South Africa's Minister of Provincial and Local Government, Sydney Mufamadi, told IRIN in an interview that the rash of service delivery protests throughout the country since 2004 was a consequence of the ruling ANC government's successes, not its failures.
"As we make progress in some municipalities, the residents in other municipalities become impatient: they expect their public representatives to deliver in the same way as progress is made in other municipalities," Mufamadi said.
|As we make progress in some municipalities, the residents, in other municipalities become impatient: they expect their public representatives to deliver the same way as progress is made in other municipalities|
The interview with the minister was granted in response to a recent report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a South African think-tank focusing on development issues in relation to economic growth and democracy, which blamed an allegedly insensitive, and unresponsive political elite for the often violent protests over service delivery.
The report, 'Voices of Anger', recognises the huge socioeconomic challenges faced by the incoming ANC government when apartheid ended in 1994, but said that when these "daunting conditions are met with weak management, hesitant or absent leadership, poor communications, political favouritism and ineptitude ... citizens lose patience and resort to violent protest."
In 2004/05 alone, the CDE said, there were 881 illegal demonstrations and 5,085 legal protests across 90 percent of municipalities, a trend that has not lost its impetus: many service delivery protests across the country have already been recorded in 2007.
Mufamadi dismissed the report as "an ideologically based characterisation of the situation", a reference to the CDE's executive director, Ann Bernstein, an executive director during apartheid of the Urban Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dealing with black urbanisation issues, funded by white corporations and chaired by a retired white judge, Justice Steyn.
The present board of the CDE has among its members Judge Fikile Bam, judge-president of the Land Claims Court since 1995; Cas Coovadia, managing director of the Banking Association South Africa; Soto Ndukwana, a businessman and former political prisoner on Robben Island; Wiseman Nkuhlu, a businessman and former economic advisor to President Thabo Mbeki; and Michael Spicer, executive director of Business Leadership South Africa, whose members are committed to high growth, employment, and the reduction of poverty.
Impatience with delivery
The report said impatience with the ruling ANC government reached a tipping point on the anniversary of its first decade in power in 2004, when residents of the Free State Province's Phumelela Municipality resorted to violence over "the poor delivery of the most basic services, notably water and sanitation", and this has "been a feature of our political scene ever since".
South Africa is divided into 248 municipalities, of which 136 are denoted as "failing municipalities" and receive direct assistance from the national government, the report said.
Mufamadi said central government assistance to these muncipalities was a direct consequence of the apartheid government's policy of the underdevelopment of black communities, but the deployment of skilled personnel, such as water and electricity engineers, as well as qualified accountants, had seen "appreciable progress being made" in these formerly disadvantaged communities.
|To suggest that public representatives are unresponsive to the concerns of the people has no basis in fact|
In 2004, the minister said, 65 percent of households had access to electricity; in the following two years this rose to 75 percent, with 85 percent access to potable water. "To suggest that public representatives are unresponsive to the concerns of the people has no basis in fact," he maintained.
"At no point did we say to our people that within five years all of you will have access to all the services you need access to; we never said that," Mufamadi insisted.
He believed the upswing in service delivery protests ahead of the 2006 local elections had been politically motivated by people who had failed to be nominated by their parties, including some seeking election on the ANC ticket, who had "then decided to make it difficult if not impossible for some ... candidates to deliver".
The CDE report focused on two municipalities: Phumelela, the first to experience such service delivery "revolts"; and the ongoing protest in Khutsong, a township situated on a provincial border, which was sparked by central government's decision to relocate the municipality from the country's richest province, Gauteng, to one of the poorest, North West, and "emphasises 'service delivery' as the principal axis of discontent".
The violent protests afflicting Khutsong, a township outside the mining town of Carletonville, in the Merafong Local Municipality, were precipitated by "the same pattern of failure to understand and respond appropriately to expressions of popular choice or discontent [which] led to the anger and escalating protest," the report said.
Merafong straddles the provincial border between southwest Gauteng and eastern North West provinces, and was incorporated into North West against the wishes of Khutsong's residents. Up until April 2006 the protests had caused R70 million (US$10 million) worth of damage to public and private property.
Residents also boycotted the March 2006 municipal elections, when just 232 of the registered 29,540 voters cast their ballots, of which 12 were spoilt, compared to a 57.2 percent turnout in the previous municipal election. Since 12 April this year, pupils have boycotted classes to protest the township's redesignation.
National government's intervention in the process served only to fuel the unrest in Khutsong. A religious leader quoted in the report said the government's envoy, defence minister Mosiou Lekota, "was too harsh, and never wanted to listen to our side. The message about Lekota's attitude spread fast, and people started asking whether this is really the kind of government that they have fought for ... He [Lekota] told us that when they [the government] formed provinces, they never consulted people; why should they now consult?"
Mufamadi said he took "extraordinary" measures of consultation with representatives of the Khutsong community, beyond what was required by the Municipal Demarcation Act, as he had done with other communities affected by the redrawing of provincial borders.
"I am telling you they [Khutsong resdients] have been consulted. If you want to make a determination between me and them [as to] who is not telling the truth, you can go to the legislature and ask them to produce documentary evidence of the process," he said.
|I think that too many people have been pretending that it is correct for the organisers of this [Khutsong] protest to disrespect the law ... This has got profoundly ominous consequences for democracy|
"I think that too many people have been pretending that it is correct for the organisers of this [Khutsong] protest to disrespect the law ... This has got profoundly ominous consequences for democracy - we can't have a situation where everything and anything has to be subjected to veto by local communities.
"In Limpopo [Province], we faced a situation where people were saying, 'You know, we are Tsonga - Shangaan speaking - you can't put us in the same municipality where people are Venda speaking'.
"Khutsong will get its share. It does not matter if Khutsong is in the North West or Gauteng, what we need to to do is to build North West's capacity to deliver on its responsibilities," he said.
Steven Friedman, visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University and a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, a local think-tank, pointed out that "[non-violent] protest is a central feature of a democratic society" and cannot be seen as a "revolt".
He said the government's reaction to widespread non-violent protests, which sometimes turned violent, had been commendable. "Government has not responded as beleaguered governments do: there has been no shaking of fists, but an acknowledgement that these protests are by citizens exercising their democratic rights."
The challenge was to encourage what Friedman termed "active citizenship". As an example of this he cited the HIV/AIDS lobby organisation, Treatment Action Campaign, whose approach was to use their right to campaign for what they wanted and hold government accountable for providing it.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions