Nothing focuses and moves a South African politician to act on pertinent issues more than an impending election. In the months leading up to a democratic vote, miracles abound. Suddenly, obtaining your ID document at home affairs will take a day, at most, or be issued immediately on application without a trace of an error.
Long queues disappear, and the sullen and terse home affairs makes way for a sea of smiles. You feel welcome and seen, and that you matter. This experience is unlike previous occasions when you were met with a begrudging and hostile reception.
RDP housing lists are rapidly freed up, and grannies waiting for years to have a roof over their heads finally get a crack at “a better life for all”. Cameras capture the touching moment when a granny receives the keys to her RDP house, and a grinning politician is within frame. The granny’s moving story makes one of two front pages, and the soundbite and the footage play on a loop on radio and TV.
Every week a new school is opened, police emerge from hibernation, and municipal workers work like clockwork to fix streetlights that have been out for years. Refuse gets picked up on schedule and illegal tips are cleared and sorted as a matter of urgency. Cabinet ministers visit troubled spots with regularity and give an attentive ear to communities’ grievances. They break bread with the communities, sing and dance for them, and crank up the charm factor. The politicians have a moment of awakening and remember whose votes put them in power.
However, the show of care and solidarity leaves town once the election results are declared. It will make a return in five years, when the same script will be dusted off and repeated, but not a moment sooner. In the intervening years, it is back to the regular routine of politicians giving the electorate a snub while citizens navigate an uncertain environment.
Khutsong was burning from 2005 to 2009, but the official political response was slow and only came about in an election year. In early 2009, at long last and just in time for that year’s general election, Khutsong residents got their wish for their town to remain in Gauteng.
For five straight years, Khutsong residents had protested at the proposed incorporation of their town into the North West from Gauteng, without much luck. With each successive year, protests intensified and schooling was disrupted for prolonged periods, but politicians were unmoved. Politicians only saw light when they needed a “good story” to sell in order to garner votes to remain in power.
The 2008 nationwide xenophobic attacks broke out a year before the 2009 general election. Again, the official political response was lacking in urgency. This was also the case when there was a repeat of xenophobic violence in 2015, which unfolded a year after a general election. So, it was tough luck to those affected.
Vuwani happened in 2017, and its protests ran along a similar vein to those that had occurred in Khutsong years before. Here, too, the official response was messy and erratic.
Last year, Mahikeng became another flashpoint of violent community protests. And this year, downtown Johannesburg and the Pretoria CBD are the scenes of an outbreak of xenophobic violence. Too bad for those affected, because the general election took place in May, so there is little incentive for politicians to act because there is nothing in it for them.
In a few weeks, the shock and gore factors of recent protests will wane, but the underlying issues will remain and rear their head on another day or in another year. What has been happening of late is symptomatic of the stratified types of political recourse available to South Africa’s different classes. When business is aggrieved, it lobbies and gets the government’s ear. The poor and political underclasses take to the streets in protest.
Business has investment as its negotiating lever, while the poor have public disorder as their negotiating tool. The institutions that assess the South African government’s performance often highlight this dynamic as a danger to the country’s stability. However, in the absence of an impending election, who or what will shake our politicians from their slumber of indifference? The more South Africa sleepwalks through its crises, the more it entrenches a culture of impunity and frays its fragile social arrangements. BM
It was legal in 1913 America to mail your children. The stamps affixed to said offspring's clothing cost 53 cents.