Why protest when you can vote?

2012-08-10 13:44

Burning tyres on public roads during ‘service delivery’ protests has become a norm, and many wonder how the destruction of public properties that are meant to serve the public will bring the services that are on the demands.

Should a man who needs a house, burn the library that is used by his child because he is tired of waiting for a ‘free house’? Won’t he complain about his child not having access to library facilities later on?

The right to protest against an issue that you feel is not being addressed must be protected, but public property also needs to be protected from vandalism, and the people who make use of the facility should look after it. This does not make sense to the many ‘impoverished’ citizens who cannot sing songs, chant a few slogans, handover a memorandum and go home. This does not work for the people; they must burn something and throw rocks at something or someone. If the people are marching for free houses, the government is expected to build those RDP houses in one day; any other reply form the government will anger the people.

Having lived in Khayelitsha for over a decade and worked in most of these ‘poor communities’, I have come to appreciate the frustration the communities have over services ‘not’ being delivered; a lot of unemployed, uneducated citizens depending on the state for survival. You find quite a lot of people in need of the services, very few prepared to look after them, this is proven by the amount of money municipalities spend replacing stolen of broken material at public facilities. Billions spent annually to repair or replace that material, money that should be spent building new public facilities going down the drain.

But is it really lack of service delivery that drives the poor people to protest and vandalise public property? If it is, why don’t residents in Nyandeni, Eastern Cape protest for service delivery when the municipality does not deliver any services but wastes public funds annually, have never heard of a service delivery protest there and many other municipalities where residents do not protest even though there aren’t any services being delivered. So maybe services not being delivered are not the real reason people protest, but if it’s not lack of services being delivered, what could drive people to protest and destroy public facilities such as libraries, public roads, burning government vehicles and so on?

If I were to answer that question in one word it would be, politics. Two examples of this can be found in the Cape where there have been quite a few ‘service delivery’ protests. The first one can be found in Khayelitsha. Back in 2008, there were quite a few of these protests in Khayelitsha’s notorious TR Section. In 2008 after there was a communication breakdown between the provincial department of housing, TR Section residents took to the streets stoning and burning buses, government vehicles, including private cars. The people had been ‘promised’ houses, instead the government moved a few people to serviced land in Bardale, the housing project they were meant to benefit from had been put on hold because when the ANC administration approved the project, certain processes were not followed, they approved the project without adequately assessing the existing infrastructure within the area, it was found that the sewer treatment plant nearby had reached capacity, so government could build houses, but there would be no toilets.

After an extensive process of establishing the relevant committees to facilitate the development, the Nuwebegin project could continue, houses are being built and some people from TR Section have already moved to the completed housing units. Why are the people protesting again if everything is on track? The Nuwebegin project has 1200 houses and TR Section has about 2500 shack dwelling units so the project will not take even half of TR Section. There will be 900 units allocated for TR Section residents, the rest of the remaining 300 RDP houses will be shared amongst neighbouring wards within the area where the project is located.

This is where the problem starts, the people who have been waiting for houses in Bluedowns and Mfuleni do not understand why they will get ¼ when the project is on their backyard and they also need houses. Both the TR section residents and the Bluedowns homeless people will tell you how they have been promised those houses by politicians. To add to this, there are other people who live in shacks around Khayelitsha who want a share of the project. This past weekend a Golden Arrow bus driver died when rocks were thrown at the bus, he swerved and hit a few homes; now the people are left to rebuild their homes while the protesters rest in the comfort of their homes.

The allocation of RDP houses has always been a problem in Western Cape and often results in protests. Back in 2005, the City of Cape Town had disagreements with the provincial administration over the allocation of houses on the N2 Gateway in Delft. The City of Cape Town wanted to pull people’s names from their housing waiting list, and province with Thubelisha Homes (Nation Government Agency) had different plans, in the end, Thubelisha Homes started its own application process for the allocation of those houses and allocated them. Many problems emerged from this as many of the people who had been approved by the provincial government to receive the houses had recently moved to Cape Town from neighbouring provinces and most of those who had been on the City of Cape Town’s waiting list did not receive approval letters. Thubelisha had also given houses to people who had not been approved by the provincial government and one lady had received 2 RDP houses, when called to the office in order to return one house, she was under the impression that she was being called to receive her 3rd RDP house, the disappointment was written all over her face; to make things worse, the woman was not living in either one of her 2 RDP houses, she had been renting them out so she was instructed to evict her tenants.

