South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Responses to protest must address people’s experience of powerlessness

Op-Ed: Responses to protest must address people’s experience of powerlessness

Images of streets, in numerous South African communities, blocked with burning barricades have once again been in the news. Reports of violent protests appear to come from traditional “hot spots”, but also from new sites where community anger has boiled over. Are there any state initiatives that can speak to the underlying sense of powerlessness that drive such desperate strategies? By MALOSE LANGA and DAVID BRUCE.

Alongside ongoing urban protests, rural areas also seem increasingly affected. In Coligny in the North West houses were burnt and foreign shops looted after two white men, allegedly responsible for the killing of a black teenage boy, were released on bail on 8 May. Not far away in Lichtenburg protests also included the looting of shops, though here the anger focused on problems with the water supply. In Vuwani, in Limpopo, the most recent efforts to resist an unpopular municipal demarcation decision have included a sustained shutdown of the area, the blocking of roads and enforced closure of shops and schools.

Should we simply accept that these violent protests are a chronic feature of South African life? Are there initiatives that can enable communities to move to another level in addressing the challenges that they face?

Some protests, usually those which are more violent or which for other reasons have a high political profile, receive far more attention than others. Many receive no news coverage. But even amongst those that do, there is a great diversity of issues and grievances. In addition the advertised grievances that make it into memorandums, and press reports, are also often not the only issues at stake.

Protests often reflect a range of concerns rather than simply being about the issues of housing, electricity or water that are presented as the main reasons for them. They often represent a confluence of interests between sections of the local elite, excluded from business opportunities as a result of the fact that they are not part of dominant local patronage networks, and the most marginalised people within communities. In Vuwani, for example, the protesters have stated explicitly that the protest is driven partly by the belief that the demarcation would lead not only to poorer services, but also to the loss of municipal jobs and business opportunities.

It is reassuring to see that government representatives, responding to the protests in Johannesburg, have recognised these protests as based on genuine grievances, rather than simply dismissing them as the work of a “third force” as has sometimes occurred in the past. A joint statement issued by government officials, and representatives of protesting communities in southern Johannesburg, said that the issues behind the protests include “lack of housing, jobs, illegal invasion of land, communities not benefiting from tenders and heightened levels of crime” and “deserve a response that will give lasting solutions”.

Some of the problems that community protests are a response to therefore require addressing nepotism and corruption in municipalities, and institutionalising even-handed systems of local government. Difficult though this may be these are not the problems that are most intractable.

Effective responses to the legitimate grievances of disaffected sections of local elites are necessary. But these will not necessarily help to resolve the difficulties facing the most marginalised who are at the forefront of protest. Even where a sustained effort is made to improve services or housing, this by itself cannot address the more intractable problems of chronic social disintegration in many poor communities, reflected in widespread drug use and crime, and feelings of helplessness. In particular, with South Africa’s economy experiencing low growth, and levels of unemployment standing at over 30% (on the expanded definition), unemployment cannot simply be solved.

In addition the rage that fuels many protests is not simply about dissatisfaction with amenities and services but reflects people’s feelings of powerlessness to change their own circumstances.

These issues highlight the potential contribution of the Community Work Programme (CWP). While often portrayed as simply a component of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) the CWP is in fact quite a distinct and remarkable initiative. While the EPWP often operates through short-term programmes, the CWP is more long term. It provides two days of work per week, up to 100 days per year, to unemployed and underemployed people. Currently it is operational at roughly 200 sites, spread throughout South Africa, employing upwards of 200,000 people on an annual basis.

The CWP, which falls under the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs provides a safety net to unemployed people by ensuring that they have access to a regular number of days of paid work per month in their own communities, and a stable, though small, income. This may be their only income or supplement other income or livelihood strategies.

The hope is that the CWP will enhance employability, or support participants in becoming self-employed, and that participants will exit the programme to take up other opportunities. In the areas in which they live such opportunities may however be few, and many participants remain in the programme over an extended period.

The CWP needs to be recognised as one of the more innovative and promising government programmes that works at a significant scale to enhance the social inclusion of the most marginalised South Africans. Particularly because the CWP sets up projects within the community where participants reside and provides services prioritised by the local communities, people feel a greater sense of achievement, providing them with a sense that they are worthy members of their community.

A large majority of participants are women, rather than the young men who are on the front line of protest. But this is not a weakness of the CWP. Research on social grants shows that female beneficiaries use such income consistently for the benefit of their families. This income supports mothers in the battle to provide a stable home environment for their children. This in turn is likely to be fundamental to whether children are able to benefit from education and other developmental opportunities. By raising average household incomes the CWP also stimulates local economies in areas with high levels of poverty and unemployment. In a multitude of ways the CWP therefore ameliorates the impacts of long term structural unemployment.

The CWP is also explicitly community based. Participants must be residents of the area where the site is, and the work contributes to the public good and the services prioritised by the community. Often, this involves keeping communities clean and safe, or growing food. There is also support work that is done at schools, and care work with elderly people or child-headed households.

Research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation shows that the functioning of CWP sites is uneven. But where it is functioning well, the CWP institutionalises consultation and community participation as a key feature of how the programme is governed. In so doing it provides community members with a sense of having a voice and being able to shape the character of community life.

The CWP has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for social and economic transformation partly because it recognises that bringing about change in communities is not only about the quality of services that people receive but also about people’s need for a sense of agency in shaping their own destinies. In so doing it engages in a more fundamental way with the issues underlying many community protests. DM

Malose Langa is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. David Bruce is a freelance researcher

Photo: Ennerdale residents burn tyres during a protest over a lack of government provided housing in the area, May 2017. Photo: Bheki Simelane.


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