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Schubart Park erupts over service delivery, of a sort

The rocks and bottles and tear gas and rubber bullets came out again on Wednesday, again because of a complaint involving electricity. Except this time it happened not in some distant township or squatter camp, but right in the heart of South Africa's capital city. By PHILLIP DE WET.

South Africa has few failed inner-city housing projects, but Schubart Park makes up for that in quality. It is a cesspit, a high-rise slum unfit for human habitation, a collection of buildings with conditions worse than those in most squatter camps. So, as peculiar as it is to have a service-delivery protest in the heart of a modern, bustling city, nobody was particularly surprised when things went bad during a protest on Wednesday. It may have been the worst so far, but was neither the first nor, probably, the last time Schubart Park will see a mild riot.

Just as in townships elsewhere in the province over the last two weeks, residents of the more than 600 flats in three towers (the fourth is an abandoned, burnt-out husk) are angry because of electricity. Not because they aren’t connected to the grid, like in Themb’elihle, or because they can’t afford the tariffs, like in Chiawelo and Tembisa, but because their infrastructure is not maintained. By Wednesday the lights had been out for eight days, which also means no water because the few surviving pumps don’t run. So, just like in many townships before, residents lost all their frozen food to spoilage and had to let their children study by the light of candles or paraffin lights. In a high-rise building, though, a lack of lighting is even more inconvenient than usual; navigating 21 floors of pitch-black stairwells that are often filled with rubbish is not for the faint of heart.

“They want us out of here and they think if we don’t have power we’ll move,” one resident confidently declared. Conspiracy theories, which are de rigueur at such protests, include that the Tshwane municipality wants to redevelop the land and that the army has already been called in to prepare a plan for cleaning out the buildings.

As usual, the truth is somewhat more complex. Schubart Park suffers from occasional flooding in its basement levels, where some heavy-duty and water-averse transformers are located. That is arguably the root cause for the lack of electricity – that and simple incompetence from the various authorities responsible for the upkeep of those transformers.

Whatever the reason, by 14:30 a large group of residents had had enough, 14:30 being the deadline by which they had been promised at least a response and at best working lights. Community leaders tried valiantly to keep the protest civil, but the tyres had already been prepared, the projectiles stockpiled and positions selected. By mid-afternoon the battle was on, with groups of men hurling rocks and bottles onto three different street corners and police responding with rubber bullets and the occasional canister of tear gas. Though a lone petrol bomb was used, live ammunition was not. As much as it resembled the siege of a fortress, it resembled every other service-delivery protest SA has ever seen more. And that includes its history and, possibly, future.

“Next time there won’t just be one petrol bomb,” a resident told us. Schubart Park has erupted into protest every so often over the last eight years, but Wednesday’s incident was the worst yet, and everyone expects a significant escalation the next time. Like in the townships, people who live in Schubart Park have lost just about all faith in the various levels of government and their competence, but have nowhere else to turn. Like in the townships, the anger is directed at the government, but the only available targets are passing motorists and innocent tyres. The only difference is that in Schubart Park the half-bricks tend to travel further horizontally than they do vertically.

In another similarity, the majority of residents we spoke to said they’d be happy to move to equivalent or better housing – as long as it was nearby. “We can walk to the shops from here, and to our jobs,” one man told us. “We’re settled here. If you move us out of the city we’ll starve.”

Depending on whether the residents of an erstwhile squatter camp win a case currently before the Constitutional Court, that would make authorities responsible for finding decent accommodation within the Pretoria CBD for several thousand people before being allowed to evict. At the same time, the city (which also owns the complex) is responsible for the health and safety of the residents, and Schubart Park is far beyond repair.

Like in the townships, there is no easy solution for Schubart Park, and every reason to believe that there will be more protests, more violent protests, and longer protests to come. DM

To see Phillip de Wet’s incredible 20-page photo-essay on the protests, download today’s edition of iMaverick here. Only available for free for a few more days!