South Africa

Op-Ed: Service delivery protests and the media

By Zeenat Sujee 7 September 2014

In recent years, the headlines have been dominated by stories of violent protest. Can’t people protest peacefully? one keeps hearing citizens ask. But the problem might not lie with the protesters themselves. By ZEENAT SUJEE.

When one thinks of service delivery protests, the following comes to mind: burning tyres, vandalised property, violence and criminal behaviour. Over the past year the media covered a number of these protests. These included protests in Daveyton, Bekkersdal, Thembelihle in Lenasia, Honeydew, Tembisa and Langa in Cape Town. As much as the reports capture the lack of responsiveness from the various government stakeholders, the message that emanates is clear: residents of the affected communities will only get a response if there is violence.

Is this correct? At every family or social gathering where discussions around service delivery arise, the common perception is that people are “incapable” of protesting peacefully. The members of the communities protesting for service delivery are called “hooligans, criminals and thugs”, who have no respect for social order. On closer examination, however, one sees that these affected communities have been protesting peacefully for years without any response or remedy – so they turn violent.

The reaction from political parties is also important. It results in a blame game; a DA municipality will accuse the protestors of being an ANC-led group causing disturbance in DA – run area or the ANC will dismiss the protestors of being an EFF-led group trying to stir violence to discredit the ANC. The effect of politicisation of these issues takes away from the legitimacy of the concerns raised by affected communities. This should not be politicised. Regardless of political affiliations, everyone has a right to basic services.

Many impoverished settlements have been in existence for decades. Some of these settlements have been on the government’s ‘priority list’ for years with no change. Communities liaise with various government officials, excitedly register for RDPs and wait for the promised home. They comply with the amended processes that government change every few years, illustrating policy upgrades and renewed and improved systems. Time and time again they receive only this response: keep waiting.

Years and decades pass with no response from any state department or councillor appointed in that settlement. Communities wait patiently, until the conditions deteriorate to such a level of gross injustice that children lose their lives due to flooding, a cholera scourge breaks out and women’s safety risk is exacerbated by the long walks to public toilets.

The plight of many communities who are facing challenges with basic services extends to schools. Many learners go through a day of school without any water to drink. Only some have water when they get home. There is no sanitation. Many girl learners are forced not to go to school when they are menstruating, in order to avoid being teased should their clothes soil. In effect it means that a girl learner misses at least 3 to 5 school days per month – an average of 36 days per school year.

Now, take a step back and imagine a family of five living in an informal settlement for approximately 20 years. The shelter is built from zinc and wood. Both parents are unemployed and the family survives on social grants. The children attend non-fee paying schools, which are in close vicinity to the informal settlement. The family are living with HIV and Aids. There is no access to water, sanitation and electricity. Either the parents or the children collect water from a nearby tap, which is shared amongst 30 households. The toilets are shared amongst 10 households. When it rains it causes flooding in the home, which subsequently results in damage to belongings. The family may at times need to vacate their home until the flooding subsides. They vacate their home only to build another home in a less flooded area or move in with a family member a street away. The conditions at the settlement create a situation where children and the elderly are more susceptible to diseases such as cholera and TB. The family collects their anti-retroviral treatment at a clinic in the area – provided there are no stock-outs.

Two weeks ago, a mobilised and robust community in Kliptown, living in the informal settlement just across the Walter Sisulu Square, decided that ‘enough is enough’. The lack of responsiveness of the City of Johannesburg to the community’s concerns about service delivery could not be tolerated any longer. Ironically, getting permission to march or protest lawfully is one of the more difficult rights to entrench.

Represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), the community were granted permission to protest. The community decided to hand over a memorandum to the relevant official responsible for the project. All media was alerted, newspapers, television and radio news. As public interest lawyers, we waited in anticipation for the media coverage of the story. Justifiably so, I might add. Service delivery issues always make the headlines when you wake up to the 6:00am news. When the protest commenced, we looked for the various television, radio and newspaper journalists. There were no media in sight.

The elderly, youth, women and men came out to the streets to express their frustration. The police were present and conducted themselves with professionalism. This was an example of mobilised communities, with strong leadership that assisted with the smooth sailing of the protest. The community informed the business owners who would be affected, not to scare them with the possibility of violence but to provide them the option of closing their stores if they were nervous. The community appointed marshals to assist if the crowd was unruly. The protest was a success. And this was not covered. No one saw the dignity of Kliptown residents demanding their rights, when their pain would justify a far more aggressive response.

Had the journalists and cameras attended at Walter Sisulu Square two weeks ago, there is possibility that the coverage of a peaceful protest could have changed public perception about service delivery. In Bekkersdal, the MEC for Housing and Premier visited the community to allay their fears; why does a peaceful protest not demand the same approach? Perhaps violent protestors are not the disorganised hooligans but very astute and mobilised communities who see that their cause will receive government and media attention only when the first rock is thrown. And perhaps the privileged should not be condemning the actions of the protestors, but rather the conduct of the state and the media. DM

Photo: Evergreen, East Rand, 6 May 2014 (Greg Nicolson)

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