Call Again Later, Protestors in South Africa Are Told
The grassroots of the ANC want to remind the government of themselves by way of strikes, protests and riots. The often violent language employed does not come as a surprise to observers of politics in South Africa (pdf of the original German article here).
Not 100 days have passed after the inauguration of the new President in South Africa. But the cabinet of Jacob Zuma already comes under fire from the townships, the public service and branches like construction or the chemical industry. The unions call for higher salaries and better social benefits, within the shantytowns residents turn against local politicians which are often members of the ANC. Since Monday this week, 150,000 employees of cities are on strike. In course of the last two weeks, spontaneous rallies, confrontations with the police and lootings occurred.
‘Poor service delivery’ is the catchword if one asks about the reasons for the protests and riots. The term signifies the allegations vis-à-vis the local administrations that they might be more interested in the spreading of patronage and corruption than in an efficient allocation of health services, housing, water and electricity. The people currently rebelling did presumably vote for the ANC in April for the larger part. Some of their leaders were reportedly disregarded during the internal preparation of the party’s lists. The message of the revolters is clear: We do not have to wait for another five years in order to depose you from office.
‘We vote ANC because you must. They are like the royal family.’
Supporter of the governing party, cited by the Observer
While the Youth League of the ANC in its reaction to the uprisings urged the government to take its causes seriously, premiers of provinces and ministers of the national government threatened a harsh response to damages of property and attacks on security forces. Zuma asked the protesters for more time to overcome the deep social rifts that split the South African society. But only 3,000 followers were actually interested to hear the President in Durban, the metropolis of his province of origin KwaZulu-Natal, the British Observer reported. ‘We vote ANC because you must. They are like the royal family’, the paper cites a visitor of the rally. ‘Zuma is a Zulu, so there was no question for me. But that does not mean I am happy.’
The new government, before the election, promised more jobs, a better educational system and an accelerated fight against corruption. It was also presented to South Africans as a break with the politics of Thabo Mbeki that many perceived as detached and elitist. Now, disillusion spreads. The Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, advised the demonstrators to call the ‘president’s hotline’ in order to voice their complaints. Disaffected citizens, however, have to wait until September to do this, because the line will be available not till then.
The patience of many people whose social situation – despite housing and social programmes – did not improve in course of 15 years after the end of Apartheid has been running low for quite some time. Last year, the anger of the poor unleashed country-wide xenophobic pogroms against their neighbours, immigrants from other African states like Zimbabwe, Moçambique or Malawi. At least 62 people were killed back then, tens of thousands were displaced. The recent unrest has a similar background, but seems for the moment foremost directed against the local administrations. Some immigrants, however, do not give it a chance and seek safety in police stations and churches, South African media report.
‘You can assault, extort, rob, or murder
non-nationals without facing any consequences.’
Loren Landau, University of Witwatersrand, cited by Irinnews
The xenophobic attacks of 2008 did not find an adequate response within the South African state and society, observers criticise. As of now, nobody was charged with murder or other crimes. ‘What we have learned from last year’s violence is that you can assault, extort, rob, or murder non-nationals without facing any consequences’, Loren Landau from the University of Witwatersrand told Irinnews. Moreover, it is little wonder, Landau said, that people resort to violence to draw attention to their concerns if councillors are afraid to visit the communities they represent, and members of parliament are chosen by the ANC’s executive committee with little popular consultation.
The protests and strikes – most notably in the construction industry – could not come at a more inappropriate time for the government. Next year, the ‘rainbow nation’ wants to present itself as a modern, democratic and tolerant country during the football world championship. Journalists from all continents will report about the extreme social polarisation prevailing in South Africa and about the discontent of the slum dwellers. Indeed, workers and employees, unemployed and poor people are perfectly aware of that. The revolts are a classic tactical intervention of the marginalised at an ideal moment as described by Michel de Certeau with which they hope to immediately improve their personal situation.
At the root of the protests against corruption, cronyism and the appointment of incapable but loyal functionaries of the ANC at the local level one finds a basic contradiction of the South African society. Patrimonial commitments between patrons and clients stand in a constant tension with the state and its institutions that are modelled according to Western standards. The Nigerian academic Peter Ekeh wrote in this context about the ‘two publics’ that are nevertheless experienced and lived as one reality: Within many African countries, most people do not find it objectionable to extract resources from the state as much as possible, also employing illegal means, in order to deliver them to their own group which might constitute itself around for example ethnic identities, clan allegiances or age cohorts. The protests and riots in the townships are both a critique of clientelism and an expression of the desire to be co-opted into these structures.
Sure enough, South Africa is quite a bit off the situation in Nigeria where official institutions often are just an empty shell and function as a vehicle to spread patronage. Until 1994, the Apartheid state kept the worlds of ‘modern’ and patrimonial domination violently apart and restricted itself mostly to pure repression in the black townships. How can the ‘political economy of affection’ (Goran Hyden) be transformed into an institutionalised design that guarantees wide political and social participation? This may be a more relevant question for the future development of South Africa than the speculations about a possible turn to the left and a break with neo-liberalism.
This text is a translation of my article in Jungle World (30/09) entitled ‘Kein Anschluss unter dieser Nummer’. Probably my recent interviews with Justin Sylvester (Idasa) and Adam Habib (University of Johannesburg) are of interest as well.
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