Protests are rooted in the frustration and despair of poverty and rage at an uncaring government, writes Malaika wa Azania.
In his poignant masterpiece Harlem, renowned poet Langston Hughes reflects on the nervous conditions of African-Americans whose dream of emancipation from the draconian laws of racial segregation has been aborted in the inter-city ghettos that are concentration camps.
There, levels of poverty, destitution and unemployment are soaring and drugs and alcohol serve as escape routes from the unbearable heaviness of tortured existence.
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
Addressing Parliament during a debate on nation building and reconciliation just a year before his first inauguration as the second democratically elected president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki responded to this question by paraphrasing Hughes, arriving at the disturbingly accurate conclusion that when a dream is deferred, “it explodes”.
As far back as 1998, then-deputy president Mbeki made a prophetic statement, asserting that our country was “faced with the danger of mounting rage”, emphasising that unless this mounting rage was responded to seriously, our people’s dream of liberation and genuine racial integration would be terminated by a dangerous explosion. No truer sentiments have been expressed.
I found myself revisiting Mbeki’s words after David Makhura, Gauteng secretary of the ANC, made a disturbing statement about the nature of the service delivery protests that are tearing away at the thread of stability that is holding this country together.
According to Makhura, service delivery protests in the country are a result of a “third force”, an external element on a mission to discredit the gains of our democracy.
Interestingly, Makhura is not the first ANC leader to make such statements. Many before him have explained away service delivery protests as the actions of vigilantes and political renegades.
This argument must be challenged.
Studies by a number of organisations have found there have been more than 10 000 service delivery protests in the country since 1994. Most of these occur in townships and informal settlements. For us to understand what gives rise to protests, we must understand the order in which they have occurred.
Following the ushering in of a democratic government in the mid-1990s, there was a decline in mass action.
This lull was a result of the collective lethargy that settled over a country that, for more than four decades, had been engaged in astruggle with a repressive regime that was hell-bent on suppressing an oppressed majority.
It was also a product of collective euphoria, a sense of excitement and expectation from people who truly believed the end of apartheid signalled the dawn of an era of prosperity and development.
The government’s people-centred Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a policy that promised to bring about progressive reform in a country that, for decades, had had two-tier education, health and housing systems, as well as an economy that in effect ostracised the native majority, affirmed this expectation.
Towards the late 1990s, facing the reality of an economy that remained untransformed and apartheid debt owed to the World Bank, the government “tightened the belt”, deciding to abandon the RDP and opt for an economic development path that would respond to the realities of the global market system.
The Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy was introduced, amid criticism and resistance from the left, who believed it to be neo-liberal.
It was Cosatu mainly that led protests during this period.
The second phase of protests began in the early 2000s with the birth of social movements like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Anti-Privatisation Forum, Landless People’s Movement and many others.
These organisations fought to defend the rights of people to basic services, primarily housing, electricity, education and health care.
The phase of protests we are experiencing today is a slight deviation from the second in that the protests led by the social movements were based on single issues and relatively non-violent. They were also largely co-ordinated. For example, the TAC would stage countrywide protests, mobilising and organising communities through steering committees tasked with consolidating a uniform mass demonstration.
What we have today are protests that are not only unco-ordinated, but extremely violent.
People like Makhura look at the recent protests in Mothutlong and posit that they are a product of a “third force”.
Those of us who are more preoccupied with reasonable arguments have a duty to employ a more serious analysis of this phase of protests by tracing its genesis and moving beyond the simplistic rhetoric of “third forces” and “elements of darkness”.
We must, for example, begin by asking ourselves an important question: where did the rupture begin?
From as far back as the 1990s, South Africa has been pregnant with the possibility of an implosion. And yet this rupture as we now feel it began a decade ago with the eruption of a desolate informal settlement in the north of Joburg.
It was in Diepsloot, a post-1994 settlement, that the present phase of community protests was born.
Following the implosion of Diepsloot, protests spread like wildfire through the country.
In the KwaZulu-Natal town of Harrismith, the shooting of a teenager by the police became a catalyst for one of the most violent protests post-apartheid South Africa has seen.
In the neighbouring Free State, townships such as Phomolong also flared up, as did surrounding communities such as Warden, Vrede and Memel.
Not long after this, the Eastern Cape imploded when masses of people protested against the Nelson Mandela Bay council.
Towards the end of 2008, protests erupted in Piet Retief, Standerton, Balfour and other parts of Mpumalanga province.
During that same period, the Western Cape also caught fire as working class townships began to hold the government to ransom. Since the Diepsloot events exactly 10 years ago, every province has ignited.
There are common denominators in all these protests.
For one thing, they are not co-ordinated protests. They are a product of mobilisation and organising by residents, and fashioned around community-specific demands and grievances.
For another, at the forefront of these protests are young people, the stratum most affected by the rising levels of unemployment and poverty.
The convenient argument raised by Makhura and other ANC leaders obsessed with the “third force” explanation ceases to make sense when the historical barometer of protests is studied, because what this shows is that protests are not a fresh development influenced by the establishment of the new radical opposition or those wanting to discredit the movement.
Their reasons are in fact located in the neo-liberal structure of the economy.
The context of the protests is the structural inequality and uneven spatial development rooted in the system of capitalism.
Exactly 20 years into the democratic dispensation, South Africa remains a racially defined country where the economy is centralised in the hands of an elite white minority that owns and controls means of production.
The continued underdevelopment of townships and poor infrastructure in black-dominated areas is in contrast to the affluence in which the white minority and an elite black capitalist class exist.
Poverty has a black face while privilege remains exclusive.
It is this that is the basis for protests.
It is the rising levels of inequalities that are the manure in which violent demonstrations are planted.
It is not an accident of nature that there is a proportional relationship between the widening gap between rich and poor and the increase in violence during service delivery protests.
It is only logical that this should be the case.
There is no respite from oppression and even exploitation for the poor. In retaliating against economic bondage and an apathetic government, our people use violence, the only tool at their disposal.
What we are witnessing in this country is not a “third force” at work; it is the ramifications of a revolution betrayed by an economic growth path that has kept the majority in economic bondage and a government that has turned its back on principle.
We are seeing the effects of the triumph of the worst elements of decay: corruption, cronyism, nepotism, maladministration and looting.
We are experiencing the effects of a government that has done little to avert what Mbeki aptly described as a “mounting rage”.
It is this, not a “third force”, that has affirmed Mbeki’s prophecy that when a dream is deferred, as our dream of prosperity has been, it explodes!