Understand the burning of schools in #Vuwani

By Imraan Buccus Time of article published May 19, 2016

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The struggle over demarcation has been shaped by old Bantustan borders and has become an ethnic conflict, says Imraan Buccus.

Durban - South Africans are shocked by the recent events in Vuwani. A community went about burning schools in an organised manner following a decision by the Municipal Demarcation Board to incorporate Vuwani into a new municipality. To make matters worse children were prevented from going to school.

The destruction of a school is a disaster. We already know that these regrettable events may be linked to the toxic politics of patronage and local looting of the public purse. It seems that Vuwani’s move to a new municipality may have a devastating impact on some tenderpreneurs.

But there is another aspect to this mess. The struggle over demarcation has been shaped by old Bantustan borders and identities and has also become an ethnic conflict. In 1994 many of us thought that the days of ethnic politics were behind us. But they have returned to Durban, and other parts of the country, too. Ivor Chipkin, perhaps one of the most thoughtful academics in the country, has argued that as the ANC loses support in the cities, with the exception of Durban, it is increasingly rooted in the former Bantustans and arguably in local ethnic identities.

Communal politics has been a disaster in countries like India, Nigeria and Kenya. It is of the utmost importance that South Africa does not also go down this road. The battle that is now on for the soul of the ANC is about much more than just corruption. It is also about the form of our politics and the future of democracy.

But our political crisis is not just a result of the crisis within the ANC. The opportunism of the EFF’s response to the crisis in Vuwani comes as no surprise. Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema have told the people of Vuwani to direct their anger at the ANC. This week Shivambu called on the people in the area to “stop burning schools and to take the fight to the ANC”. We all cheer on the EFF when they stand up to Zuma and the mess that he is dragging the country into. But the EFF is seeking to make political capital out of the disaster in Vuwani for its own narrow agenda.

Now, 21 years into democracy, this is all very difficult to understand for many people. Why would a community behave this way? Should the government respond by saying that those schools will not be rebuilt? Surely actions should have consequences?

Many would remember former trade union leader and government minister Jay Naidoo saying that burning a school was criminal. Not many people will disagree; but the situation demands that we attempt a deeper understanding of what would possess a community to jeopardise the future of thousands of children.

No doubt education remains the only hope in a country with gross inequality and an unskilled base. But just dismissing the misdirected anger of the poor as criminal doesn’t help us to understand it.

While it is obviously regrettable when public property is damaged there is a reason why popular protest, from Paris in 2005 to London in 1981 and Soweto in 1976, often targets government property. Protest, to be effective, has to target an accessible target with symbolic value. When rage is felt against a government then government property will always be a potential target for protest.

During the eighties the burning of schools was a fairly common occurrence in South Africa. But the context was “liberation before education”. We need to understand why we have not been able to move into democratic methods of dispute resolution.

One explanation is that communities are seriously and even desperately frustrated as they feel they are not being listened to. If we pay attention to the thinking of people participating in burning schools and libraries, one thing becomes immediately clear: These protests are in response to a crisis of local democracy, rather than of service delivery.

It is true that in most instances failed service or misguided delivery is where things begin to go wrong. But even here the problems with service delivery are often due to a lack of democratic public participation in decision-making. For instance, if people are not consulted about issues like the tarring of roads and building of low-cost housing, protest is likely, even though service delivery is happening.

For as long as government officials continue to assume that a mandate at the polls gives them a mandate to act in a unilateral and top-down manner for five years, these protests will continue. Ordinary South Africans had a taste of popular democracy in the great democratic upsurge of the 1980s and expect the post-liberation democracy to take the same popular form - to be ruled in a consultative rather than top-down manner.

These levels of intense social conflict are potentially very damaging and extremely embarrassing some 21 years into democracy. Imagine what the world must think when their eyes turn to us, to see an action replay of the 1980s with burning tires, teargas, rubber bullets and pitched battles between the very poor and the police in our streets. Protests and the burning of schools and other state property are an indication of the deep levels of frustration in communities and a deep crisis of local democracy.

Of course, protests take various forms. The wave of popular protest that has convulsed the country since 2004 has operated within and without the ruling party. In some cases protest has led to short explosions of rage. In Durban it has led to the development of the largest and best organised social movement in the country.

The government needs to take public participation seriously and to recognise that ordinary people have every right to be part of the deliberations and decision-making that will affect their lives. And commentators and experts, be they in the media, NGOS or universities, need to learn that they should listen carefully to the voices of the poor, rather than just make easy assumptions about what they think people are saying.

* Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political participation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Mercury

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