South Africa has again been gripped by images of violence, anger and looting in the wake of a decision by Co-operative Governance Minister Richard Baloyi and the Municipal Demarcation Board to merge two municipalities near Sasolburg. Four people have been killed and many more displaced after a week of violent protest against the planned merger. These scenes are not new to the South African landscape; neither are the decisions that ignite them.
Violence also erupted in towns such as Khutsong and Moutse when similar decisions were made to move those municipalities between provinces.
The common complaint of both communities was a lack of consultation by political leaders regarding drastic changes to local government.
It is easy to criticise local residents for turning to violence over something which seems to be an administrative issue.
But it is far more than that.
Local government is extremely close to the people. Local councillors are members of the public and live, or have lived, among residents.
Daily stories about corruption, a lack of basic services and the difficulties in overcoming systemic poverty have left people sullen, frustrated and feeling as if they don’t matter. As if they are pawns to be traded between provinces and municipalities without due regard.
This is why public consultation in such decisions is so important.
Living in poverty is bad, but being ignored is worse. It’s not enough to only be heard once every five years.
Our democracy demands more.
We have seen the results of being ignored on television. Not only in Sasolburg but also in Khutsong and Moutse. Those communities tried to find an alternative voice and brought their disputes to the Constitutional Court.
Both cases dealt with the public’s right to be consulted in the legislative process that relocates communities from one province to another.
While the court did not necessarily agree with them, it listened. They did engage, albeit through their lawyers.
In the longest-running Constitutional Court case, the Moutse community argued that their relocation from Mpumalanga to Limpopo in 2005 was invalid on the grounds that the decision to adopt the pre-existing apartheid-era boundary was irrational and that there was not enough public participation in the decision to move the community.
The Moutse community has had a long history before the courts, dating back to the 1970s when the Supreme Court of Appeal found its forced relocation from the Lebowa homeland to KwaNdebele was unlawful. Much like the recent examples of Sasolburg and Khutsong, the forced incorporation of Moutse in the 1980s led to widespread political violence in the area.
After 1994, when the new government increased the provinces from four to nine, Moutse originally wanted to be incorporated into Gauteng. But after negotiations with ANC officials, it was incorporated into Mpumalanga.
After a restructuring process in the early 2000s it was moved again, this time to Limpopo, in terms of the constitution’s 12th Amendment Act of 2005 which the people of Moutse unsuccessfully sought to declare constitutionally invalid.
The government often argues that courts cannot dictate policy to the state. The separation of powers is an important constitutional principle that must be respected and, more often than they are given credit for, the courts agree.
It is a principle of our democratic regime that courts will only interfere in government decisions when these are unlawful. Whether correctly or not, governments (at national, provincial and local level) have taken this as a green light to water down what it means to consult the public.
A meeting at a local beer hall regarding a decision taken hundreds of kilometres away in a government head office is insufficient. Now the people are demanding more – they are demanding to be heard.
When such views are neglected or ignored, violence may break out.
This is not because poor people are inherently violent but because some still feel they have no voice.
In Khutsong, the government’s attitude towards consultation with local residents meant children were unable to go to school for an entire year. We don’t yet know what the outcome will be in Sasolburg.
But we do know that shops have been looted, foreign nationals again targeted and families are grieving over relatives killed in the violence.
The minister has announced that the merger of the municipalities will be halted for further investigations.
Had proper consultation and appreciation of the residents’ views been taken from the beginning, we would not be in the position we are today.
We can only hope that governments at all levels, and controlled by whichever political party, will finally get the message that the people’s opinions matter and they must – and will – be heard.
l David Cote, of Lawyers for Human Rights, that represented the Khutsong and Moutse communities before the Constitutional Court