South Africa

Protea South protests, from the inside

By Bheki C. Simelane 12 August 2013

In the early hours of Thursday morning, residents of Protea South, Soweto, started protesting, demanding electricity and other basic services. The protest raged through the weekend. Local resident and Daily Maverick intern BHEKI C. SIMELANE explains the anger behind the burning tires. While reporting on the protest, he was hit with two rubber bullets.

It is nothing new that the life of a shack dweller here in Protea South is reminiscent of the days of Apartheid. Some people here have never used electricity in their lives. They do not know the feeling of lighting up one’s room at the flick of a switch. Mothers who came here as early as 1982 have given birth to children who have given birth to their children in dark, cold shacks. Some people here would be delighted at the efficiency of cooking on an electric stove.

Protea South is divided into three sections. There is a section with smart houses that are bank-financed with bonds. This part makes up about one-eighth of the whole community and rarely experiences power cuts. There are also the RDP houses. These are not so attractive but provide almost all the basic needs like electricity, toilets and water. These people also hardly experience power cuts and they also make for about one-eighth of the whole community. The third and by far the biggest section is made up of shacks: the people who live in them make up three-quarters of the Protea South.

Here, when it rains people stay up all night with empty bowls and buckets to collect water that leaks from the roofs. They throw out tens of litres when the rain is incessant. It is the same with flooding. People have to trot around to save their household goods from getting wet. When it is windy, people stay up at night to save their children when their shoddy roofs blow off. The life of a Protean shack dweller is misery and hardship.

Photo: Workers at a Protea South bulk grocery store sit in their shop the day after it was looted of R50,000-R60,000 worth of goods. (Greg Nicolson)

The shacks come in different sizes and shapes but they are all dark and cold. As the community was protesting to be provided with solutions to their electricity problems, fierce winds swept across the dusty township. Each morning after a windy night, you can hear the sound of nail and hammer as residents repair their damaged shacks. At times, whole mornings can be dedicated to this task. The lives of these people are miserable, and it is surprising that they have never really complained about their living conditions the way they are complaining now.

There is nothing normal about the lives of shack dwellers, for what ‘normal’ is worth under these circumstances. The conditions here are terrible. But the people here are friendly, with the exception of a few nyaope addicts who, over time, have lost touch.

The issues that eventually led to the standoff between the police and the community arose from the events of the past three weeks. For a long time residents have been stealing electricity from the supply to the local clinic, leading to an overload and subsequent power cuts. At times, the clinic would go for several days without electricity. It was decided in a meeting that the clinic would be temporarily closed, pending finalisation of the talks around the electricity problems. Such closure resulted in scores of sick people being turned away or referred to Chiawelo Community Health Centre, which is about 10 kilometres away.

Photo: A man walks past the electricity box powering the local mall. Protestors burned the box on Thursday. (Greg Nicolson)

The community eventually took its grievances to the streets as early as 3.30am on Thursday. Residents woke up to barricaded streets and a hostile crowd. The people had become angry. Thursday’s protests became nasty as police indiscriminately fired rubber bullets and teargas at the crowd. The community members fought back by throwing stones at the police and taking cover in the crowded shacks. Residents also destroyed traffic lights by simply forming groups of about six people each and physically felling the robots. In some cases they hung burning tyres around the indicators.

Photo: The dusty township of Protea South. (Greg Nicolson)

They burnt tyres and burst out singing in unison, visibly furious. Later in the day, they broke into the storeroom of an Indian-owned store and helped themselves to cases of cold drink and car batteries. In the evening, after a meeting to forge the way forward, they went back to the same store and looted it clean. (According to the owners, they suffered a loss of between R50,000 and R60,000.) Other foreign-owned shops were looted later that same night.

Friday passed without many incidents of violence. On Saturday, it was back to the streets since no one suitable from government came forward to address the community’s concerns. Community members fought with police for the better part of the day. Police Nyalas entered the community, sending residents in different directions and shooting at them with rubber bullets through the windows of the armored vehicles.