The ANC in the Western Cape, notorious for its ungovernability campaign in the province, says they are not behind the violent protests that have spiralled out of control in Grabouw. They are right this time: they are not the perpetrators. This violence is something new, and something frightening, and it has the potential to spread across the country. It is what happens when people uncork the genie of ungovernability, with no real agenda beyond self-interest. This is not hooliganism for a cause, it is hooliganism for the sake of hooliganism. And at the moment, there is no solution in sight.
The seeds of the revolution in the beautiful little valley in the Overberg were sown way back in 2006 when a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report warned that the population growth in this little district was unsustainably high; it had doubled in the previous seven years. The Overberg’s success was also its downfall. The same report, which examined poverty levels in South Africa, mentioned that the region was the “least poor” district in the country.
It followed, then, that seasonal workers would flock to the wealthy farms of the Overberg as labour during the harvest, but would then not return home. The following year their families would join them, also for the harvest, but also with no intention of returning to the under-serviced Eastern Cape. And so on.
Because the Overberg was perceived to be so wealthy, the seasonal workers who had now become permanent residents would demand free houses and services. And if they did not get them, they would go on the rampage. It is a truism that dissatisfaction with service delivery has little to do with actual services, and everything to do with the level of your service delivery in relation to your surroundings. If you live in a wealthy area, you want the same services as the wealthy people.
This has created a massive headache for the municipality. As current mayor Chris Punt puts it, “There are about 108,000 people living in this municipality. About 56,000 live in Grabouw. Of these, only 48% pay rates and taxes. As a result, we have a tight budget, and it is impossible to meet everyone’s needs.”
Some of these needs are also a provincial or national concern, and the provincial government has been slow to recognise the massive challenges caused by the uncontrolled influx of unemployed and unemployable migrants.
But making things exponentially worse is the political tug-of-war between the Democratic Alliance and the ANC. In 2011 the DA took over the municipality with a comfortable 50% against the ANC’s 37%. The ANC, through their provincial leader, Marius Fransman, immediately vowed to make the district ungovernable until the ANC won it back. (The ANC can deny this as much as they want, there is far too much evidence, both on the record and off the record, to the contrary.)
Ever since 2011, there has been one protest after another. All of these protests have been extremely violent, with crowds blocking roads and setting fire to buildings and offices. After the first spate of violence in 2011 there was some rapprochement. The protesters and municipality agreed to meet halfway and work together for good service delivery.
A fresh outbreak of violent protests in 2013 broke the truce. This time youngsters were protesting their poor educational facilities. They claimed to be members of the Elgin Grabouw Civic Organisation, who handed over a memorandum of demands to education MEC Donald Grant. They forcibly closed the existing school, Umyezo ama Apile, wanting a new school to be built. But this time the protests turned very ugly. A crowd of ‘black people’ stormed the ‘coloured school’, Groenberg Secondary, and tried to burn it down.
For several days, police had to set up barriers to prevent black and coloured people from coming to blows. Despite this, 14 people were injured in racial clashes.
“We call it ‘set up’. Tyres started burning and rocks were placed in the road. It was time. People were singing and the police came,” a woman told a Times Live reporter at the time. “I tell you, we have plans. Next is the white school.”
The ‘coloured’ school was extensively vandalised and three classrooms were burnt. Education minister Angie Motshekga criticised the action of the protestors, claiming the protests were not political and that there was no ANC campaign to make the area ungovernable.
But the DA provided a great deal of evidence to the contrary. The school protests erupted just before a by-election, caused by the resignation of a DA councillor, Catherine Booysen-Nefdt. The DA claimed she had been ‘bought’ by the ANC at a controversial meeting at Century City outside Cape Town earlier that year, where ANC leader Marius Fransman tried to persuade DA councillors to defect to the ANC. A councillor at that meeting told the City Press newspaper at the time that the ANC had expressly stated that it wanted to make the DA-led municipalities ungovernable.
