With general elections only three weeks away, a new wave of protests has hit various parts of South Africa with demonstrators demanding better services and improved living conditions. Residents across the country expressed their anger over poor living conditions with protests gathering momentum in the Alexandra township to the north of Johannesburg ( where the Mayor was due to meet residents today), Pennyville township, Lwandle township in Cape Town, Kroonstadt town in Free State province, Vereeniging and Bekkersdal in Gauteng province.
The protests are particularly intense in Alexandra township because of a broken promise. The residents of Alexandra feel betrayed as they were supposed to benefit from the Alexandra Renewal Project which was launched in 2001 during the Mbeki administration as an urban project whose objective was to improve the physical, social and economic environment of Alexandra. Despite 1.6 billion Rands being set aside for this ambitious project, the residents claim to have never benefited from it at all.
ANC members were employed to drive the Alexandra Renewal Project in Alexandra. There can be no question that the R1.6 billion set aside by the national and provincial government for the Alexandra Renewal Project has been looted and used by the ANC,” alleges Herman Mashaba, DA mayor of Johannesburg.
With a litany of broken promises from the government, the enraged protestors have exhausted their patience and are demanding proper housing, access to clean water and electricity, lack of proper sewage systems, job opportunities among other demands. The demonstrations which have claimed the lives of several people do not seem to be letting up. The demonstrators have at times displayed their anger by burning tyres, putting up roadblocks and engaging the police in running battles.
According to the Director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequalities Institute in Johannesburg, Isobel Frye, local governments only address people's needs when there are violent protests. Other times it seems that they simply ignore them in the hope that they will eventually give up and the status quo continues.
People are protesting because they don't have a house. You've got people who have put their names down since 1996 to get state-funded houses and who still haven't received a house. There are large numbers of South Africans living in shacks made of corrugated iron houses where they cannot have access to running water or electricity. Housed in such frail constructions, their possessions are lost to floods and fires, " said Frye.
Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa's visit to Alexandra township last Thursday, many residents are not convinced that their problems will be addressed. Many argue that the leadership are fully aware of the existing problems but simply ignore them. Some view it as a mockery for the President to tell them he has seen "sewage spilling over Alex streets" yet for nearly twenty-five years they have swept Alexandra's problems under the carpet.
All we want is proper housing, sewage, water, and electricity. I believe that is not too much to ask. As far as I am concerned, [President] Ramaphosa can sell his hypocrisy elsewhere, " said one of the residents of Alexandra township.
According to Frye, the inadequate public transport system compounds the situation as makes it difficult for the residents to look for jobs in central business districts. She notes that crime levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world.
Whether it is in your house where people can attack you and steal and rob or whether it is walking down the streets. Social crimes are always linked to some kind of gratuitous violence, whether it is rape or murder,” she says.
Frye believes that the root causes for the problems being witnessed stem from the manner in which funds are budget and disbursed.
In South Africa, the budget for local development are allocated directly from national to local government. The local government is elected and as a result it has quite an autonomous political identity from the national government. Nepotism prevails and, in many cases, people employed at the local government level do not possess the skills needed to carry out their jobs efficiently. The local councillors in power nominate as permanent employees, their own families or friends. so, you see the budget just disappearing and not being spent on what was provided for. The high level of unemployment means that there is a desperation for any kind of income, " explains Frye.
The issues being canvassed by the residents are nothing new. They have been there for as long as the country has been independent. Why then have they not been addressed once and for all? Like many other African countries, it boils down to the manner in which the electorate votes. Celebrated author Saida Hagi Dirie-Herzi in "Government by Magic Spell" talks about how leaders will always ensure that their citizens are steeped in poverty as a way of vote banking. Ideally, if you do not empower people, they remain beholden to you. Frye seems to agree with this when she talks about how the majority of South Africans vote:
Politicians, at a local council level, at provincial or national government level, might be involved with corruption but the electorate keep returning them to power. They will continue, every five years, to return the same people to power, who make them angry and on whose behalf they protest and burn.They vote for the same politicians because historically they have an affinity to the people because of the liberation struggle," she notes.
It is a vicious cycle that seems to have no end in sight as the electorate and the politicians engage in what can only be described as "one-up-manship."
Header Image Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters