According to police statistics, South Africa has had an average of 2.9 civil unrest incidents per day over the last three years. Some refer to our nation as the protest capital of the world, while service delivery, strikes, e-tolls and similar issues dominate headlines daily. But who is protesting and, more importantly, who is absent?
COSATU recently staged a drive-slow on the national highway grid that traverses Gauteng, in protest against the much-bemoaned e-tolls. Radio airwaves and opinion pieces are dominated by the voices of a vocal majority that would have you believe the legislation establishing this as the means of paying for our highways is the most controversial law since the abolishment of the death penalty.
But the drive-slow protest from less than two weeks ago only managed to attract three hundred motorists. “Not bad for a working Friday”, you might say, but considering the tens of thousands of cars that use these very highways, is it not a considerable disappointment that only three hundred cars joined the protest against such a broadly unpopular law?
Why is it, then, that this – what one would expect most to label a noble cause – failed to attract the attention of a number of motorists that would account for no more than one suburb or township in Johannesburg? Well, if I am a taxi or bus commuter, owner or driver, exempt from paying e-tolls through increased fares, what motivation do I have to join in a protest that seemingly only affects the whining middle classes who can afford to drive cars in any event?
Simply put, South Africa is a place defined by diversity (and not only the fuzzy, feel-good, World-Cup variety) – it is diverse in income and wellbeing too. Whereas children in villages surrounding Giyani simply yearn for the dignity to have a toilet at their school premises, someone in Muldersdrift just wants to spend a night in bed without fearing a violent death at the hands of robbers.
But these differences have given birth to a unique societal structure. Those from the middle classes to the super rich have augmented their needs through privatised services. As standard as this is in almost any global society, the South African scenario is unique in that some of the most basic and essential services are privatised.
Meanwhile, the middle classes acquire their properties privately, whether through purchase or rental out of their own incomes and liabilities, as opposed to being dependent on state-provided housing. Many protect these properties with private security systems made up of technology, human resources and combinations of these, despite the presence of a tax-subsidised, heavily armed police force.
The schools their children attend, even where state-subsidised, tend to be mostly paid for by private funds. If you wish to skip lengthy queues, avoid rude staff and actually be diagnosed correctly relatively early during the onset of your symptoms, you would most likely use the good old medical aid card rather than go to your nearest state facility.
So in a society where you have to pay to receive adequate security, education, healthcare, electricity, water and many other usually state-provided services, are we surprised that the masses did not take to the streets in the millions in protest of the e-tolls? This is a point that was first eloquently raised by Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, current Secretary General and CEO of Civicus, headquartered here in Johannesburg. He mentioned his observation of South African society at a recent discussion for which he was a panellist. And as a recent addition to South African society, this fact seems all the more apparent to him.
So what does our ‘pay as you go’ society mean for a joint citizen voice for the good of us all? The notion of ‘good for us all’ in itself seems flawed, since our needs vary so much, and access to solutions differs so greatly. We don’t bridge the divides on our society – what’s your issue is not my issue. In other words, “I will not take to the streets and protest against e-tolls if I do not own a car, nor will I take to the streets and protest if I have sufficient water supply”.
What is missing from this narrative is the fact that basic equality means in a society such as South Africa, where we all share the same Constitutional rights and entitlements, it is a gross human rights violation if another South African who lives in a separate province and earns far less than me does not have water because the government has failed to deliver. So, too, should I recognise that although I may not have a car of my own, e-tolls will still impact me through the price of goods on the shelf or the price of the fuel that drives the taxi I commute in. All these items get transported via the very same highway networks, and the truck companies will not be magnanimous in absorbing the increased costs of transportation.
It does not start and end with e-tolls, but becomes a broader question of solidarity. How do South African citizens exercise any solidarity when our needs are so easily determined by how much we earn?
How could we truly go beyond an angry radio or column outcry against the Limpopo textbook scandal, when we continue to pay for privatised or semi-privatised education at a premium? How do we effectively challenge the e-tolls without accepting that we will eventually pay for our highway system, albeit begrudgingly, despite paying taxes and fuel levies?
We cannot expect much, especially when these unrecognised common concerns become the subject of party politics rather than broader, systemic South African concerns. Worse yet, we cannot expect change when the most convenient alternative is to shut up and pay. DM
Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
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