Service delivery failures and xenophobic attacks

An orgy of xenophobic violence erupted in Alexandra just over a week ago, spreading to many parts of Gauteng. The incidents bear similarities to municipal service delivery protests, which Municipal IQ monitors. With analysts and politicians grasping for answers to the cause of the recent violence, we ask this: is there a link between xenophobic violence and service delivery protests?

On a municipal hotspots monitor, Municipal IQ records the details of municipal protests and assesses socioeconomic issues in the ward (or wards) in which an individual protest takes place, compared with municipal and national averages, to uncover any identifiable drivers of violent protests at ward or local level.

Results for Alex suggest some pertinent dynamics. The most current source of disaggregated ward-level data available is from the 2001 census. To overcome the fact that it is it is outdated, and given that the demographics fuelling the violence include an expanding immigrant population, a comparison is made between 2001 ward data as a baseline and the more recent 2005 Alex Benchmark Survey demographic information, commissioned by the Alex Renewal Project.

It is clear from this data that while 24,5% of Alex households were living on less than R800 a month in 2001, 34% of Johannesburg residents and 56% of South Africans as a whole were living on the same amount. Relatively speaking, Alex residents are better off than their local and national counterparts. This trend is borne out by the 2005 data. This advantage is strengthened by superior access to services — only 7% of Alex residents do not have adequate access to services, compared with 10% of Johannesburg residents and a whopping 38% nationally. While poverty is a significant feature of the township, it is not as dire as in most others, with the income advantage of the average resident explained by employment status. While 24% of Alex residents were unemployed in 2001, this pales in comparison with the 34% unemployment in Johannesburg generally, or the 56% facing the nation as a whole. But there has been deterioration in employment — 33% of residents were unemployed in 2005, suggesting that many new residents, on the periphery of Alex, are unsuccessful work seekers. This also suggests growing inequity in the township over the past few years, as the proportion of unemployed grows.

If not outright poverty, what is behind this violence? Is it perhaps the emergence again of an undefined “third force”, as asserted by politicians to explain the rapid contagion? The third force accusation is convenient, but essentially spurious, and neglects the very real currents being unleashed across the province.

Analysis of the underlying causes of service delivery protests, which manifest in a similar way, is instructive. Based on the socio-economic data of protesting communities and the background to protests, Municipal IQ concluded that there was no organised third force behind protests. Some were organised by local groups and in similar ways in different locations, while some larger protests in the Free State seemed themselves to trigger other protests nearby, in a way similar to the spread of violence from Alex across Gauteng at the weekend. But protests do not occur in a premeditated, co-ordinated way.

Rather, it is the reinforcing factors that are common. Some are obvious — high degrees of poverty or unemployment — but also less well understood factors, such as perceptions of corruption or perceptions of relative inequality. Residents who are poor (but not necessarily among the poorest in the country or even their municipality) compare themselves unfavourably with better-off residents or local politicians. Such comparisons raise frustration, with an event or series of events then providing a tipping point. Municipal IQ believes that underlying poverty combined with an event or series of events may well explain the violence that has erupted across Gauteng. The relative wealth of Alex residents suggests that, in the case of Alex, it is a sense of relative deprivation or perceived inequality that raises feelings of dissatisfaction.

Considering that crime is endemic in SA, it is likely that an opportunist, criminal element is acting to worsen these underlying factors. But in the case of Alex there is a further specific underlying factor that must be recognised. Alex is a highly desirable residence, close to economic activity and a hub in its own right. These benefits make competition for land and housing intense, and therein may lie the truth behind an unwillingness to share with immigrants who often appear more successful.

Alex was originally designed to house 70000 people, but now accommodates five times as many. Added to this, the Alex Renewal Project points to a strong sense of social stratification, premised on the distinction between “old” and “new” residents, with the former owning original freehold properties and backyard shacks, while the latter have settled on the riverbanks, tributaries, school yards and road reserves, or neighbouring factories. Suspicion and rumour between “old” and “new” residents is rife, especially regarding access to local houses, which are highly sought after.

Ominously, the Alex Benchmark Survey found that 85% of residents voiced extreme dissatisfaction with the availability of houses, while only 6% perceived any improvement in access. Added to this, 83% of residents were extremely dissatisfied with the quality of houses, while only 3% perceived any improvement in quality. Analysis in hindsight is always convenient, but it is nonetheless clear that residents of Alex have been living cheek by jowl for many years in inadequate housing, in a climate rife with tension, becoming a veritable pressure cooker. The tipping point then: perceptions of foreigners jumping the housing queue or receiving preferential treatment.

The target of dissatisfaction around service delivery and perceived inequity has therefore taken on the face of immigrants, with dire repercussions for foreign communities. There has already been a departure by immigrants who have other economic options, even if they are less lucrative. This is a great pity. All great global city regions are built on the specialisation of a vast pool of regional labour, bolstered culturally by the immigrant communities. The wave of xenophobia therefore constitutes an obstacle to Gauteng’s ambitions to create a global city region, as well as national ambitions for a pan-African centre for an African renaissance. These visions ring hollow in the light of the events of the past week.

For immigrants, despite plans for reintegration, new homes will have to be sought in places of greater safety. For those who can afford it, the inner city, traditionally a home for migrants, may prove less vulnerable than the open shack settlements that have borne the brunt of attacks. This could well have an effect on the inner-city geography of Johannesburg. Rather than a melting pot of nationalities, there may well be an emergence of stratified immigrant ghettoes within the inner city.

For Johannesburg, the events of the past week are an indictment of the city’s sound but essentially meaningless policy to support and integrate migrants via the city’s Migrant Helpdesk. So too is the crisis an indictment of the Alex Renewal Project. Clearly there has been progress, but expectations have led to tension and resentment and have resulted in greater alienation.

For now, the main role for the city lies in deploying metro police to assist the South African Police Service to reinstate safety in Johannesburg’s townships.

In the longer term, the city will need to decide whether to integrate immigrants, or isolate these communities for their own safety. It can only be hoped that South Africans recognise the true cause of discontent — contested resources, which can only be meaningfully addressed by accelerated service delivery.