This is not just one case, there are many others of married couples receiving 2 houses when the law says they should be getting only one. Then there are the young ones, the youngest person to receive an RDP house on the project was born in 1989. One gogo who had come to our offices to see if her name was on the list of those who would be moving to their new houses asked the administrator ‘just how is it possible that a child born when I was already on the housing waiting list is getting an RDP house before me?’; the answer was that the child had a shack in one of the informal settlements in Nyanga and government decided to move them to Delft, the what about Backyard dwellers in Delft?

Then more chaos began when there were people who were approved for the project, received approval letters in 2007 but were told to wait for houses while the government gives completed houses to people who completed their application forms in 2011. Then protests started, people who had been left in Malawi Camp/Freedom farm (informal settlements) were protesting because they claim that they have been waiting for far too long and did not understand why only a portion of them would get houses first while others wait, they went on a rampage burning tyres on Stellenbosch Arterial Road and damaging traffic signals on Modderdam Road while Delft and Philippi dwellers closed the N2 and Lansdowne Road, all protesting for the same houses, others refusing to move to temporal relocation areas, some want them as they won’t pay rent, and others will only move to houses.

Amidst all this, there are the contractor’s staff members who must go stand between the violent protests and look for the people who have been approved for the houses, Ernest Allam, a contractor’s representative who almost lost his life when the drama began; he had gone to one of the temporal relocation areas to look for people that have been approved to receive their RDP houses, the locals were not happy because they had picked up that there were less than 100 housing unit left but 100s waiting for houses, some with approval letters. They wanted to burn him alive with his car, they had already poured paraffin on it, only waiting for a match stick to set it alight. He managed to escape but this is just one example of the hardships contractors experience due to lack of coordination from government.

Thubelisha homes had already approved people for the 5000+ houses on Precinct 1-6, and government later moverd in people from Nyanga to the same houses, this was later added by the City of Cape Town moving more people from Malawi Camp/Freedom farm. Now if you go back to the first story on the TR Section protests for the Nuwebegin project in Bluedowns, you will notice the similarities in both projects when it comes to the allocation of houses and the approval of the project. The Nuwebegin project had been halted due to processes not being followed properly, the N2 Gateway project in Delft was also halted for a year as many processes were not followed from the start; in fact, I don’t know a single piece of legislation that governs such developments that was not violated on the project, this was also cited as the reason for the Thubelisha Homes bankruptcy. Tender processes were not followed properly and building regulations also not followed properly. This always results in your money being wasted.

Now the question to ask is where were the people when all of these bad decisions were taken by politicians? There are steering committees established for such projects that are to ensure that all processes are followed from start to completion of the projects. These committees consist of community representatives elected by the community, councillors and other government officials. Why then do we see such protests when we have established structures to ensure that there is transparency and accountability, the people who run such structures are to report back to the community; should they find difficulty with implementation, they can come back to the community to consult. The idea behind this is to maximise public participation of community developments, projects for the people, run by the people.

The problem lies not with government officials or elected public representatives, but with the people who elect them. In South Africa it is common to find communities that do not participate in public affairs, only when things go wrong do people sit up and take notice. This is one of the reasons why democracies fail, not because of dictators, but because citizens tolerate dictatorship. Helen Zille once said “Democracy did not fail in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean’s failed democracy”, this is when citizens do not participate in the governance process; when your only participation is on the ballot paper. But the ballot paper comes once in a long time, almost always every 5 year, so does it make sense to vote for Bulelani Mfaco and let him do as he pleases, only to pay attention to him when he does something wrong or during election time? Isn’t it better to always keep Bulelani in check to see if he is doing the job you elected him for?

When people protest in a democracy like ours might be exercising a democratic right, but they fail to use the most important rights and use the one that cause quite a lot of destruction. If citizens kept contact with their elected representatives, and used the institutions and accountability mechanism established to enhance democracy, there would be fewer protests; the situation is worsened when the citizen protests against the very same party they have always voted for and will most probably vote for in future. Obvious examples of this are SASCO and COSATU, both campaign and vote ANC in every election but both have protested against the ANC government on numerous occasion, wouldn’t using their ballot paper get them better results as SASCO has been campaigning for free higher education ever since I can remember, protesting against the ANC but if its elections tomorrow, they will be chanting endless vivas and sing, dance in their ANC T-shirts.

