Opinionista Greg Nicolson 20 January 2014

Reporting on service delivery protests: A view from the field

Service delivery protests will continue to feature in the news as we head up to the 2014 elections. I look back at my time covering these and wonder if they are always what they seem.

Months before the national and provincial elections, I’m outside a Mothutlung tuck shop.

“My n*****!” yells a nyaope addict.

“Heita’da,” I reply.

“My n*****!” he repeats, louder this time, while throwing his fingers into an awkward W. One leg of his tracksuit pants is rolled up to his calf. Is he using the N-word more often than in Django to make me feel uncomfortable, I wonder? Maybe it is his normal parlance. His fake American accent suggests he might be a fan of US culture.

“Sure, mfowethu,” I say and go to buy a Coke.

It was oppressively hot in North West on Wednesday and two streets away mourners were already gathering at the home of Lerato Seema. The nyaope addict’s friend, 22 years old and from a reasonably well-off family that sent him to a decent school, offered us R8 biscuits.

My colleague Thapelo Lekgowa and I walked into the Seema house like two children caught smoking. Hands behind our backs, we moved through the yard and into the house as respectful as possible. Lerato’s mother, Audrey, was in the living room with close friends and family.

Twelve hours earlier, she said farewell to her son who had died from injuries sustained when he was pushed/fell out of a police Nyala after being arrested for public violence at a protest over water issues. She saw blood coming out of his orifices. Audrey was still in shock, rising from despair to remember her son, but then sinking into the reality of losing her first-born child. What right did we have to be there? Not much, but to listen and report.

Seema was one of three who died in the protests. Two people died in shootings. Others were arrested for public violence.

Mothutlung, near Brits, is one of the places at the heart of this year’s elections. The ANC claims that much progress has been made since ’94. Services have been delivered. More black students are at university. The economy has grown. But protests, say the many critics, are a sign of unhappiness with the status quo. Money for basic services is being eaten by the corrupt. Police are brutal. People are still fighting for things like water, electricity, housing and sanitation.

“I really want to quit this stuff. It can’t make you happy,” said the nyaope addicts, now at a local drinking spot, one of those shisa nyamas with a braai and picnic benches outside a bottle store. They’d just got high after rolling a cigarette laced with junk. A few guys drank Heinekens next to a Polo across the road. A young man on our table drank his Black Label in silence, only moving to unbuckle his belt when a local drunk persistently begged for R2 by rubbing his thumb and fingers, then holding two fingers. The young man was recently out of work, I heard later.

This is what I see at protests. They feature a violent, energetic fringe surrounding an eerily peaceful community. While emotionally-charged residents battle the police for control of the main roads, life seems to go on as normal inside the townships, informal settlements and villages, interrupted only by those trying to rouse more protesters and the inevitable police patrols. The resigned find solace in a beer at whatever tavern is open. The elderly try to go about their days. The children mill about and pose for photos in front of the press photographers. Workers who don’t want to be involved stand on the sidelines, watching and waiting until they can get back to their jobs. Oblivious, the drug addicts stay in their hovels, rising only to capitalise on the protests and swindle some money. They do, after all, have other issues to deal with.

The brave, the stupid, the political, the angry and the energetic – they’re the ones who get involved. Most people are figuring out how to bathe when there’s no water, making a plan when the electricity has been disconnected, or hoping they don’t find trouble when they have to relieve themselves in the field because the crappy communal toilets are overflowing. They’re living in hardship. It might be from the protest itself. Might be because they live in poor conditions.

Violent demonstrations are an election issue and they regularly stem from disgruntlement with elected ANC officials. But they’re never as simple as the view that because people burn tires and throw rocks they want the ANC out.

Many people, in fact, appear to protest because of the party’s successes. They see some people benefiting from the government and they want in. Why should they struggle for basic services when its known that other people are getting better lives?

Audrey Seema didn’t make any sort of political statement to me. She was too distraught. The nyaope addicts want to find a rehabilitation facility. At most protests there are more people who ask me whether I can get them a job than people who want to complain about politics and services. On the ground, it’s not about Nkandla or factionalism within the ANC. What’s important is who can deliver services and jobs.

More than ever before, this election is about bread and butter issues. Where people may have normally voted ANC because of their allegiances, they will shred those struggle affiliations and vote for who they believe in. People want to be able to have the foundations for a decent life – jobs, education, health services, and social security.

The protests are important, not just because of the protesters, but their countless friends and family members. Do they believe the ANC can continue to deliver services, build the economy and provide jobs for more South Africans? Or is another option preferable? Is it the ANC or another party best placed to help the addicts? Who will help the young man who enjoys a drink get another job? Is there another party that might have prevented the death of Lerato Seema? DM

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