“I UNDERSTAND that people get frustrated, but good grief, why do they have to be violent and destructive?” says the radio host.
The majority of suburbanites seem to agree, and to be fair, when your first inkling of a problem is scenes of burning tyres, scattered bricks and smashed shop windows, it’s difficult to be sympathetic.
But then we’re usually provided very little in the way of background.
I don’t know a helluva lot about the Zamdela background, but I’ve been party to a number of situations over the years that threatened to go the same way.
A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) analyses violent protests in the last several years, and supports some conclusions I’d reached. (It’s titled Responding to the Smoke That Calls, by Monica Bandeira and Craig Higson-Smith.)
My touchstone is a community I knew quite well, home to about 6 000 people.
It was a long-standing informal settlement: the people I knew had all been there for 10 years and upwards.
The only service delivered to them when I first got to know them was tankers that came to dispense water; a long queue of little children, young girls and adults pushing wheelbarrows full of a hodgepodge of plastic containers would form and wait patiently for a turn at a tap that splashed and overflowed, so that the ground became squishy with mud for metres around.
Very few residents were employed – perhaps 5% to 10%, the local headmaster guessed. But not for lack of trying; people spent long hot days tramping the streets of the closest formal community, looking for work.
One woman finally found employment after eight years: eight years of saving money from piece jobs to take courses, taking taxis into town to copy her CV and fax it out, walking for probably thousands of kilometres to interviews or standing in long queues to apply.
One day, a rumour surged through the settlement: they were going to be moved. No one knew quite where or when or why, and as I asked for updates over the next few months, the information did not get much clearer – despite the local councillor arriving in a flurry of luxury vehicles to make a speech.
In the end, the people were moved. A whole community was shaken up and they weren’t happy, but stopped short of rioting.
In five of the six cases the CSVR authors studied, lack of communication played a precipitating role – and poor governance was critical in all. High levels of unemployment, poverty and lack of the most basic service delivery were common features in all these situations.
And “Protests followed unsuccessful attempts of community members to engage with local authorities regarding failed service delivery...” This is the crucial background that news consumers lack: the long, long road that communities have travelled before something triggers a violent eruption.
Letters, arduous taxi trips costing R50 and more for meetings with officials, petitions; believe me, many communities try every available channel they know of before descending to protest in the streets.
And they are all too often ignored. Far too many local officials (with some brilliant exceptions) seem to treat the communities they’re responsible for with the kind of disdain familiar from apartheid days.
Sometimes we in the leafy suburbs don’t get the significance of the grievance. For example, with the Northern Cape protests, people asked why paved roads were worth the huge step of forcing the schools to close. Is that so terribly important?
Well, of course: the dirt roads were so bad that even the taxis wouldn’t use them. This makes hard lives even harder (schlepping home shopping for kilometres, for example, getting your hypertension meds from the clinic or going to work).
But in a crisis, it could and does cause harm that lasts a lifetime. Imagine a pregnant woman who goes into labour two weeks early – and develops problems.
Neither the ambulances nor the taxis will come out to fetch her, so her baby is finally born after a period of oxygen stress. So the mom now has a mentally disabled child who needs special care.
But it’s impossible to get to the clinics and special needs schools, so both child and family suffer terribly – because of something that paved roads could have prevented or at least ameliorated.
And here’s the thing: you may not care about the people who die early because they couldn’t access chronic medication for TB or high BP or HIV; or the old people unnecessarily disabled by strokes; or the cerebral palsy babies; or the bronchitis that develops into deadly pneumonia because it went untreated; but all of these situations end up costing us tax money.
Just as, when the people finally erupt in rage (and are joined by opportunistic criminals), the damage done to roads and schools and more is also paid for by tax.
We have to demand:
• Effective, accountable, (quickly) responsive and committed local government, with genuine, working channels of communication.
• Intelligent, thoroughly trained and thoughtful policing (police aggro or brutality stokes or even triggers violence).
• Delivery of the basics – water, sanitation, housing, electricity, roads, education and healthcare.
We pay high taxes to ensure a peaceful, stable society, not for junkets and perks for the powerful. We have a right to demand that the money is spent for this purpose.
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor.
Views expressed are her own.
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