South Africa

The Civic Protest Barometer, Episode Five: So, what can be done?

By Niki Moore 24 March 2015

For those who watch these kinds of things, the Civic Protest Barometer, issued last month by the Multi-level Government Initiative at the Community Law Centre of the University of the Western Cape, held few surprises. According to this report, public protests in South Africa have reached an all-time high, and have become increasingly violent. Anyone who reads the newspapers (or has had their morning commute interrupted) would already know this. But finding a context for these protests does deliver some surprises. NIKI MOORE takes a closer look at this strange animal called public protest.

Disclaimer: For this article I drew on research from a number of sources, such as the MLGI, the Institute for Security Studies, Municipal IQ, material from public, legal, academic and government documents, news reports, and sources I have interviewed for case studies on municipalities. But any opinions or conclusions that attempt to contextualise public protests are entirely my own and are, by necessity, often generalisations.

Case studies of individual protests have all led to the same inescapable conclusion: the bedrock of almost all community protests (whether they are about service delivery, competition for services, or political in-fighting) is the issue of corruption. It is impossible to extricate violent public protest from the prevalence of corruption.

Corruption has many, multi-level effects. The simplest and most direct effect of corruption is that money that should be spent on service delivery is being stolen. So service delivery slows down, ergo, there are service delivery protests. But this is just the first level. The effects of corruption are further-reaching and more pervasive than that.

As an example, communities complain that there are incompetent people in charge of basic services. Why have these people been appointed if they can’t do the job? And why are they so hard to shift? Two possible answers: perhaps they got the job through paying bribes. Once in the job, they will continue to pay off their patrons by funneling government money into private accounts. Alternatively, they got the job through their political loyalty. But the result is the same: once in the job, they will pay off their political masters with government money. This has one hugely unfortunate effect: they are inviolable in their position no matter how many mistakes they make or how much money they waste, because the people they are paying off have a vested interest in keeping them there. So… government money is being stolen AND services are being mismanaged. It’s a double whammy of corruption that is endemic in low-performing municipalities.

This type of corruption also leads to a different kind of protest: the type of unrest instigated by political rivals in competition for jobs and positions. And it must be made clear: the murders, intimidation and violence are not really about the position. No-one will kill a rival councillor for their job, which pays around R10,000 – R18,000 per month. Rather, the motive for murder will be that a council job or position means access to tenders and government funds. It allows the incumbent to buy loyalty all along the chain, as well as donating money to the ruling party so that they are secure.

One the macro level, this is also why party political conferences tend to be such robust affairs. There is no point in vying for power if there isn’t a hefty income stream to accompany it in order to buy prestige. Every crookedly-elected official has a long string of people on their coat-tails, waiting for their turn. At the moment, politics is the road to wealth, and so the competition for a place in politics is fierce, sometimes deadly. This also explains election-time protests around candidates’ lists: usually the community has elected their representatives only to find completely different people on the lists who have bought their way in.

The DA (which is the only other party that controls municipalities) does not have this problem to the same extent because they have a different system of governance which separates the executive from the political aspects of local governance. The DA is run like a business. And while I am not for a moment suggesting that there is no corruption in DA-run municipalities, it is less likely because there are better checks and balances.

Whereas in many ANC-controlled municipalities, local government is run like a fiefdom: corruption is welded into place through this chain of patronage. Each link is beholden to the one above and the one below. One can only break the chain by removing the links.

And so the answer to public violence in South Africa seems therefore to be incredibly easy: remove corruption. It is also, at the same time, quite impossible. It needs more political will than is currently present.

If Pravin Gordhan really wanted to sort out service delivery protests in South Africa for once and for all, he would first have a chat with Gwede Mantashe (to get the ANC on board) and then he would sit down at his desk this afternoon and draft a letter to the worst-performing two-thirds of municipalities in South Africa (all of which are ANC-controlled). These are figures from Gordhan’s own department – and he has, in the past, acknowledged that one-third of municipalities were doing well, one third needed support, and one-third was dysfunctional.

His letter should contain the following ultimatum:

You have two years to do the following:

a) employ only people with relevant qualifications;

b) get a clean audit;

c) get Blue Drop ranking above 60%;

d) get Green Drop ranking above 60%;

e) pay all your bills;

f) comply with your IDP.

If you don’t, all the ANC officials in your municipality will be recalled (i.e. fired) and they will be black-listed from ever holding any position, anywhere, ever again. And I will compel them to pay back any money that they might have embezzled while in office.”



PS – And don’t think you can just simply hire consultants to do your work, because I am wise to that game.”

This would put pressure on all elected officials within municipalities to hire the right people and to restore all those systems which were removed because they got in the way of theft and fraud. Unqualified employees would be shown the door. Service delivery would improve within a week. It would reduce in-fighting and factions, because merit would really be the deciding factor and not political loyalty. Violent protest would diminish within months.

However, this is never going to happen. An ANC insider, who requested to remain unnamed, told me that local municipalities are seen by the ANC government as a useful dumping ground for loyal cadres who are too useless to be deployed anywhere else. They hold their jobs on the strength of their loyalty to the governing party, and they are kept in place by patronage. It is almost impossible to overstate how corrupt local government actually is – the extent of the theft and wastage will never be known. The Institute of Internal Auditors put the figure at R700 billion for South Africa over the last twenty years, but even that is most likely an understatement.

This system is so pervasive that honest ANC members don’t stand a chance. Either they keep quiet and turn a blind eye, or they try to fight the corruption and end up sidelined, disgraced, unemployed, even dead. Many ANC members take the fatalistic attitude that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Government officials are going to refute this by pointing to some dismissals and arrests. These are, to put it mildly, a drop in the ocean. Additionally, these are usually people who the party can afford to sacrifice: low level players whose disappearance will not threaten the thread of payola.

It is also pointless to fire non-performing staff. They will simply be replaced by more non-performing staff. The rot begins with corrupt elected officials: make them accountable, and everything else will fall into place.

So it is hardly surprising that violent protests are necessary before a community can get results.

Let’s look at just a few examples:

* Mooi River, KZN. Since 2010 residents have been complaining about their local government, specifically their mayor. Protest after protest was ignored. It was only towards the end of 2014, after a mob of 1,500 people blocked the N3 toll road for five days, that anyone took notice. The council was dissolved and the mayor was fired. Belatedly, the provincial department of Local Government discovered that council affairs had been in ‘chaos and disarray’ for many years, with a long list of major transgressions.

(A digression here: the ownership of the N3 toll concession is a closely guarded secret, but the Mooi River toll booths generate approximately R1,3 million every day. It is therefore not impossible that one of these secret shareholders had a word with someone very high up in government, saying something along the lines of: “Please fire that mayor, she is hurting our bottom line.)

* Mogalakwena and Tlokwe, North West. Protest after protest, riot after riot. ANC councillors combined with the DA to fire the mayor for corruption and fraud after forensic reports. The protesting ANC councillors were fired, but the mayors are still there, protected by the ANC regional executive.

* Ngaka Modiri district, North West. Yes, there was decisive action, people were suspended and an administrator put in in place. But the council has thrown out the administrator in favour of a political cadre, council is in disarray, all council vehicles have been seized by the sheriff, and no services are being delivered at all.

* Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. Brits, North West. Years of protests because of poor water supply. Allegations that councillors deliberately sabotage the water provision in order to get tenders to deliver water in tankers. No action taken against councillors despite evidence of fraud. Recently, more protests that turn violent over the very same issue. Still no action.

These are only a few examples. There are so many others.

The Human Rights Commission has warned that they would hold government to account for its failure to delivery basic amenities. It has even threatened arrest for errant officials. The SAHRC recently handed a report to Parliament in which it outlined ‘systemic failures’ in governance.

The first bit of bad news for the Human Rights Commission is that, even though service delivery is appalling in many places, most of these protests are not purely about service delivery. They are a complicated cocktail of agitation, political maneuvering, self-interest, and manipulation. There are masses of disgruntled people only too happy to be led into protest and violence, and who therefore become political pawns. Arresting officials is unlikely to change anything.

The second piece of bad news for the Human Rights Commission is that their threats of arrest and accountability are going to pass by venal officials like a summer breeze. Their previous reports have been ignored. All other civil mechanisms like court orders, sheriffs’ warrants, high court directives: all of these have been ignored. There is no reason to believe that anyone will take any notice of the Human Rights Commission. We have been down this road with other Chapter Nine institutions, haven’t we?

Violent public protests are the sign of a society in crisis. Even if the protests can be dealt with, or stopped – the REALLY bad news is that after the decades of waste, theft and neglect, restoring any function to local government is going to cost enormous amounts of money. This is money that the country does not have, especially as government officials are already the highest paid workers in our economy. The Financial and Fiscal Commission warned in July 2014 that the government wage bill was already too high in comparison with its productivity. 35% of our taxes are used to pay officials and councillors. Public officials are among the top 30% of the country’s highest earners. Municipal wage bills rose 60% in five years. One would think, with so much money being spent on local government, that one would get the very best service.

But, as has been so amply demonstrated, the reverse is true.

Finally – is the sharp rise in protests this year the herald of our ‘Arab Spring’? At the moment, no. The protests are too small, too diverse, too sporadic and undirected. But there is one factor that is slowly raising a red flag.

A recent development in public protest is where a community attacks and burns down buildings, loots shops and stones cars for no discernible reason. Ladybrand, Finetown, Tembehlile, Khayalitsha and Stutterheim are five examples in just the last few weeks. Any target is fair game: schools, houses, clinics, libraries, busses, shops. These are, I believe, communities who have given up on democracy and need an outlet for their frustration.

In many contested municipalities that are rife with public protest, the voter turn-out at by-elections has become worryingly low, sometimes less than 20%. Allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and vote-buying have increased. Disgruntled citizens are abandoning their democratic choice. They are turning, instead, to destruction and vandalism.

If these 2016 local government elections are not seen as representative (because of low voter turn-out), if they are not seen as fair (because of selective bias by election officials) and if they are not seen as free (because of extra- and intra-party rivalry), then we are not headed for an Arab Spring but a Winter of Discontent. DM

* Fees vary greatly according to the size of the municipality, how many meetings the councillor attends, car allowance, cell-phone allowance, housing allowance, etc., which are voted for by the council itself. The government only sets a top limit, which is R120,000 p.a. for part-time councillors, and R216,000 p.a. for full-time councillors. This is take-home pay, and does not include travel allowance or other perks.

Photo: Some of the thousands of protestors demonstrate during clashes with police force during ongoing service delivery issues in Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa, 06 February 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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