Everything must fall

2016-05-16 18:58

Not so long ago the DA's Mbali Ntuli shared a story of a community in KwaZulu Natal that burnt a new clinic during a service delivery protest.

In February this year, an admin building at the North West University was set alight  forcing the university to interrupt the academic programme. This was after the university had "undemocratically removed" elected student leaders who represent the student body on leadership structures of the institution.

This month began with the burning of 24 schools after the Municipal Demarcation Board had moved some villages into a new municipality. Frustrated with the decision-makers, residents with an ANC Councillor amongst them, torched the schools in protest.

Today I woke up to the news that the Sanlam Auditorium at the University of Johannesburg had been set alight with damages  estimated to cost around R100 million.

It is not the first time public property had been damaged but it may be the first we seeing this on such a massive scale. Even the ANC's sabotage campaign against the Apartheid government is reduced to nothing if you just look at costs of such protests within the last 10 years.

Although Nelson Mandela got all excited when the first MK bomb went off at testing site, he probably never imagined that an ANC governed South Africa would experience the same kind of sabotage. But then he did warn that if the ANC does to South Africans what the Apartheid government did, then South Africans must do to the ANC government what they did to the Apartheid government.

This is not him endorsing violence against legitimate State institutions as we have seen though. But sabotaging the State does come from our past against an illegitimate State in the eyes of the majority. The distinction between a legitimate State institution and an illegitimate one is not the focus of these protests but just anger at not being able to influence decisions.

But surely we cannot burn things to the ground every time things do not go our away. If we did then we'd have no country left, only ruins similar to what is left of war-torn Syria. South Africa may not be at war but if every service delivery protest or disgruntled group burnt public property, we'd be in the same position as Syrians except we would not have ISIS and Al-Assad to blame for it all.

It would appear that the institutional framework that is supposed to encourage public participation is not working. When news broke of schools being burnt in Limpopo, WC Premier Helen Zille shared how tragic this was. She suggested that the people should've launched a court battle against the decision to move their villages to a new municipality. It looks simple enough if you look at the world through your privileged lens. She also suggested voting the ANC out but that would only see change in the decision in 2021 when people need a solution now.

The DA was able to stop a merge of municipalities because the party had the resources to do so. Resources being information and money. Here you are talking about villagers who are likely not to be as well organised and resourced as the DA or the much praised TAC. Many scholars who have studied public participation in South Africa will tell you that the most organised are able to exert influence through courts, other State institutions such as the Public Protector, and various other ways such as research and information sharing. Or you could be a Gupta.

Violent service delivery protests would be significantly reduced if people were involved in the decision making process including policy monitoring and evaluation. They would own the decisions. Unpopular decisions are a product of inadequate broad and meaningful public participation processes. Remember e-Tolls or the Chapman's peak toll gates? In both instances the most organised groups challenged the State. You'd think they should have won but someone else who had more resources won. The businesses that stood to make a killing from State contracts.

Meaningful public participation is a crucial part of the situation that led to the burning of schools in Limpopo and other places. State institutions often ask the public to make submissions. And so the Municipal Demarcation Board does the same thing through submissions and a few imbizos or meetings. Again here you get the most organised people who are able to navigate the sophisticated language used by policy makers (not actual politicians but their support staff including researchers and public servants). If the Municipal Demarcation Board was scrutinised, you may find reasonable ground to challenge the decision that angered the villagers just as the DA successfully challenged the proposed merge that would have seen them lose control of the only municipality that is run by them in Gauteng.

Government led Imbizos are ceremonial in nature. Not much engagement on actual policy content. Then you have the illusion of broad public participation where you get all different stakeholders together and find that many of them are an extension of the ruling party. Look at the meeting where some student leaders walked out at the Union Buildings and check which youth organisation is affiliated with which political organisation. Even traditional leaders have been bought with fancy cars and who do you think government consults first in the rural areas?

If decisions made by public institutions reflected the will of the people, then you would not see this mess where crucial infrastructure is destroyed. You get such because decisions only reflect the will of the most powerful actor or one who is able to exert their influence through our institutional framework. And those who feel left out then move the fight to influence decisions to the streets where history tells them that they will succeed. So if you are rich like the FW De Klerk Foundation, you fund the DA's Glynnis Breytenbach to challenge the decision in court instead of burning the court. And if you happen to be poor and unhappy with a decision, burn public property.

The need to change the rules of engagement could not be more urgent if South Africa is to get back on the path to prosperity. We can condemn the violence all we want, if decisions made by those in power do not reflect the interests of those most affected by them, they will be challenged even if it means burning a clinic when demanding clean drinking water.

 And so everything falls because we have an ANC government which has admitted that in many of our municipalities you find a marked distance between the public representatives and the communities they serve (or are supposed to serve). The public office bearers' interests are in conflict with the expectations of citizens. Mantashe and Motlanthe will tell you more about comrades who are only interested in using public office as a tool to enrich themselves not to improve the lives of the people. So it is not only the rules of engagement that must change, but the cadre who makes the rules must change or be changed too.

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