Themb’elihle: a breakdown of ingredients for a service-delivery riot

By Phillip De Wet 8 September 2011

The residents of Themb'elihle, now in their fourth day of protests, have one simple demand: electricity. Beneath that, though, lies a complex mix of politics and agendas, criminality and xenophobia. By PHILLIP DE WET.

Many pieces of the Themb’elihle puzzle are still missing, and many facts will probably remain in dispute for a long time. And some of those are important. Did police fire the live rounds that injured at least two residents when they made a push into the township late on Tuesday night, or did those shots come from residents, as the police claim? Would a more decisive response to initial violence on Monday– either by police or politicians – have made a difference?

On Wednesday, though, other important facts were finally confirmed, giving us much greater insight into a protest that seems unlikely to be the last of its kind.

Somebody was using live rounds, which ups the ante significantly. There has probably (we can’t confirm this beyond doubt) already been an exchange of gunfire between black residents of the township and the mostly Indian residents living nearby, during a battle for an electrical distribution box. That went no further though. Some shops inside Themb’elihle have been looted, but only those owned by Somalis and Pakistanis. This despite the fact that the township escaped the widespread xenophobic attacks of 2008. The local councillor’s house in the township was not burnt down, as had been rumoured, but now has two uniformed security guards on duty in front of it. Though it took only a day-and-a-half to replace a sabotaged electricity distribution box in Lenasia, in the township just metres away street lighting remains out because the same had not happened there.

Patterns have started emerging. Criminals within the township have taken advantage of the relative chaos. These are mostly young men, who tend to emerge at night or after trouble has already started. Young women, on the other hand, are constantly at the coal face, and tend to be mightily militant. A few residents from other, nearby informal settlements have come to show support. Local police are more likely to over-react (and inflame) than the imported variety. And, of course, apocalyptic rumours swirl and mutate as time passes by.

Themb’elihle has also confirmed – hearteningly, for future longer-running service-delivery protests – that basic South African values don’t change under prolonged strain. Many of the protesters are happy to deal in property damage and inconvenience to others, but get uncomfortable with intimidation and draw the line at intentional physical harm. Racism flares up and the rhetoric can get fierce, but everyone still pretty much gets along afterwards. The primary concern is for comrades in arms, in this case those arrested during the course of the protests.

Politically the bag is more mixed. Outsiders who tried to enter the fray to campaign or push a cause were gently, but firmly rebuffed, perhaps all the faster because this is a relatively small community. While local leaders kept a grip on the reins, it was a loose one; their approach was one of polling for consensus rather than manufacturing it, and it seems pretty sure that anything else would have failed. That leaves nobody to call a halt until the community, on average, simply runs out of anger to vent.

All of this has combined in the case of Themb’elihle, to make for a long and tense standoff, with residents unlikely to gain anything of consequence, trust in the government and its ability to deliver eroded, and two communities’ faith in the police badly damaged. None of which need have happened had the people of Themb’elihle not considered themselves voiceless. DM


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