Central to their strategy in Grabouw is an ANC member and civic leader called John Michels. Michels could not be contacted for comment (according to a friend of his, who furnished his cellphone number, he never answers his phone). But his Facebook page overflows with hate speech towards the DA, and in his role as leader of the Grabouw Civic Association, he has often warned publicly that violent protests would continue until people got what they wanted. He liaises closely with Andile Lili of the Ses’kona People’s Rights Movement (otherwise known as the poo-throwers), and has welcomed top ANC officials to his organised protests. As far as the DA is concerned, Michels is public enemy number one, and this has created problems for both the ANC and the DA.
“John Michels is a radical of note,” says a civic leader who works closely with Michels. “But he is an ANC pawn in this game, he will do anything for money. Everyone is scared of him, because he stirs people up and encourages them to become violent. He can turn a good thing into a bad thing: if he ever comes to a meeting he will disrupt proceedings and put everyone at loggerheads with each other. There are a lot of good people in this municipality who want to get things done, and make progress, but he has corrupted them.”
The DA would agree heartily with this summation, and blame Michels and his incendiary rhetoric for the current unrest. But Michels claims that he and the ANC are not responsible, and that there is a ‘third force’. The municipality is not convinced.
“All we know is,” says a municipal official, speaking off the record (because the official spokesman was not available), “Michels was the one who applied for permission to have this march. So, as far as we are concerned, he is the one responsible. If the crowd get out of hand and start to burn things and destroy things, he is the one who started it.”
But ANC community leader Kija Thezaphi offers Michels some unexpected support.
“No, this is not us,” he says. “This protest is not political. These people are not part of the community, they are not the ones who have the grievances; we do not know who these people are.”
Whatever they are, they are not a ‘third force’. They are simply groups of people who have been frustrated and disappointed by government promises and poor communication, and have been taught that violent protest is the most effective way to get attention.
Long-time resident Demetrius van Wyk agrees. “There is fault on both sides here,” he says. “The protestors have no excuse to be violent, and Michels is responsible for a lot of the trouble here, but this is not his doing. This is a group of people who have got out of hand and this is now beyond control. The problem is the municipality is not communicating effectively. They talk about IDPs and administrative processes, and this goes right over the heads of the people they are supposed to be communicating with. They must communicate in language that ordinary people can understand.
“The biggest problem is that people want houses. The government has promised them houses. But there is not enough space or infrastructure for new housing. And when houses were built, they were substandard. And then, making things much worse, some people have been on a housing list for years, while other people get houses who have only been here a few months,” Van Wyk says.
“The municipality is not transparent. They do not have any answers, they just say there is no money. They do not listen to the people. “If I was any political party, I would be panicking. There are good people here in the community, many good people. They don’t want violence, but they do want service. And if they don’t get services, they want to be told why.”
But unfortunately for the “good people” in Grabouw, Michels and his cohorts have uncorked a genie that they are unable to put back in the bottle. They have encouraged violence, civil disobedience and vandalism. They have created a culture of confrontation and distrust that will require superhuman effort to dissipate.
Another huge element causing problems is that the community organisations that encourage and organise the protests have poor communication among themselves. They are not keeping their own members informed, which is leading people to react angrily (and violently) to perceived non-communication.
Thezaphi is trying, along with the more levelheaded members of his community, to bring some calm back to the area. “Our first priority is to get the children to go back to school,” he says. “We’ve got to try to engage. We are now going to the community members, try to persuade them that they have to let the children go to school, allow people to go to work. Then we have to talk to the municipality, persuade them to talk to us again. The mayor has promised us there will be a meeting on Friday.”
However, there is no incentive to engage for people like Michels and his colleagues, who have openly and repeatedly expressed their intention to continue to disrupt and destroy. The ANC provincial leadership might be congratulating themselves on a successful campaign to destabilise South Africa’s wealthiest district municipality, but they might end up with nothing but ashes. DM
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