Saturday 1 January 2000

Service delivery protests rock South Afrcia

Residents of Thokoza, Johannesburg demand better lives. Photo: Shayne Robinson, The Star. Found here.
Protests about the delivery and cost of services such as housing, water and electricity, living conditions in poor / working class communities and strikes by council workers have rocked South Africa over the past few months. UNITYblog interviewed Claire Ceruti, editor of South African socialist magazine Socialism From Below about the protests. Claire also provided us with the following article by Alan Goatley. When and why did these protests start? Who is protesting and what are they protesting for? The details of each protest differed. Some were organised by local ANC branches, some by local organisations with no political affiliation. But in general the protests took place in poorer parts of South African townships. The general demands are for electricity, water and better living conditions. For example in the area of Thokoza hit by the protests, people are still using ‘long drop’ toilets [hole in the ground]. Women there told us that before the protests, children dumped a puppy into one of the toilets. They fear a child could be next. Behind this is a deeper feeling of having been left out. Some protestors spoke of a sense of being neglected by their local councillors despite having voted in elections since 1994. The timing of the elections is related to the election of a new president, Jacob Zuma, who is widely believed to represent a shift to the left in the ruling African National Congress, or at least to be beholden to the communist party and the trade unions. His election raised expectations for change and increased people’s confidence to take to the streets, partly because they hope this government will side with them. Usually the target of the protest is not Zuma but local government. What has been the government’s reaction? Zuma’s first response to the protests was to condemn ‘violence’ in protests. Of course he did not mean the heavy handed tactics of the police. After that, however, the government took great care to convey the message that they are listening to people. Zuma made a surprise visit to Balfour, where he said that housing provision is an urgent task. Tokyo Sexwale, who was a businessman before coming minister of housing, spent the night in Diepsloot, the enormous settlement of improvised houses that sprang up after some people were forcibly removed to Diepsloot from other land. Of course people have heard such promises many times before, but Zuma’s very unpopular predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, never went ‘walkabout’ in the townships until his presidency was under serious pressure. However it is difficult to see how the current government can ramp up housing provision in the middle of an economic crisis without taking much more drastic measures than are currently on the table Some in the media are saying the protesters are “xenophobic”. Is this true? Calling the protests xenophobic was an easy way to discredit them. These protests were very different from the xenophobic attacks of May 2008. In those attacks, the attackers saw driving out foreigners as a solution to the problems of housing, overcrowding and joblessness. In this case, the protestors wrath was directed elsewhere, at the local councillors they believe to be responsible for sorting out these problems. But is there a danger that people’s legitimate frustrations could still turn on the wrong targets? In one way it should not be surprising that xenophobic attitudes are so close to the surface, considering the role model the police still provide. For example in the same month they arrested 300 destitute Zimbabweans, who shelter in a church in central Johannesburg, for ‘loitering’. Nevertheless the protests themselves were mixed. Some people involved in organising the Diepsloot protests were xenophobic, but in Thokoza, immigrants who had to flee from the area last year readily joined the protests this year. One guy said, “I didn’t even think about the xenophobia, I could see the issue was water and electricity, so I joined’. And in Piet Retief, immigrant traders whose shops were looted did not see it as xenophobia, and supported the protestors demands. Service delivery protests are entirely justified by Alan Goatley The lights had just dimmed on President Zuma’s inauguration ceremony when people in the country started to demand their fair share from the new dispensation. High-profile service delivery protests came at the same time as annual wage bargaining spilled over into a number of strikes. These demands are entirely justified. We are told that striking will make the recession worse, but as one speaker put it at a rally of municipal workers, workers’ wages have been in recession for a very long time already. The poorest ten percent of the country get only 0.7 percent of total income. In horrifying contrast the richest ten percent get 72.7 percent of national income. This relationship has not changed since 1993. A recent report noted that “South Africa is becoming a nation of shoplifters to survive”. Previously it was luxury goods that were targeted; now it is basic necessities, the unemployed simply do not have money to spend. The economic crisis which started in the banking centers of the Britain and the USA has hit South Africa hard, despite all the early assurances of Trevor Manual, the former finance minister. President Zuma’s suprise visit to Balfour and his promise to sort out the problems is proof that the majority of people only get their needs met when they stand up for their rights. When