Political Watch

South Africa at crossroad on multiple fronts

Future in hands of urban areas

As protests in South Africa are building up to what seems to be a fever pitch the country is running the danger of reaching a tipping point into a widespread rebellion against the existing order.

The dispute declared between public sector workers and government over wage talks last week, combined with tough negotiations in other sectors ahead, have also increased the chances that the country is moving into a “winter of discontent.”

Amidst signs that the governing, ANC-led, alliance is in trouble – causing President Jacob Zuma to call a special summit – some recent protests have illustrated that a large slice of the citizenry have lost faith in the existing party-political dispensation.

During last week’s protest by the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement in Cape Town, in the first place aimed at the Democratic Alliance (DA) led Western Cape government, the ANC’s provincial leader, Marius Fransman, was shouted down when he attempted to address the crowd.

Recently during a protest at Mohlakeng on Gauteng’s West Rand, controlled by the ANC, an umKhonto weSizwe veteran, a member of the South African Communist Party and ANC supporter said:”... the president is failing the people. We are staunch supporters of the ANC but he just comes here and smiles and sings umshini wami.”

The level and spread of protests are well illustrated by news headlines during two days, the week before last: 12 students appear for public violence; 22 held in Jeppestown after protest turns violent; 4 held for violence during protest released on warning; 26 arrested in Madibeng water protest; Clinic burnt down, shops looted in electricity protest; and 36 to appear in court for Thembelihle protest.

On 19 March, the second of those two days magistrate Hazel Khoza in Malalane, Mphumalanga, while presiding over a case against five people accused of public violence during a service delivery protest, said: "I can see that our government is failing us. I cannot beat around the bush. (our emphasis) We know there is lack of services in our country and we are not proud of it. But damaging property, barricading roads, will not solve our problems."

To this picture can be added the unrest that accompany the ever present rounds of labour strikes, that often turn violent, and the accompanying high cost to the economy – another sign that the workers of the country are disillusioned by what they are getting out of the overall system. 

Whose rebellion

In the recently released Civic Protest Barometer it transpired that municipal services, at 45% is the biggest single cause of civil protests, followed by socio-economic grievances about issues like jobs and land distribution at 16%. Party political reasons occupy the third spot at 12%, closely followed by non-municipal services at 11%.

Based on the socio-economic profile of those involved in these protests and the geographic locality of where the majority of the protests take place, the barometer comes to the conclusion that 81% of protests cannot be explained by poverty alone.

In short the brewing rebellion, although poverty is a contributing factor, does not qualify to be described as a “rebellion of the poor.”

It goes on to state: “Further research will be required to explain the participation of the ‘not poor’ in protests and how factors such as how well they are represented politically, the extent to which their expectations are met, urbanisation, and, pivotally, service levels, impact on protest levels.”

Maybe the Farlam Commission of enquiry into the Marikana “incident,” to be handed to President Zuma this week, will offer some insights but it would seem that what South Africa is faced with is a rebellion of the recently urbanised, emerging middle class confronted with frustrated aspirations for a better quality of life.

In an article as far back as 2012 we pointed out the dangers inherent in the country’s lack of a proper strategy and programmes of dealing with a rapid urbanisation process. These chickens seem to be now coming home to roost.

Institutional decay

To this picture of wide-spread disillusionment amongst the citizens can be added: the signs of institutional decay and governance failures – illustrated amongst other by Eskom’s credit rating being degraded to “junk” status, deadlocks/malfunctions in parliament and intuitions like the South African Police Service and National Prosecuting Authority being pitched against one another.

Also consider the untenable situation that while government and public service workers are in dispute in wage negotiations the trade unions representing the vast majority of them, via COSATU, is also part of the ANC-political alliance and the effectively coalition government. Some of COSATU’s top leaders in fact are members of cabinet.

It is not possible to judge how close the country as a whole, the governing alliance, constitutionally mandated institutions, government at all levels or the economy is to a tipping point. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his seminal work “The Tipping Point

it is likely to be something small that turns the fever of protests into a full blown “epidemic,” which is likely to be wide-spread rebellion.

The sub-title of Gladwell’s book indeed reads: “How little things can make a big difference.”

What is clear, however, is that the country has reach a crossroad on many fronts. Maybe the time has arrived for the South African community, and especially its leadership at all levels and in all formations (formal and civil), to put petty differences and partisan interests aside for a new “Codesa-type” initiative.

A holistic rethink about the future is what is called for to avoid drifting into uncontrollable chaos.

by Piet Coetzer

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