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Patricia de Lille
My heart sinks when I am informed of a service delivery protest. It sinks because I think of the sadness and desperation that has driven people to take extraordinary measures. It sinks because I think of the breakdown in the relationship between government and people.
It sinks because, for everything that we do, for all the systems we put in place, for all the problems we address, we can never, by definition, satisfy everyone.
And so I know that, somewhere, somehow, there are people who feel excluded and neglected.
These emotions are the casualties of making the tough choices that governing a place that is historically divided and has limited resources requires. When governing well to satisfy the broadest mandate, these casualties are constant.
That is why I am disgusted when there are more casualties than there need to be, when people arrange events with collateral damage in mind; in fact, as their only objective.
Among legitimate service delivery protests, amidst communities searching for their voices, there are those protests used to advance political agendas, to destabilise the city.
This is not a conspiracy theory – it is the real frustration of a government dealing with those individuals who would destabilise our society because they have no faith in the ballot box and so must resort to violence.
I know the value of resistance and of fighting for what is right. I did so for decades, precisely for the right to use the ballot box.
And because I am a democrat and always have been, I resent the use of such brutal tactics to fulfil a political agenda.
There are already pieces of evidence in the public domain that indicate that such forces are working in our communities.
One example is “Operation Reclaim”, which has been presented in the public domain as a concerted campaign by the ANC to, it is suggested, destabilise the Western Cape in the run-up to the national election in 2014.
We, of course, cannot be naive and think that there is no political posturing between elections. As politicians and the public know, there is often something like the “constant campaign” going on to try and sway the opinion of voters. That is right and good in a democratic system.
What is not right and good is realising that your reputation has been so outstripped by others in terms of delivery and governance that your only recourse is to diverting public attention to manufactured “protests”, attempting to undercut the impression of consistent delivery and diverting resources away from government strategies.
Because, these damages add up. During the recent service delivery protest in Phumlani Village informal settlement, damage of R600 000 was done to 12 traffic lights.
And R2.6 million has been spent in the last two weeks alone to fix traffic lights in the metro as a result of the protests.
These millions combine to form a sizeable spend towards repairing facilities deliberately destroyed, instead of building new ones. And again, the poor are usually the ones who suffer most because of this.
To reconcile our governance strategy with the sadness we feel because of discarded communities and the anger we feel towards political agents, we need to be able to distinguish between legitimate protests and those fuelled by political ambitions.
Local government does not have the ability to gather criminal-intelligence – that function is the domain of National state organs, such as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS). We will need their help, in the spirit of co-operation.
As such, I will be seeking a meeting with the provincial commissioner of the SAPS, General Arno Lamoer, to interrogate these theories of political agitation around certain service delivery protests.
To address these protests, we must fix problems where they exist. But we must also find out where they are being deliberately created.
Because the only thing that would be more tragic than seeing the poor neglected is allowing them to be used.
l De Lille is Executive Mayor of Cape Town. This is her weekly newsletter.