Zuma first spoke out about the protests and strikes it was not to support their demands but to stress that while people have a “right to protest” (a right we have had for 15 years already) “there must be no violence amongst us” and “let us work together”. The massive inequality in the country leaves protestors with little or no respect for the few things that have been delivered in their areas. Clinics and libraries have been burnt down, even traffic lights were a target to vent one’s frustration against. It is tragic that some of the delivery protestors still wrongly think of immigrants as part of their problem, but this was only sometimes the case. It is mischievous of government and the newspapers to focus on this issue, especially as the police continue to set a bad example by harassing Zimbabweans sheltering at the Central Methodist church in Johannesburg. Only some of the protests moved in a xenophobic direction. In Thokoza, by contrast, immigrants living in those communities joined the protests for better living conditions and were also scarred by rubber bullets. We have to point people in the direction of who is really responsible for their miserable conditions. These come out of the legacy of apartheid which the ANC government has failed to address as a result of its cuddling up to business with the Mbeki era of the GEAR programme. This saw the RDP plan which at least offered something more to the masses thrown into the dustbin. Then it was argued that if capitalism grows so will the wealth of all grow alongside its fortunes. Eskom chief economist Mandla Maleka, had the cheek to complain that recent wage increase demands settling in at about 12.5%, by workers, was selfish as they did not care for what was happening in the economy. He made little mention of their own selfishness in putting up electricity charges by 34 percent. This is the case every time there is a crisis, workers and their poor relatives are always called to tighten their belts, but it is business as usual for the bonuses of the captains of industry. The reserves of business are always hidden from public view. We cannot accept any responsibly for the mess the economy is in, as we have no say in how things are run, or how CEOs plan to run matters in the future. We do know from bitter experience that their motives are always conditioned by the thirst for profits and not the needs of the majority. JZ cannot meet any promise unless he takes capital head on. It should worry us that he is always looking for compromise with big business. Of the strike wave for better wages JZ in an recent address to a forum of black business and professionals said that, “Due to the current economic conditions, these negotiations may be more difficult this year. Employers and workers must negotiate in good faith and should be prepared to understand each other’s positions” and that the “agreement between government, labour, business and the community sector reached in February this year to respond jointly to the crisis remains so important”. But these forums are a trap for representatives of workers and communities. Capitalists will never negotiate in good faith. Their system is ruled by competition, they risk falling out of the race if their competitors gain any edge on them. There can never be a joint response between those who work and those who profit out of that work. In America, the bosses after being bailed out by the government had no hesitation in continuing to give themselves hefty bonuses. Trade union and community leaders should withdraw from all such forums and rather concentrate their efforts at building the ability of their members to struggle for what they need now. It is obvious that if workers and community had folded their arms and carry on as normal they would have been given dismal wage increases and the issue of service delivery problems would have remained hidden. We need an programme of militant boycottism by our leadership, this approach takes no responsibility for the bosses mess, but rather concentrates on the ability of the people to take the economy into their own hands. There is much more that the president should be doing right now to find the money needed for the people. The outstanding arms deal contracts could be cancelled, apartheid debt payments halted, tax cuts to business made over the Trevor Manuel finance minister era could be immediately reversed. All bonuses payments to management should be taxed out of existence and the gravy train of ministers, city managers, mayors and councilors must be derailed. Companies threatening retrenchment should have their assets placed under curatorship and their books opened for scrutiny. VAT on all basic foods must be done away with. The energy that we see in building the stadiums needs to directed to solving housing problems, the public works programme needs immediate expansion. Electricity and water charges to poor communities must be abolished. A subsistence allowance must be made available to all unemployed. These measures would just be a start - they would be the acid test for the President and the re-molded ANC leadership’s commitment to sticking to their promises. Pressure from below, as witnessed in the recent festival of strikes and service delivery protests, is the way to hold them accountable. The recession was not caused by the working and poor people of the world. They have the potential to push past the bosses and governments who do not keep their promises, to create a new society, that is socialism where bosses, unaccountable governments and recessions are but just a bad dream from the past.

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