So before complaining about the ANC not delivering textbooks in Limpopo, ask yourself just what have the parents done about this as it is not the first incident, the parents have voted 80%+ ANC in every election and will most probably do the same in the next elections. They know their government does not deliver, yet they vote for the same party over and over again. Of course we all feel sorry for the children who cannot vote but must suffer as a result their parent’s failures. We were all taught how to mark an X on the ballot and rights, but nobody taught us about our constitutional democracy and responsibilities. The people of Khayelitsha will have to learn how to use sub-councils and hold their councillors accountable for their action or lack thereof, or else they will have to live with the potholes on Lansdowne Road and Mew Way Road, or keep blaming the DA for not delivering when their ANC councillors are supposed to be addressing such issues in their respective sub-councils. The lesson to learn here is get involved before things get messy, only when the people who run the institutions don’t do their job even after you have raised your issues with them, you can protest but remember to use that ballot paper to hold them accountable, or you will forever be protesting, wasting money and time in the process; terrible when this results in a loss of innocent lives. Respecting other people's rights so that they can respect yours and support your struggle.

Yes people need houses, but the City of Cape Town or the Provincial Government of the Western Cape cannot build 400 000 houses, even if the entire national housing budget was sent to the Cape, you'd still have people living in shacks; not because the government doesn't care, but because based on the available resources, it is impossible to build 400 000 houses in a single term. Even after 30 years, we will still have shacks; hence the focus has been to not only build houses, but to provide services to the informal settlements where possible.

Having worked in low cost housing, the challenges facing the housing department cannot be solved with a magic wand. So when communities engage with government, they shouldn't expect that the housing problem will be solved in one day. It is also important to note the strides that have been made to address the problem. There are many housing projects across the Cape from Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Philippi, Langa, Nyanga, Delft, Mitchells Plain, Atlantis, Belhar, Bluedowns, Blackheath, Kraaifontein, Worcester, George, and many other areas in the Cape. So it is not as if government is not doing anything to address the problem, but the problem is overwhelming.

In Delft alone there have been more than seven thousand houses built over the past five years, 3 new schools have also been built with the 4th one yet to be built, a new clinic and community centre in the planning stages and more houses have been approved for Delft but the community that has access to electricity, running water, health care facilities, public libraries, community halls, well-managed sports facilities, was burning tyres on a road that was being revamped in protest against poor service delivery? Does that make sense?

Then the informal settlements in Khayelitsha who had no services when the DA took over, in fact many of them were built under the watchful eye of the ANC government, think about Enkanini, built on government land that the then ANC governed Western Cape had failed to develop. The new administration did all it could, under the circumstances to provide the overcrowded informal settlement with basic services. RR Section, built in a water retention pond, similarly with the remaining shacks in Site C along the N2, also built in a pond, its incredibly difficult to provide them with services in that area so the only alternative is relocation but RR Section was relocated a long time ago and the people moved back to the area. The City of Cape Town with Eskom also had a problem relocating people from RR Section when Eskom wanted to build a sub-station to meet the electricity demand in Khayelitsha but people refused to move.

There are housing projects in Khayelitsha and people from Khayelitsha have been accommodated on projects outside of Khayelitsha such as the TR Section move to Bluedowns, all informal settlements located in areas that are suitable for housing have received services as per national housing code. So when there are protests, it worth noting what is being done to address the problem, and when elected councillors fail to use the legal mechanisms to address service delivery issues, they ought to be held accountable by the very same people who elected them. Ideally councillors should not be leading protests but should be working with the administration to resolve issues before protesting. The time for protesting is over, it is now time to build; so public participation should not only be protesting but working with government to find solutions; this is foreign to the ANC in the Western Cape because they decided to disrupt a public meeting with the Mayor, a meeting that provides residents with the opportunity to work with government to find solutions to their problems. Similar events occurred in 2008 when TR Section residents were protesting, they disrupted a meeting where Khayelitsha stakeholders such as businesses, community forums, and residents had gathered to find ways in which they could assist but instead we heard songs while in the meeting, then windows at the community hall were broken and that was the end of that meeting. Often when people compare Khayelitsha or Gugulethu with Camps Bay, they say that the DA serves the area better, they forget that the Goodhope sub-council has a team of councillors who are dedicated to serving their communities, why then blame the DA when Khayelitsha has its own sub-councils run by ANC councillors, could it be that those councillors are not doing their job? Thinking twice before voting, because that could mean that you won't have to protest for services tomorrow and that is why there are no service delivery protests in Camps Bay or Rondebosch, because their councillors know why they were elected.

*Photo by Nombulelo Damba of Western Cape News*

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