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Protests damage poor communities more than they achieve their objectives

Published Nov 9, 2017


In the recent taxi strike that lasted for a day, poor communities in Cape Town were left with unpalatable sights of trash, burnt tires and heavy stones thrown around for road closures. I will not go into depth about the human suffering protests cause in poor communities but often not considered nor accounted for by the protesting associations, social movements and residents. Somehow, the demands of the protests justify the damage to the communities poor infrastructure and facilities including violence on black people.

While observing the damage caused by the taxi strike on Monday 18 September, one old woman commented that “thina bantu abamnyama sobhadla kudala”. She explained that if we have demands against the government, trashing and bringing all sorts of dirt in poor and already dirty communities is not going to change the unwanted conditions. If we have to protest, why not take the protest to the doorsteps of the government and leave poor communities alone. There is no sense in damaging communities during strikes even if someone tries to justify it. Her comment is not something new. Social media is usually abuzz with such statements when protesting residents, associations or social movements damage communal facilities during protests. It is a debate that is often left without conclusion.

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And a week after the discontinued taxi strike, residents of informal settlements in Lwandle blocked the N2 to compel the government to electrify their settlement areas. This protest reportedly resulted in the arrest of 19 people for public violence. Like the taxi strike, in the end, their need for electricity was not met. Why?

Since colonialism, protesting and marching have been the ultimate forms of black resistance against colonial injustices. When radical anti-colonial leaders, from Hintsa to Chris Hani, fought fire with fire, they were met with violent deaths. This is the African generational heritage since the fact of colonialism.

However, with the formation of the African National Congress in 1912, its founding members started the culture of formalised and institutionalised programs to end colonial injustices in South Africa. The founding members were western educated black elites who studied the system from within. From this, they understood that the colonial machine was armed in every way imaginable; and therefore the formalisation of their program into an institution with codified behaviours was a necessity if they were to undo the institutionalised damage done to African people. Protesting and marching on the streets was unsustainable and fruitless without the codification of behaviour into institutions.

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When I read the history of colonialism and the formation of the African National Congress, I somehow understand when Secretary General Gwede Mantashe calls for the members to tow the party-line. However, the party-line is now blurred 23 years into the ANC’s democratic government. The organisation has degenerated to the lowest levels of self-sabotage with the rise in the politics of self-enrichment instead of advancing the mission and actual values the ANC was founded on. Lacking a clear vision and mission, the ANC is now at the mercy of those who can still remember its founding mission to rescue it.

With this condition, the suffering poor and black masses are now left to fend for themselves against a machine that is unrelenting at reducing them into non-beings. Consequently, they have repeatedly taken to the streets to voice the enduring historical concerns.

But the question remains, how does the damaging of infrastructure, public facilities and other amenities in poor communities help solve the problems? This is not a question that seeks to police protests; it is about the effect of damaging communal facilities. When damaged, does the government develop a sense of urgency to address the stated concerns? If not, why continue damaging the already damaged roads and facilities in poor communities?

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Service delivery protests are not new in South Africa. But they have primarily been effective with institutionalised organisations and particularly Cosatu. Cosatu protests have historically led to sweeping changes in government policies. By simply withdrawing the labour of its members from the economy, they used to drive the system to a standstill in order to effect changes in policies for the benefit of marginalised communities. It is however their own doing, too, that they have now lost relevance with the masses. Like the ANC, Cosatu is now at the mercy of those who can still remember its vision and mission in the alliance.

It will now take new and refreshing codification of behaviours, into institutions, to achieve the necessary changes in the conditions of poor communities. The protests and their damaging culture are neither sustainable nor desirable with their negative effect on poor communities.

After the protests, residents are left to navigate the heavy stones and trash-filled streets with burnt tires, waiting for municipal workers to clean and collect the debris. This is the inherited culture of protests and primarily the reason I am against street protesting. There is yet to be realised power of black people coming together in communities to formulate action plans to first clean up the communities, and reorganise them into futuristic institutions from social, economic, law, health, education, labour and political organisations.

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The power of the system to continuously create unfavourable conditions for poor and black communities is in its use of institutionalised authority to express its will. Its power is effective because they do not have to lift and empty one trash-bin to have their concerns adhered to. This is because they work with codified plans and procedures to implement their programs. And it takes press briefings to avert or reverse unwanted experiences.

In effect, the unwanted conditions in poor communities will not be changed by legions of protesters that often amount to nothing but unnecessary injuries. There has to be a point where poor black communities evolve towards self-sustainable methods of communication against the real injustices suffered. And those methods have to be in the form of self-organisation into institutionalised visions and plans. Protests are not revolutionary; they are regressive as far as black people’s needs are concerned. All that energy needs to be put into a concerted effort of building authoritative institutions for the advancement of the needs of the poor black communities.

If and when it is the government that needs to respond to demands for change, it is logical then that protests disrupt the processes of the government, not the already poor and under resourced black communities. It is those who are in government that need to answer, not poor communities. Besides, we just need to evolve and vibrate higher than protests now, the conditions necessitates.

In the role played by the ANC in further perpetuating and creating new conditions that forces black people onto the streets to protest, the ANC need to pay special attention to the following, (i) frustrated communities need urgent government attention, (ii) the conditions in Marikana are a manifestation of a long existing social issue, (iii) there is no proper advice given to the ANC government on how to better understand the now urgent needs of black people and (iv) the ANC keeps making promises to real and historically tragic needs of black people but never deliver on them. Now communities feel that no one is listening in the government or the ANC and they are reverting back to self-help policing methods in communities.

The ANC must now reconsider its promise and never deliver elections campaign strategy. Its deceitful nature is causing emotional damage and resentment in black people because it is their dreams and aspirations that are being played with. The ANC wins its power based on its promises to the people. And now there is a need for a leadership that will account to the people and not to private business interests. The focus on self-preservation politics instead of focusing on the needs of the people should be severely shunned and frowned upon. The ANC must rekindle its founding principle that the people shall govern.

Lindiswa Jan is a Researcher & Masters Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town

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