Defend Truth


Rebellions of the poor, by the poor, for the poor


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

As mothers in bygone times threatened naughty children with “the bogeyman”, every fresh uprising, revolt or violent protest in Africa evokes the question: “Could it happen in South Africa?” While comparisons with Tunisia and Egypt may be a little over the top, they’re not unreasonable. The tit-for-tat mud-splattered electioneering now assailing us shows how fractious SA remains. But when the desperately poor people protest about a decade of service-delivery neglect, warnings of an “Arab spring” in the form of a “South African winter of discontent” are not so fantastical.

Moeletsi Mbeki shocked a lot of people when he predicted that the poor in South Africa would do as Tunisians did and revolt against the government by 2020. His outrageous statement was reprinted, replayed and rehashed until not even President Jacob Zuma could dodge responding.  Bound by duty, if not by principle Zuma, had to offer some reassurance about the country’s future. He was confident: “There will never be a Tunisia in South Africa. We have a constitutional democracy here; every person has the right to say what he wants and to vote.” And for further emphasis, he added, ‘It is impossible. I repeat: It is impossible.”

As our street poles are again turned into sacrificial flag-bearers of the country’s politics, it seems outlandish to believe a challenge to the government could come from anywhere but the polls. This is a 17-year-old democracy that’s been a harbinger of freedom and equality to the rest of the continent.  As Zuma rightly pointed out, this is not a Middle Eastern kleptocracy with a geriatric sitting on a blood-soaked throne. This is a democracy that was hard won, a democracy that will not easily be surrendered. And, while praise of our freedoms is inevitably accelerated as an election draws nearer, there is as well an ever-widening gulf between the government and the people on the street. The people may not be taking to the streets to chant, “Liberty, Freedom, Bread” as the Tunisians or Egyptians did, but under the guise of service delivery protests the country is already witnessing a rebellion of the poor.  

Pockets of protest first hit the country in 2004, and since then disgruntled residents in almost every corner have taken to the streets with a litany of complaints ranging from service delivery, joblessness and more recently the ANC’s selection of candidates ahead of local government elections. The protest against the ANC candidate list that wreaked havoc in the Mpumalanga town of Ermelo earlier this year left one dead and more than 100 were arrested. And while it was not a protest against service delivery in the strictest sense, it was close to being an all-out insurrection of a disenfranchised community against its local government. But closer to Johannesburg, residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement near Honeydew took to Beyers Naudé Drive last month to demand housing, sanitation and the resignation of their ward councillor. Gauteng MEC for local government and housing, Humphrey Memezi was confident when he visited Zandspruit last weekend that a group of “unruly” residents was responsible for the protests in the area. Unruly elements aside, this is a community of 40,000 with minimal access to services and an estimated unemployment rate of close to 70%. There clearly is a problem that runs deeper than a small band of troublemakers.

In 2009 and 2010 there were more than treble the number of public service protests than in any year since 2004. Instead of being mitigated by a maturing democracy, these protests have become more frequent. Yes, every person does indeed have “the right to say what he wants”, but is anybody listening … at all?

“We want better lives, development and dignity. Each and every time we voted for the ANC, but it seems we are forgotten,” Nicky Khulu, a 29-year-old resident of Orange Farm told the Mail and Guardian in the midst of a service delivery protest last year. These protests have been about service delivery and they have been directed against self-serving and corrupt leaders of municipalities. They indicate as well a  frustration with the channels available for engagement with government. Minister for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, back when he actually had some credibility admitted, “many of our municipalities are in a state of paralysis and dysfunction”. He conceded that local government was perceived to be incompetent, disorganised and “riddled with corruption and maladministration”.  While there certainly are significant challenges dogging the rate of service delivery throughout the country, inherent in these protests is a sense of injustice, a sense of being hard done by, a sense of being cut off from the governing structure. The South African Constitution states that municipalities have the responsibility to ensure all citizens are provided with services to satisfy their basic needs. If these needs are not being met, more crucially if people feel cut off from the powers meant to be serving those needs, they will not focus on “petty” things such as not being violent.

The emphasis of media reports on service-delivery protests has centred on the accompanying violence and subsequent police intervention. The focus has been on the rubber bullets used to disperse protesters, the burning buildings and the blocked off streets. These protests have come to be characterised as violent, a madness confined to the backwaters of the country. The emerging narrative in the media centred on quelling what appears to be a kind of madness. There is scant coverage of what it is actually driving these protests.

And it’s the violence, not the lack of services or joblessness, that has evoked the strongest response from government. Zuma speaking at a meeting of local government leaders last year, made it clear “the government will not tolerate the violence that often accompanies service-delivery protests”. 

If we define democracy as the active participation of people, as citizens, in politics and civil life, then the promotion and maintenance of democracy is hemmed into the media as a sphere in which public opinion can be formed and access guaranteed to all citizens. The success of Al Jazeera’s reporting in Tunisia and Egypt is credited largely to its primary focus on the people, what they wanted, what they were saying while broadcasters like CNN used the impact of events in Egypt on Israel, for example, as its primary focus in the uprising in Egypt. It’s no co-incidence then that Al Jazeera has been blamed for the political unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Libya – Al Jazeera by freeing itself to act as a platform of public opinion have become conduits of the promotion of democracy. South African media conversely have failed to look beyond the concerns of the country’s privileged classes.

While Zuma has once more asserted that Western Cape was the only place in which apartheid remains entrenched because of a rampant inequality in service delivery between rich and poor, it would do the venerable president well to be reminded that service-delivery protests are an unsavoury reminder of the legacy of apartheid throughout the country. Seventeen years on, basic services continue to be unequally distributed, and the problem does not lie in policing the violence.

The death of Andries Tatane in a service-delivery protest in Ficksburg last month has justly raised questions about police intervention in such protests. There is now a broader, albeit informal, investigation into police brutality in the country. Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs point out right here in the Daily Maverick  “that Tatane’s death elicited the reactions it did – unlike other injuries and deaths sustained in the almost 8,000 protests over the last six years – was probably partly because the SABC was bold enough to broadcast the shocking video of Tatane’s murder”. Tatane’s death proves the crucial role of the media in directing the discourse between the electorate and the government.

We may well already have the beginning of a Tunisian-style uprising by the poor against the government in this country, but without the correct focus of the media it could soon dissipate into another forgettable election issue. DM


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