Protests in Eastern Cape echo those in Gauteng

All is not well in one of South Africa’s most beautiful but poorest provinces. One of the most noteworthy aspects of service delivery protests staged across the country against municipalities this year is the rising prominence of the Eastern Cape; where protests occur not only in the informal settlements of Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City but in the small towns and rural areas of the province.

In fact as of last month there were marginally more protests in the Eastern Cape than in Gauteng — a perennial top-scorer on Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor.

Service delivery protests in the Eastern Cape were as numerous as they were varied — from shack-dwellers in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage) and Buffalo City (East London) to smaller towns such as Port St Johns and Molteno to some deep rural villages.

Many of the protests resonated with protests typical of rapidly urbanising Gauteng. Recent protests in Uitenhage in the wake of the demolition of illegally built shacks were very violent — showing up high levels of frustration and distrust by a community. They destroyed not only community infrastructure but also directly targeted councillors and their property as well as foreign shop owners.

In such marginalised urban communities shack-dwellers and backyard residents display the sort of desperate frustration seen not only in other South African metros but also in inner cities such as those in Sweden or France. These are communities with a sense that the system has failed them and the ballot box is either ineffective or impractical.

This picture of disaffection speaks to inequality in access to services (resulting in service delivery protests) as well as access to income and employment.

It is a theme that has meant that the Hotspots Monitor shows up a negative correlation between Municipal IQ’s municipal productivity index results and protest activity — in other words protests take place in municipalities where the average resident has good access to services and economic activity but due to the structural inadequacies of our economy for those who fall between the cracks life is extremely hard and protest activity ferments. Hence Gauteng and the Western Cape have top performers on the index coinciding with high levels of protest activity — a paradox explained by inequality and marginalisation.

But another image needs to be unpacked in the Eastern Cape’s case — one of absolute deprivation where the very poorest of the poor with little access to services or income-generating possibilities stage protests. The top three grievances for the Eastern Cape protests this year included electricity housing and water provision.

An illustration of these needs was produced when the villagers of Hebe-Hebe Hili-Hili Tyinira Ncora Gisi Matolweni Ntandathu and Gxojani staged a protest in October blocking the main road between Butterworth and Ngqamakhwe to demand running water better roads electricity and sanitation.

Basic demand for services combined with rural poverty and economic stagnation mean municipal productivity index results are correlating as one would expect in rural and former homeland areas — the very worst municipalities (in terms of residents’ ability to live and work productively) are experiencing protests.

Out of the top 10 worst performers on the index three Eastern Cape municipalities experienced service delivery protests this year — Port St Johns Engcobo and Ngquza Hill.

A correlation between poor performance and conditions for protest activity being created is possibly the single most alarming finding of Municipal IQ’s data results for this year. While we by no means expect an "Arab Spring" in these areas (there are large numbers of destitute areas without protests) it shows an impatience with poor service delivery that has not been witnessed before and may suggest a more mobilised community response than has been more typical of urban areas up until now.

What is also of concern is the contagion effect of protest activity — as seen when service delivery protests first picked up in the Free State in 2004 (giving rise to the Hotspots Monitor). While protest activity can be managed with better communication and engagement the experience of the past 10 years is that once it takes root in a region it is unlikely ever to go away completely.