When I went to Bekkersdal in December last year (2013) - to visit the assaulted community and to understand what was driving the slew of violent protests - I came to a realisation. South Africa is burning while our politicians’ navel gaze in self-admiration.
Bekkersdal represents a microcosm of what is happening in our townships. The acting Gauteng police commissioner, Lieutenant General Lesetja Mothiba, said this month (January) that the province experienced 569 service protests over the course of the past three months. One in five of those protests had turned violent. This is a shocking indictment.
But what do we really understand of the anger in the country? Do we as citizens properly grasp the very real meltdown happening before our eyes?
Visit Bekkersdal, because it will break your heart. It bears all the hallmarks of the conflicts and struggles of the 1980s. Roads strewn with the rubble of makeshift barricades. Police are encamped outside the township with a battery of armoured vehicles. It brought back painful memories of the days when guns enforced the will of a hated Apartheid regime.
As was the case in the past, the community’s litany of problems is not a policing or security ‘issue’ that can be solved with force. It’s a political problem that defines South Africa’s current malaise. Residents spoke to me about how they believed they were being betrayed by democracy. Because they have zero access to the sort of municipal basics that Johannesburg’s northern suburbs take for granted, Bekkersdal’s residents feel like they have been left behind. I know it is a fact. Imagine the sight of raw sewage and heaps of rotting garbage in the pristine suburbs of Sandton.
Here is an example of municipal leadership guilty of corrosive and systemic dereliction of duty. Maladministration and corruption has squandered public finances meant to serve the people. At the tail end of 2013, the township was a disaster.
I returned in January 2014 in order to meet the Concerned Residents Association, hoping to see some small improvements. Nothing had changed. Troops of school children flocked out of awful schools, navigating their way through streets still littered with garbage.
There was no evidence of progress. An endless stalemate of negotiations with the municipal officials, the mayor and the provincial housing MEC; even a meeting with the national minister Lechesa Tsenoli, in the aftermath of violent protests, which in a joint statement vowed, “This is a joint effort. Neither the national department, nor the province will tolerate fraud or corruption. We will cooperate with Bekkersdal residents to root out corruption and ensure service delivery,” has yielded nothing.
While I was there, a sheriff arrived to serve an interdict. It was 13h00, and the activists named would have to be in the High Court by 15h00 - an impossible task for poor people without access to either private transportation or a time machine. I read through the municipality’s document. It was comprehensive. It garnered sworn affidavits and presented a watertight case. In protecting the legal rights of the municipality and the private mining company against the community, the officials have proved super-efficient.
Here was another example of corruption that dogs much of our housing crisis in our country. Thousands of Bekkersdal’s people are living in shacks and backyards. Many of those have been on housing lists for years. Mary Thabile Nhleko applied for a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) house in 1996. Over the years she has gone back to the housing department offices complaining that others who applied after her have jumped the RDP list. She has been pushed from pillar to post by local and provincial officials. Her experience has been one of uncaring, arrogant behaviour, and a government that does not care about its citizens.
Nhleko, like many in the community, began to take actions that were not just illegal, but at times violent. They claimed pieces of land on the fringes of the township - land they did not have title to, and was not theirs to grab. Worse, every move they made was contrary to their best interests. Like so many in the country, Nhleko, denied redress through her rights legally, because the trust between the community and public officials had broken down, believes she has no choice. The community believes the law sides with those who are denying them their most basic constitutional rights.
All that is left is a frustrated community, a cauldron of boiling anger about legitimate grievances and weakened community leadership that exploded last weekend with the torching of the voter registration booths.
And herein lays the kernel of the protest challenge in South Africa.
In the minds of the public, local leaders have become a pack of predatory elites, further undermined by incompetence and crony capitalism. The police and the courts are being deployed as a battering ram in order to protect the interests of these elites. And citizens are poorly equipped to take care of themselves, because they have relied on others for far too long.
It gets messier still, because the police service itself is on the verge of a full crisis. Believe it or not, there are many good cops, and it pays to consider things from their perspective. Thousands of officers live in the very communities they are asked to police. Many share the frustrations borne by these communities. Their children go to failing schools. Their families have to deal with a health system in crisis. And they see the obscenity of growing inequality. They see it in the fancy cars driven by their leaders. They know about the billions of rands that are squandered. They have read about Nkandla and the rolling waves of corruption scandals. And they are outraged.
Sooner or later, even the good cops are going to start asking questions: “Why am I shooting the people who share my own legitimate concerns? And why am I protecting corrupt politicians who are stealing from me, my family, and my community?”
That is when we will have a revolution on our hands. It will invade the bubbles of elites who govern our country in the parallel universe of our metropolitan suburbs.
We need decisive action from our government to root out corrupt officials. We need political parties to find the courage to put themselves at the centre of fighting for good governance and effective service delivery. We need to rebuild trust in the police and in the public service. We need to go back to the basics of organising our communities into strong, independent civic movements unafraid to challenge abuse of power.
The alternative is the destruction of our social fabric in our communities, which will result in a greater cycle of violence and counter violence. Herein lies our Rubicon - and right now the population is passing a vote of no confidence in politicians, trade union and community leaders, to say nothing of business.
And so South Africa burns. Most of our politicians are hiding behind the police, the law and the bureaucratic processes of government. But they will not be able to hide for long, because the flames will engulf us all.
- Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of COSATU, former Minister in the Mandela Government and Chair of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). You can follow him on Twitter, or visit his Facebook Page or www.jaynaidoo.org.