[Marxism] South Africa’s Poor Renew a Tradition of Protest

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 7 07:45:51 MDT 2009

NY Times, September 7, 2009
South Africa’s Poor Renew a Tradition of Protest

SIYATHEMBA, South Africa — This country’s rituals of protest most often 
call for the burning of tires, the barricading of streets and the 
throwing of rocks. So when the municipal mayor here went to address the 
crowd after three days of such agitation, the police thought it best to 
take him into the stadium in a blast-resistant armored vehicle.

Chastened by the continuing turmoil, the mayor, Mabalane Tsotetsi, known 
as Lefty, penitently explained that all of the protesters’ complaints 
would be given his full attention. But by then official promises were a 
deflated currency, and rocks and bottles were again flying as he retreated.

The reasons for this community’s wrath — unleashed first in late July 
and again briefly a month later — were ruefully familiar to many South 
Africans. “Water, electricity, unemployment: nothing has gotten better,” 
said Lifu Nhlapo, 26, a leader of the protests here in Siyathemba, a 
township 50 miles east of Johannesburg. “We feel an anger, and when we 
are ignored, what else is there to do but take to the streets?”

Civil unrest among this nation’s poor has recently gotten worldwide 
attention, and is often portrayed as unhappiness with South Africa’s new 
president, Jacob Zuma. Actually, these so-called service delivery 
protests have gone on with regularity for a long time. They vary in 
intensity — mild, medium and hot — and their frequency seems to rise and 
fall without a predictable pattern.

Oddly enough, the protests can be seen as a measure of progress as well 
as frustration. Since the arrival of democracy 15 years ago, the 
percentages of households with access to piped water, a flush toilet or 
a connection to the power grid have notably increased. Those people left 
waiting are often angry, and so far their ire has not usually been 
directed at the president — who has been able to use the protests to his 
political advantage — but at municipal officials they consider uncaring, 
incompetent and corrupt.

“No one wants to be worse off than their neighbor,” said Kevin Allan, 
managing director of Municipal IQ, a company that monitors the 
performance of local government. “People get impatient.”

The places most ripe for unrest are neither the poorest communities nor 
those with the longest backlog in setting up services, he said. Most 
commonly, the protests are rooted in informal settlements that have 
sprung up near urban areas, where the poor who do not receive government 
services rub up against the poor who do.

Whatever the causes for the protests, the governing African National 
Congress appears to take them quite seriously. Party leaders have been 
dispatched to hot spots, where they usually end up investigating their 
fellow party members. Local government, like national government, is 
largely dominated by the A.N.C.

In Siyathemba, the emissary from on high was Mr. Zuma himself. On the 
afternoon of Aug. 4, his helicopter set down on a rocky soccer field, 
with bodyguards and a BMW waiting. He eventually proceeded to the town 
of Balfour, the seat of municipal government. Mayor Tsotetsi, at home at 
the time, rushed back to the office to meet his unannounced visitor. 
Commentators had a good laugh about that, presuming the mayor a 
goldbrick who likes to knock off early.

“There is no place that will be hidden from me,” Mr. Zuma announced, 
leaving the impression he was now a sort of caped superhero who would 
pop up wherever malingerers were not earning their government paychecks.

Though the president also denounced lawbreaking by protesters, his visit 
seemed an endorsement to those here who had vented their anger. “Zuma 
agrees with us, that all these mayors and councilors who are not 
performing have to go,” said Zakhele Maya, 26, another leader of the 

Siyathemba has a population of about 6,000 and an unemployment rate of 
82 percent, more than triple the nation’s rate, according to official 
statistics. Most here live in shacks of corrugated metal, the roofs kept 
in place with strategically placed rocks. Many of the dwellings sag in 
the middle as if they were melting in the hot sun.

Clusters of shacks here look about the same, but some are settlements 
that have been “formalized,” which means that the hovels, however 
dilapidated, have electricity inside and a water tap and flush toilet 
nearby. Those people living in communities without this imprimatur must 
light their homes with kerosene or paraffin and wait in lines, pail in 
hand, at a single communal spigot.

“This is no way to live,” said Mercy Mbiza, 38. “We have to dig a pit 
for a toilet, and when it’s full, we dig another. They tell us we are on 
a waiting list to get services. Whether I will die first, I don’t know.”

Rumors — true or not — are dangerous combustibles in places like this. 
People are suspicious that money meant for them is being stolen or 
wasted by the big shots in Balfour. Some goings-on simply make no sense.

For instance, Arlene Moloi’s house has four pillars and a roof and only 
emptiness in between. The municipality paid someone to construct it in 
1996, but the builder suddenly disappeared after starting the job.

“The officials tell me they are waiting for the same man to come back 
and finish,” said Ms. Moloi, a 54-year-old widow. “But it already has 
been 13 years.”

The Siyathemba protests began with a meeting of disgruntled young 
people, some of them members of political youth groups, others players 
on sports teams. They compiled a list of their many grievances. They 
wanted more water and electricity, yes. But they also wanted better 
roads, a local hospital and a police station. Beyond that, they wanted jobs.

This list of demands was left at the municipal hall in Balfour. “Some of 
these things — hospitals, police stations — these are matters to take up 
at the provincial level,” said the municipality’s spokesman, Mohlalefi 
Lebotha. “Where is the money for these things, not just to construct 
them but to sustain them?”

At first, Mr. Tsotetsi did not meet with the disgruntled. Nor did he 
call a special session of the municipal council as the protesters had 

This slow, even indifferent response seemed to mock the petitioners’ 
seriousness. After a mass meeting on a Sunday, many protesters took to 
the streets. The police confronted them, relying on a rather 
indiscriminate spray of rubber bullets.

The crowd fought back, shouting “azikhwelwa,” meaning that everything 
must shut down: no one goes to work, no one attends school.

“People knew how to act from the days of the liberation struggle,” said 
Mr. Maya, the protest leader. “We sang the songs, telling those who are 
scared to step aside so the brave can move ahead and advance the struggle.

“In South Africa, the struggle is not yet over.”

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