Urgent messages in the clattering stones of delivery protests

Week-long protests by residents of Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, over the allocation of housing further heat up an otherwise cold winter plagued by often violent service delivery protests. Protests for the first half of this year already account for 13% of the major service delivery protests since 2004, as recorded on Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor. If the trend continues, protests this year will come close to the 2005 peak.





The Diepsloot protests suggest that the pace of service delivery, even in some of the most generously spending councils, is inadequate. With 150000 residents and just close to 5000 RDP houses built, Diepsloot illustrates the pressure on metropolitan municipalities to deliver in settlements that didn’t even exist before democracy. Further, the dominance of Gauteng municipalities on the hot spots monitor suggests that protests remain predominantly urban, spurred on by the growing frustration of poor communities. Ward data suggest that those in hot spot wards are typically better off than their national counterparts in terms of income levels and service delivery, admittedly according to dated 2001 census data, but they are worse off in absolute terms as regards unemployment.





But the Diepsloot case also shows up how poor communication by municipalities can lie at the heart of service delivery protests . Protests in Diepsloot were sparked by a rumour of a forced relocation of residents to Brits. This represented an unpalatable threat to a very sensitive community, with residents already relocated to Diepsloot from Alexandra 10 years ago. Senior officials in the city initially denied the rumour (contradicting the ward councillor), then refused to comment, and then, by Tuesday morning, confirmed that indeed 320 families living illegally on a sewerage system were to be moved to nearby Adelaide Tambo informal settlement.



Confusion between councillors and senior officials was clear, while Mayor Amos Masondo was nowhere to be seen. Large well-resourced municipalities such as Johannesburg have no excuse for such a poor response to a crisis; a response that fanned the flames of protest.





Other factors are at play nationally; especially in provinces with the dubious honour of having a rising profile as sites of service delivery protests, especially the North West. When the hot spots monitor was first released in late 2007, the province accounted for 11% of protests; now, with 17% of all protests, it has overtaken the notorious breeding ground for municipal protests, the Free State, moving into second place, with Gauteng still registering the most protests (30%).





Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka has made clear his disapproval of the management and oversight of the North West’s municipalities and one wonders what sort of cycle is at play — is he picking up on popular sentiment or do his comments reinforce this? One reason for increased protests is no doubt greater levels of frustration since April’s elections, given electioneering promises, as well as in the run-up to 2011’s local government polls. Is this reinforced by a sterner line taken by provincial and national government against weak municipalities?





Although the latest protests are a legitimate civic expression, an alarming feature is looting and stoning of passers-by, especially with the 2010 World Cup looming. Indeed, threatening the World Cup is providing leverage to taxi drivers and construction workers, so why not protesters? While violent protests should be condemned, poor communities are on the periphery, excluded from social and economic opportunities as well as meaningful political engagement. In fact, for many who feel voiceless, a protest is considered the only way to make oneself heard and, to this end, figureheads’ statements that condone protests need to be carefully considered, especially in the volatile post-election environment.