Protestors blocked a road in Johannesburg on Wednesday, demanding their basic rights to services be met. As the situation in the Zandspruit informal settlement escalated during the cold winter day, government offered a typical example of how not to handle a disgruntled community. By GREG NICOLSON
“Service delivery protest” is a vague label and the cause of each is just as uncertain. They often develop after years of grievances over housing, water, sanitation and electricity. They’re packed like gunpowder into a shell until they’re loaded and something or someone pulls the trigger.
It was President Jacob Zuma who innocently pulled the trigger to start protests at Zandspruit informal settlement on Wednesday. Hearing that the ANC centenary torch would be travelling down Beyers Naude Drive with Zuma in tow, angry residents rose at 04:00 to barricade one of the West Rand’s main arteries before peak hour traffic.
About 500 protestors blocked the road throughout Wednesday by burning tyres and throwing stones to limit passing traffic. A significant police contingent cordoned off Beyers Naude on both sides of the settlement as residents toyi-toyied over the threads of the smoking tyres.
Photo: Protesters were adamant that no cars would pass down Beyers Naude Drive and burning tires were strewn across the road.
A group of community leaders prepared a memorandum stating their concerns. They complained that only 500 RDP houses had been built in the settlement since 1994, most residents still lived in shacks without electricity and they had to share water from few taps. Most of the roads through Zandspruit were unpaved and where there had been development – a new taxi rank, a bridge over Beyers Naude and a walkway – jobs were given to outsiders. The schools and many residences are condemned to still using the bucket toilet system.
Their recently elected councillor, Maureen Schneman, has exacerbated the problems. She called on everyone to provide proof of residence, which cost them R40 and transport fees to get the documents. This hurt the youth and the unemployed. Locals also complained that they had no recreational facilities to keep children off the streets and deter them from crime.
Schneman doesn’t live in Zandspruit and residents complained that she views them as “pigs”. They said there were irregularities in her election as an ANC councillor and an upcoming re-vote was a sign that she was fraudulently manipulating the system. Some residents believe that if they get a councillor from the settlement their needs will be addressed.
And because they didn’t trust their councillor and had a string of broken promises from municipal and provincial officials after previous strikes, Zandspruit residents wanted to speak to someone higher up in the ANC, hence the protest when they heard Zuma would be in the neighbourhood.
Instead of Zuma, they eventually got Gauteng MEC of housing Humphrey Memezi and Johannesburg MMC of housing Dan Bovu. The government could have made a better choice. Memezi doesn’t have a great track record at calming protests and, though he visited Zandspruit last year, he left a trail of discord after he didn’t stick to his word to revisit the area.
Photo: (TOP LEFT) Memezi claimed that the protest was led by criminals who were disrupting life in Zandspruit for those who wanted to work. Protesters asked if they could all be criminals. (TOP RIGHT) Many Zandspruit residents walked away as Memezi spoke, with one young man performing BMX tricks while police looked on. (MIDDLE RIGHT) After MEC Humphrey Memezi addressed the crowd, young men retreated behind their barricade and armed themselves with bricks to throw at police by smashing a brick wall. (BOTTOM) Police cornered a group suspected of throwing rocks and took them to Honeydew police station. Zandspruit residents said they won’t end the strike until the 12 arrested are released.
After only minutes the meeting at the Honeydew police station between Memezi, Bovu, Schneman and the group of Zandspruit leaders was over. The community leaders demanded the 12 protesters arrested for violence be released before they enter into discussions to stop the strike. The officials refused.
Memezi claimed there were clear plans to develop Zandspruit as part of the province’s aim to turn the West Rand area into an economic hub. He said the strike was caused by a minority criminal element and most people simply wanted to go to work. Before he went to speak to protestors, he said he was happy to take a bullet for his cause because that was his job.
Bovu said the strike was a ploy to get media attention because an auditor would be sent on Thursday to assess the housing situation and the fact that the community leaders stormed out of the mediation session showed they weren’t serious.
As Memezi was engulfed by the Zandspruit crowd, it seemed he might have an opportunity to take his bullet for the team. Young men stormed off as he told them he didn’t recognise their leadership, or their complaints.
Rather than quell the protest, he ignited it. Residents retreated behind the barricades they built and tore down the fence of a neighbouring shopping complex and erected it on the road. They smashed its brick wall for ammunition and pitched stones at police or cars, which briefly were able to turn into Peter Road.
As evening descended the protestors vowed they would be out all night and would continue until their residents are released from the police station and a member of the ANC top six arrives.
Police nyalas stormed their position, firing teargas and rubber bullets. It wouldn’t deter them, they said. They’ll be back on Thursday to fight for their rights, hoping that if Zuma triggered the protest, maybe he or one of his top officials could end it. DM
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