140210. Cape Town. Isiqalo residents are seen protesting for better basic services along Vanguard drive, burnig tyres blocking the road. Picture Cindy Waxa

It’s not so much the absence of services but desperate competition over who controls their allocation that triggers protest, writes Jeremy Cronin.

Cape Town - In his State of the Nation address earlier this month, President Jacob Zuma said something that didn’t make sense to many, certainly not to the inveterate sceptics on the opposition benches. The explanation for the eruption of community protests, Zuma said, gets blamed on the “alleged failures of government”.

“However, the protests are not simply the result of failures of government”, he insisted, “but also of the success in delivering basic services. When 95 percent of households have access to water, the 5 percent who still need to be provided for feel they cannot wait a moment longer. Success is also the breeding ground of rising expectations.”

True, the president’s speechwriters might have elaborated the argument more clearly. True, very impressive advances – 92 percent of South Africans now have access to potable water, compared to 60 percent in 1996 – need to be tempered with the understanding that not all township taps consistently have running water in them. We’re all familiar with the sorry tales of poor maintenance or cut-offs.

Nonetheless, the nub of the argument in Zuma’s address is absolutely valid. Paradoxical as it might seem, the provision of services into poor communities, rather than the absolute absence of them, lies at the heart of much community protest. This is a key finding of a number of independent research institutions, including Municipal IQ, the SA Institute of Race Relations, and the Community Law Centre. While there are multiple and complex immediate factors behind the eruption of a community protest, the research points to the underlying phenomenon of relative deprivation.

Kevin Allan and Karen Heese of Municipal IQ, for instance, write that “although service delivery protests are commonly perceived as an indication of a failure of local government, Municipal IQ has found a strong link between municipal productivity (a measure of local government success) and service delivery protests”.

Their research into municipalities where protests occur indicates that, while they are areas of considerable poverty and unemployment, “they still have better access to local services than residents in the poorest municipalities in our rural areas and indeed than a national average”.

As Allan and Heese argue, the epicentre of protest tends to be in the poorer, more marginalised parts of urban townships. These are communities that contrast their sense of deprivation with what they can see across the clutter of their own zinc roofs, over there, close by, in a marginally better, more established neighbouring ward. The research also connects this unevenness in services among neighbouring wards to the impact of burgeoning urbanisation. Areas in which RDP houses have been built, or electricity provided, become magnets for thousands more families, rural poor migrating to the outskirts of perceived economic opportunities.

Zuma was not wrong, therefore, to argue that it is often the very real but inevitably uneven provision of services that has underpinned community protests.

But there is another and more insidious sense in which the service provision lies behind township protest. It is the manner in which these services get provided – typically by way of municipal tendering.

Born in the late 1990s, democratic local government was at the epicentre of the key contradictions of the period. There were tensions between new policies and legislation that envisaged social justice and popular participatory local democracy, on the one hand, and tough fiscal austerity measures on the other. For the first time in South African history there was wall-to-wall municipal demarcation, embracing millions of voting citizens previously outside of any democratic municipal dispensation. But this positive step was overlaid upon the precarious foundations of the old rates base that once funded white minority municipal welfarism. Municipalities now covered a huge swathe of the population but in a largely unchanged, racialised geography. Hugely expanded but under-funded mandates saw municipalities downsizing workforces, outsourcing and commodifying service provision.

Enter the tender. Unlike provincial and national government where there is a relatively clear demarcation between legislatures and executives, in local government the role of elected representatives in exercising oversight on executive decisions is more blurred. With limited budgets and still more limited institutional capacity, many councils are left with one critical power – the awarding of tenders. Business Day journalist Carol Paton has written a fascinating report on the recent violent protests in Bekkersdal, Mothutlung and Bronkhorstspruit. My SACP colleague Solly Mapaila engaged communities and authorities in order to restore some sanity to the situation. He has come to essentially the same conclusions as Paton.

While the immediate issues were different in the three townships, in every case, competing ANC factions linked to former councillors and now out of favour local small businesses were behind the mobilisation of angry youth. In deeply frustrated communities, allegations – well-founded or not – of corruption and misspending easily gain traction. And so, once again, it’s not so much the absence of services but desperate competition over who controls their allocation that triggers protest.

What’s to be done? The tendered outsourcing of services needs to be reversed through rebuilding democratic municipal capacity. This will take time. Where tendering remains it needs to be opened up to community scrutiny. This means substantive public participation in planning and oversight. And finally, government’s very welcome, if belated, integrated urban development framework policy opens up the possibility to engage with urbanisation in positive rather than reactive ways.

* Jeremy Cronin is deputy minister for public works and SACP deputy general secretary.

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

Cape Times