South Africa, Life, etc, Politics

Analysis: A national crisis of communication

By Greg Nicolson 20 April 2012

The response to the contaminated-water crisis in Diepsloot shows how government treats our communities. The citizens had valid concerns. They didn’t protest. They were ignored. It raises the questions: does government listen, how does it communicate and how does it respond to community concerns? By GREG NICOLSON.

The risk of water contamination arose a week ago. A contractor struck a water pipe while upgrading sewerage lines. There was a risk that drinking water was contaminated, posing serious health risks.

Johannesburg Water started taking samples and flushing the system, residents were told by a patrolling megaphone and through pamphlets not to drink from their taps until further notice. Tankers were used in the interim.

But there wasn’t enough water and people had to walk long distances in search of a safe tap. Joburg Water said the elderly, children and the disabled would be prioritised, meaning they obviously weren’t providing as much water as needed.

Diepsloot has a population estimated at well above 150,000. Many of those lives were put on hold, along with schools and businesses, while residents went in search of water. Many people in Diepsloot have become accustomed to living without electricity, but living without water to cook, bathe or drink?

It’s hard to judge the water company’s attempts to return the supply to normal. One week seems an awfully long time, but the company said it was doing all it could to return supply to its high quality.

But how was the crisis handled? Spin doctors from Johannesburg Water graced the airwaves and provided quotes for newspapers while its leadership remained aloof. City, provincial and state government seemed not to exist. No one wanted to take ownership and lead the community or communicate the crisis.

The situation was perfect for a service delivery protest. Lives were uprooted by the service failure and communication was minimal. What held back the stones and burning tyres was that the issue was recent rather than long-standing, and residents were too busy finding hydration to spend time toyi-toying. So there were no protests and no comments from government. 

Are our politicians only interested in dealing with their constituents when it’s politically expedient? Most communities try to consult local or provincial government and air their concerns before a service delivery protest erupts.

But when those in informal settlements and townships demand to be more than political pawns by sharing the sentiment of their communities, they are often ignored. Often, they don’t even get a reception. Most protests end when a government official reluctantly addresses the crowd after the situation has long got out of hand and caught the attention of the wider public.

Why does it take so long for them to acknowledge a problem? On the same day I visited Diepsloot, Gauteng safety MEC Faith Mazibuko condemned those accused of horrendously raping and detaining a 17-year-old disabled girl. On eTV, Mazibuko looked like she was outside a police station the same day the disgusting acts hit the news. She was standing up for women’s rights. Why can’t a politician stand up for a community’s basic rights?

If politicians lead a protest against the actions of government they’ll be seen as criticising their own party. Fair enough. But why can’t they listen to communities and communicate with them? Like most of us in the media, perhaps they’re too enthralled by their own power and the drama leading up to Mangaung.

No one above the level of ward councillor seemed to care about ensuring Diepsloot had enough water while its pipes were being fixed. No one seemed to notice that students’ education was compromised. No one remembered that the community deserves more than a pamphlet telling them what’s happening. And we all seemed to have forgotten that Johannesburg Water was responsible for the problem and that it’s not a privilege to have them fix their own mess.

DA Gauteng legislature leader Jack Bloom suggested we send in the army to help. It might have been a good idea, it might not. But the solution certainly won’t be decided by a couple of ward councillors who have so far been the only representatives of government obviously attempting to respond.

We need our politicians to lead communities towards solutions. They don’t need all the answers but they need to listen and share crucial information. Many more communities are thirsty, but maybe there’s not enough will in the ruling party to listen to stories of hunger and thirst.

Members of the ANC continue to parrot the phrase “change takes time”, but they have to understand the simplicity of communication. Those who stage service delivery protests are often tolerant towards the difficulties of instituting change. But instead of being listened to, they’ve been ignored.

If this continues, no one can blame Diepsloot residents and their compatriots around the country for taking matters into their own hands. Improving service delivery takes time, listening and informing doesn’t. DM

Photo: Township residents brandish rocks after erecting barricades during protests over the delivery of basic housing and education. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.



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