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Bekkersdal is burning. And so is Khutsong. Diepsloot. Zamdela. Tlokwe. And Khayelitsha. All these troubled places have come to symbolise the growing wave of protests in the past few years.
For the past month at least, angry residents of Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, have taken to the streets to demand better government services.
These include concerns over a sharp increase in grave tariffs in the area, as well as allegations that the local municipality doesn’t keep the area clean and is corrupt.
At the forefront is determined and forthright community activist Thabang Wesi, 30, who heads the concerned residents association of greater Westonaria.
“The community is still angry. We arranged with the municipality to come today (Wednesday) but community members stopped council from unblocking the sewers and cleaning the streets,” Wesi said.
“The environment has been like this for a long time, so why would the council want to do cleaning now?”
In Bekkersdal this week, sewage flowed onto the roads, rubbish piled up on street corners, blocking some roads while swarms of flies terrorised residents.
One of these residents is Susan Xakaza. She was born in Bekkersdal in 1952 and still lives in the council house her parents bought under the old regime. She argues that the municipality at the time used to take better care of them.
“I don’t want to tell a lie. It was better off with that (apartheid) regime. Back then the municipality would do everything for us,” she said.
“It makes me mad. We are not treated well, really. We are not treated good and we are bitter. It really makes me so sad,” she said, overcome with emotion.
But it was not only Xakaza and her neighbours who were voicing their unhappiness with the state of service delivery in Bekkersdal.
On her recent visit to the troubled area, ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said living conditions in the area had not changed since 1994.
“I am deeply hurt that I have seen no changes (in Bekkersdal) since 1994 when I was here with Chris Hani,” she said.
“It’s not acceptable that I should be driving over sewerage in Bekkersdal in 2013 when I did that in 1994.”
Madikizela-Mandela visited the area shortly after residents - frustrated with the lack of service delivery - took to the streets
They are, however, not the first to do this.
They have followed in the footsteps of residents in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, in Diepsloot north of Johannesburg, Khutsong west of Johannesburg, Zamdela in Sasolburg and Ficksburg in Free State.
But while often described as focused on “service delivery”, the protests are often sparked by other things, such as demarcation issues.
The death of Free State activist Andries Tatane is still a stark reminder of the tensions between frustrated residents, local authorities, and policing agencies.
And the recent “poo revolt” against the DA-led government of the Western Cape, where residents dumped the sewage on the streets, on the steps of the legislature and in the airport foyers, is a warning about the lengths to which frustrated residents will go to have their voices heard.
As South Africa prepares for its 20th anniversary of democracy, the indications are that service delivery protests are at their highest since 1994.
Monitoring agency Municipal IQ has noted the increase.
More protests took place last year than in the past eight years – with 30 percent of the protests recorded since 2004 happening last year. The Western Cape and Free State were hardest hit by the protests, Municipal IQ said, calculating that 88 percent of the violent protests took place in the two provinces.
The agency’s economist Karen Heese said the fact that almost half of the protests recorded in July last year took place in informal settlements, spoke to the desperation of these communities living on the margins of local economies during the bitter winter months.
This year, the situation has stabilised, statistically speaking, as fewer protests have happened, said Municipal IQ.
It also noted that Gauteng and the Eastern Cape have overtaken the Western Cape and Free State this year as the country’s protest capitals.
The question, however, is how these protests impact on the legitimacy of the governing ANC in places which have been the sight of fierce protests over the past year.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the protests were an indication that people were growing impatient with the ANC and that it has lost moral ground and legitimacy in the eyes of those communities.
“It is about the collapse of the ANC leadership at local level. The party is not in touch with the people. Grievances can’t always translate into protest,” he said.
Mathekga believes that fights over positions in the ANC also contribute to the protests. Perceptions of corruption and disrespect on the part of the ANC’s local leaders have complicated the party’s relationship with communities. “Since when do communities demand the resignation of an official?”
Locals would rather show disdain towards their leaders instead of Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, he said.
Mathekga said Luthuli House’s reliance on local leaders to bring constituencies for elections meant that those leaders shrouded in allegations of corruption could not be brought to book because of their popularity on the ground.
The protests also paved the way for the emergence of new political formations and social movements, said Mathekga.
Boitumelo Nkuna, 22, is an unemployed graduate, like so many in South Africa.
He joined Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters about four months ago.
It’s the first political organisation he has ever been part of. He wore his red beret proudly as he walked down a dirt road in one of Bekkersdal’s informal settlements.
“Before this protest (in the area) I was interested in the ANC. The majority, even our parents, supported the ANC,” Nkuna told us.
“But there’s not any support anymore for the ANC. People have lost hope for the ANC.”
Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane has come under fire for her comments that the ANC did not need the “dirty votes” of some of the residents. Mokonyane has since apologised.
But the ANC’s handling of the problem, sending two seperate delegations, has also been identified as suspect.
Gauteng ANC chairman Paul Mashatile first visited the area.
Days later Mokonyane visited She was, however, not well-received and was escorted out of the area in a police Nyala.
“They are asking for votes but the sewage is over-flowing and there are no essential (services). There are no sporting facilities and at the graveyard you now have to pay R2 000 (as a grave tariff),” Nkuna said.
Both Nkuna’s parents, in their 50s, are street vendors who commute to Johannesburg each day, and support three children who are all in high school.
Nkuna is representative of some young South Africans disillusioned with the ANC government. Others don’t even see the point of voting.
Last week, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) admitted that one of its biggst challenges was to register potential voters between the ages of 18 and 19, who now fall in the group of the so-called born-frees.
IEC chairwoman Pansy Tlakula noted that while the number of voters in this category had tripled from more than 167 000 to just over 434 000, it was tough getting them to the registration stations.
“They did not quite stay away but we would like to have more in that age band,” Tlakula said last weekend.
So far less than half of eligible voters under the age of 30 are registered to vote. And the IEC has had to resort to social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to lure young voters and is now using texting to communicate with this constituency.
Tlakula said another problem with voter registration was protest-ridden areas.
She was aware of the “very few areas” in the country where there were problems.
“We have made arrangements, even in the areas you call hotspots, for registration to continue, because we cannot have a situation in this country of no-go areas,” she said this week, adding that the commission would not be deterred from doing its work.
In Bekkersdal, seven of the 12 voter registration stations had to be closed after angry residents burned the municipal offices.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said service delivery protests could not be premised on the idea of people wanting goods, but rather should be viewed as a manifestation of communities’ demands to be “taken seriously” by the government.
Friedman highlighted the rivalry between Mokonyane and Mashatile. The fight between the two created space for individuals to encourage local protests to prejudice the other side, Friedman said.
“But this doesn’t mean that grievances (from the community) are invented. But in principle it’s not impossible some people see these very serious grievances as an opportunity to use local problems to embarrass the other side.”
Friedman suggested that in Bekkersdal, despite the area historically being an Azapo stronghold, residents’ primary political loyalties could rest with the ANC, resulting in the areas’ ANC-led local government.
He said there was a distinction between those who were thought capable of representing residents on local issues and those who should be on local government structures.
“Popular local leaders from the Pan Africanist Congress people don’t (necessarily) consider to be representatives in government.”
Friedman said protests in communities did not solely emanate from local patronage politics - or people’s desire for goods, such as housing and electricity.
“It’s partly based on sentiment… but not based purely on electoral politics… People tend to see the ANC as the party of government, whereas Azapo focuses on local issues.”
What is evident from Bekkersdal and other townships where protests have been rife is that the ANC’s loss of touch with its voters - although in many of these areas it continues to enjoy significant support and is the party governing the local authorities - will create serious governance problems for it. - Sunday Independent