

Failure to support such campaigns will result in the further erosion of social cohesion and patriotism.

When people no longer feel a sense of shared identity plus a sense of national belonging, anarchy is loosed and we will find ourselves asking, as Yeats did:

“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Mkhatshwa and Sehume are associated with the Moral Regeneration Movement


What can be done to stop corruption and theft in our public service?

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Read more on:    npa  |  service delivery  |  protests  |  gupta leaks

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