Service delivery concerns are real but violence is no answer

WITH images of matric pupils from Bekkersdal bused to an undisclosed location to write their final exams amid a situation of anarchy the question for many is what went so terribly wrong with the Westonaria municipality for such drastic action to be necessary and what should be done in this period of suspended protest?

Bekkersdal a Gauteng community to the west of Soweto is not unique in witnessing spiralling protest violence but what is curious is its rapid descent into anarchy. What circumstances gave rise to another Khutsong or Olifantshoek — where dissent leads to the tearing apart of a community’s social fabric; evidenced by looting the destruction of community assets and disruption of schooling and even church services?

Service delivery protests are a disturbing phenomenon and arguably no longer democratic expressions of a community’s will where they are violent sustained and destructive. At their worst engagement is no longer possible with the community; politicians retreat in nyalas (armoured police vehicles) and the final call by community leaders is for the dissolution of a municipality rather than the more typical and already drastic demand for a change in leadership.

There are of course precedents for such a showdown. The communities of Khutsong and Zamdela (Sasolburg) illustrated similar fury in their demarcation demands — to be incorporated into Gauteng and to remain separate from Ngwathe respectively. The cost for their communities in infrastructure and foregone schooling was high but their demands ultimately prevailed.

These cases pose the question: how is it that the relationship between a community and local government becomes so fractured that such a gamble is supported by a critical mass? One of the problems is that protest action under these circumstances is seen as not only legitimate but admirable even (and sometimes it seems especially) if it involves rampant destruction. This suggests that in protesting communities the moral high ground of the state is seen as lost reminiscent of the apartheid era.

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane has hit out at the looting and destruction in Bekkersdal with anarchy disrupting even church services suggesting a lack of discipline by those protesting in a way that breaks with anti-apartheid protest action.

"They are undermining the rights of our people. We won’t tolerate undermining of the law" she said.

Unfortunately by the time violence spirals to the extent of multiple arrests and the martyrdom of those arrested authorities become symbolised by a reactive police force loathed by communities. While there is a tense standoff now in place as community leaders have agreed to suspend protest action while their grievances are investigated and police reinforcements have been deployed to the area there is little doubt that the situation is one that has reached crisis proportions.

High-level intervention has been launched by Bekkersdal residents the tripartite alliance and Co-operative Government Minister Lechesa Tsenoli as well as Gauteng local government MEC Ntombi Mekgwe. Part of the solution is an expected fast-tracking of land for development but the enraged community may well consider this an inadequate solution.

Could the breakdown in Westonaria have been foreseen? There are three reasons that suggest that grievances should have (ideally) been fast-tracked sooner. The first is the fact that there have been protests in the area as far back as 2009. The second is that customer satisfaction surveys in the province as conducted by the Global City Region Observatory show that Westonaria scores lowest of all Gauteng municipalities. The survey is important because it reflects the view of the average resident not necessarily militant members of the community who may or may not be driven by their own political agenda. Neither of these warnings is necessarily a definitive predictor but the fact that they apply to a marginalised community on the fringes of Soweto — a (relatively) high-performing service delivery area — create underlying circumstances for comparisons that can often fuel protest.

This leads to the third and perhaps most important issue as revealed by ward-level data — profound inequality in the Westonaria municipality. Mokonyane says Bekkersdal is the site of 13000 of Westonaria’s 16000 informal homes and is therefore typified by informal settlements. Informal settlements are the site of about one in every three protests on Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor. But it is not just the issue of informal settlements that is cause for concern. The informal settlement problem is compounded by astoundingly low access to basic services even when compared to national averages.

Analysing Statistics SA’s Census 2011 ward data it is clear that access to the four basic municipal services of electricity water sanitation and refuse removal is badly wanting in almost all of Bekkersdal.

In Ward 9 site of Spook Town and epicentre of protest activity 99% of residents have no access to electricity and more than 25% of residents are not able to access water within 300m of their home. These poor living conditions are aggravated by the fact that in 2011 more than 70% of households were living below the poverty line in this ward. Of concern is that six other Bekkersdal wards exhibit similar conditions of hardship. The problem is that these conditions are concealed by aggregated performance statistics given that seven of Westonaria’s wards perform very well in terms of access to services income and unemployment.

The disaggregated data therefore depicts conditions of grinding poverty and poor service delivery for residents on the margins of Westonaria. While local politicians and officials have asserted that there are particular reasons service delivery may be inadequate (ageing equipment and the fact that Westonaria does not own some of the land requiring development) the data makes it clear that there are — regardless of political machinations — pressing service needs felt by many Bekkersdal residents and especially those on the margins. The issue brought to light by the data is that the first step in dealing with protesters is to acknowledge the substance behind their service delivery grievances — relative to Westonaria Gauteng and indeed the median national ward.

A balancing act is now required of national and provincial leaders. The grievances of protesters in regard to a lack of service delivery and the exclusion of chunks of the municipality should be acknowledged understood and where legitimate responded to. But the lawlessness of protests such as the one in Bekkersdal which result in the wanton destruction of public and private property and which compromise the rights of so many other residents (not least matriculants wanting to write exams) cannot be condoned.

Nor should we accept at face value the assertion of protesters that the local council and its representatives have no legitimacy in the area especially when local elections two years ago proved to the contrary. Those arrested for acts of violence and criminality should rightly face prosecution. While acknowledging any community’s right to peaceful protest we need to also ask whether those who orchestrate violent protests represent an entire community or a radical fringe element or if it is nothing more than criminal intent.