The stench of sewage is overpowering. Its bubbling odour gushes into the streets. It clings to the clothing and body. The streets are piled with heaps of rubbish. Kids navigate around the disease- ridden effluent. A local priest shows me the rash on his arm: “My doctor tells me that’s what we should expect from such an unhealthy environment.”
This is Bekkersdal, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the largest and richest metropolis in Africa. It boasts the reputation of a 21st century African city and powerhouse of Africa. It sits astride some of the richest gold mining reefs in Gauteng. But South Africa – and cities in it – are also establishing a reputation as the “protest capitals” of the world. This year alone, there have been 97 major protests in the country since January.
“We walk on ground with gold underneath but our people above ground have to walk in the shit,” residents complain.
Here in Bekkersdal, it boils down to governance and leadership that has failed our people. And it has happened on our watch. Even more outrageous is the political arrogance characterised most succinctly by Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane’s response to the anger here, saying the ANC does not need protesters’ “dirty votes”.
The spark for the current protests came when the local council raised tariffs for graveyard plots eightfold to close to R2,000. Coming on the back of repeated attempts to get the local council to address the poor service delivery, including the dangers of raw sewage in the streets and non-existent refuse removal, the township exploded.
A statement by local church ministers is alarming. In declaring solidarity with the concerns of residents it also warns of a “society at war with itself” as competing political interests fight for hegemony. Violence is perpetrated against innocent residents earning a meagre income as vendors at the taxi rank, children are forced out of schools and teachers intimidated. Threats of a civil war between informal and formal settlements loom large. And the role of political opportunists including a counselor who brandished a firearm and threatened to kill people pours fuel on the fires of discontent. Already a community leader, Themba Khumalo, has been assassinated, activists detained and several injured.
Bekkersdal is a microcosm of what is happening in our townships. It bears all the hallmarks of the conflicts and struggles of the eighties. The police encampment outside the township with its battery of armored vehicles brought back painful memories of the past. But this is not just a policing or security problem. It is foremost a political problem. Residents of Bekkersdal talk openly of being betrayed by the democracy. The signs are clear. There are has been a corrosive and systemic dereliction of duty. Maladministration and corruption has squandered the public finances meant to serve our people.
The Auditor-General’s 2011 audit results of local government found that out of 343 municipalities, only 13 (5%) had unqualified audits; 45% had unqualified audits with findings; 18% had qualified audits and 19% had disclaimers, while 13% had audits outstanding.
The AG identified the reasons for the state of affairs as three issues:
• There was no political will amongst the leadership to change the situation
• There were no consequences for non-performance
• The municipalities in many cases were staffed by people who lacked the requisite skills.
The AG emphasised the need for consequences for non-performance and contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act; consequences to the degree of being criminally charged. We see no evidence of that action.
We are sitting on a time bomb. Johnny Mokane of the Greater Westonaria Concerned Residents Association reiterates this point, “Enough is enough. We have drawn up a list of demands. We still have the bucket system in parts of our township. We have met with Minister of local government, Lechesa Tsenoli. He promised that there will be a task team working with us and the deadline was yesterday. We have never heard from them.”
This is not rocket science. Why is there such inaction? Do these municipal leaders just not care?
Thabang Wesi, the chairperson of the residents’ association, says, “We have asked the government to place the local council under administration. We want a forensic investigation of allegations of maladministration and nepotism levelled against Westonaria local municipality mayor Nonkolise Tundzi to be sped up.”
It is clear that our struggle now is to defend our Constitution by stemming tender corruption, rampant cronyism and nepotism. The Public Service Management Act is a cornerstone of governance. It cannot be ignored with impunity that exists at present. In the light of the urgent need for effective action and protection of whistle blowers, the recently passed Secrecy Law is more ominous. It does nothing to protect whistle blowers in terms of public interest.
Now more than at any time in our 20 years of freedom, citizens need to stand up and make their voices heard. We witness the increasing belligerence of public representatives and we see violence becoming the culture of protest. We need citizens to become organised, for credible and non-party aligned civic structures to emerge to represent the legitimate grievances of our people.
There is no doubt in my mind that the constitutional values of human dignity, freedom and equality, that form the bedrock of our freedom struggle and our democracy, are being breached. This is the time to draw a line in the ground. The evidence is a damning indictment on our leadership. It cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. DM
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky