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Protesters tighten grip on power

Community protest, which counter-intuitively forms part of the political lifeblood of the ANC, is in the process of change. The vicissitudes could signal the beginning of the end of a special governing party-people relationship that has been instrumental in helping the ANC to maintain resounding levels of electoral support.

The link freed communities across the country to express frustration and anger with the governing party through protest and then, come the next election, again return the ANC, even a severely underperforming ANC, to power.

Professor Susan Booysen. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng. Credit: Independent Newspapers

Changes in this governing party-people interface now indicate growing complexity in the relationship. The complications will affect the ANC’s ability to walk the protest-power tightrope.

The ANC’s largely laissez-faire approach to community protest will also affect two crucial state institutions, the police and local government.

Mismanaged and corrupt municipalities are central actors in the auditor-general’s reports, and brutal police from Meqheleng to Marikana make communities their enemies. In the process, police and municipalities also protect aloof institutions of state and government.

The Andries Tatane catastrophe highlights the police’s acrimonious relationship with many communities.

The police force was fighting a proxy war in Meqheleng against its citizens. The police’s war was on behalf of politicians hidden from the street battles for better services.

Politicians and bureaucrats sit safely ensconced while the police “defend” the government against non-delivery that has provoked citizens.

Ongoing losses in the legitimacy of these institutions will mean lessened ANC government capability to redirect popular discontent away from the responsible senior politicians.

For the ANC directly, “service delivery protest” has so far created the platform for citizens, and in particular ANC supporters and voters, to vent their anger – and threaten disloyalty to the ANC.

Local elections in 2011 showed important exceptions to this rule. There were, for example, higher levels of abstention from voting. This was evident especially in communities that had been affected by service protests and provincial demarcation issues. Defection to opposition parties was also evident.

A far-reaching change to the protest interface is the complicated mutations of labour-social-delivery protests that are emerging. The 2012-13 winelands farm labourer strikes, for example, became more than just labour strikes. The communities in which the labourers live shared the labourers’ distress. In the case of Marikana, the labour clash concerned both wages and inter-union contests and living conditions or community services.

Mutations with repercussions also emerged in Zamdela, Sasolburg. The protest repertoire extended into audacious acts of looting which elicited reprimands from the ANC.

This year’s protests tend to confirm the 2011 characteristic of ANC factional interests triggering community protests.

Factionalism transferred to community protest in Zamdela illustrated the effect of the fusion of municipal demarcation and mergers, perceived municipal corruption, and leaders pursuing self-interest.

In Metsimaholo, demarcation and municipal organisation issues would not have been a protest issue had it not been for the dominant effect of corruption and ANC political heads being seen to let personal interest and crony networks override the community’s sense of its own interest. Furious residents vowed revenge on the ANC at election time.

In acts that resemble gambling with its delicate relationship with the people, the ANC warned protesters to refrain from destroying public property. It promised disciplinary action against ANC members participating in destructive protests against the government.

This comes while citizens in their local contexts have gained scepticism. Poverty, inadequate education and chronic unemployment predispose them to protest.

They have an astute understanding of the games the councillors, and other politicians, play. And this is not about service to the people.

The lower incidence of protest in the first quarter of 2013, compared with the quarterly average for 2012, might signal that protesters fear a Tatane fate, dread that the ANC’s apparent new hand of discipline will hunt them down, or perhaps it is just a cyclical repeat of the 2008 pre-election year when citizens gave politicians some leeway – before unleashing new record-breaking waves of protest.

Those waves did not gravely worry the ANC. They matched up with ANC electoral support.

The new protest configurations, however, suggest that the ANC requires a new game plan to sustain its protest-power exchange with the people.

This will be shown, for example, in penetrating evidence that the ANC is taming the ghosts of opportunism and corruption. Its disciplinary code and public sector initiatives for clean government will demonstrate traction. It will implement public participation that is truly about gaining bottom-up feedback and converting it into uncompromising public action. It will not be another wish list of idealised public participation.

- Booysen is professor in the Graduate School of Public & Development Management, Wits University, and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power. Her analysis in her edited book, Local Elections in South Africa: Parties, People, Politics, explored public protest up to 2011.

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