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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick  (2009) When social protest is the logical reaction to economic violence. Eye on Civil Society Column (The Mercury) : -.

Summary
The debate in Howard College Auditorium on Tuesday between three of us
at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and Dr Essop Pahad – formerly
minister in the Presidency and perhaps Thabo Mbeki’s most trusted aid
over the last half-century – was civilised but very sharp.

It turned, especially, on whether the prior government deserves blame
for rising social discontent, which Molefi Ndlovu from Mzinyathi and
Orlean Naidoo from Chatsworth described to him in powerful detail based
on their own activist experiences.

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Pahad insisted, “There’s
no mass uprising in South Africa!” Aside from China, it’s hard to think
of any country with as many protests per person as this society
generates through its world-leading inequality.

Though many of the protests display creative, non-violent,
civil-disobedience tactics – e.g. risking arrest by eating food in
overpriced supermarkets, blockading roads and spreading rubbish to show
disgust – there is also such extreme frustration that physical
intimidation and violence are common, no matter how counterproductive.

Why? Pahad, who now seems far more gracious, humble and open-minded - as
the editor of The Thinker political journal - than he was as Mbeki’s
fabled hatchet man, slated diverse local factors for the unrest, as did
Mbeki when confronted with revolts.

Pahad claimed that the disturbances began in 2004, in Harrismith. “I
went there, and found an internal ANC power struggle. The very people
who organized protests were wanting to become councilors. Then [in the
2006 municipal elections] the ANC increased its vote.”

Pahad cited corrupt local councilors, opportunists in the SA National
Civic Organisation, and ‘implementation’ problems.

At no point did he concede that the crisis might be rooted in national
housing, water and electricity policies based on cost-recovery and
commercialization which he had approved in Cabinet; or in inadequate
national-local funding supplied in Trevor Manuel’s celebrated Budgets
since the mid-1990s; or in vulnerability to global economic meltdown
caused by GEAR’s financial and trade liberalization, which in turn
inexorably transmitted world depression to our shores in spite of
Manuel’s denialism in February (“We are not in a recession”, hah).

Thus somehow Pahad missed the many thousands of service delivery
protests that began in the townships around Johannesburg in 1997, before
flash-flooding out to the East Rand and then down to the Transkei, and
arriving in Chatsworth in 1998 when Naidoo and local activists teamed up
with Prof Fatima Meer and Ashwin Desai to successfully organise
municipal dissent across racial lines.

That first wave of service delivery protests attracted a revealing
response by the then local government MEC of the provincial Gauteng
cabinet, Sicelo Shiceka, who was at the time unsuccessfully campaigning
for people to pay bills through Operation Masakhane. “Persuasion hasn't
been taken seriously, so we are now at the stage of coercion, and its
paying dividends”, he said in August 1997, in the wake of mass services
disconnections.

As Shiceka – now national minister in the same portfolio – told the
Sunday Independent’s Maureen Isaacson in a recent interview, “Madam,
this Zuma government is going to bring order. Someone called us
populists. We are not populist, we say we will arrest people.”

And so too was housing minister Tokyo Sexwale intransigent after his
Diepsloot publicity-stunt sleepover on Monday, insisting that the
residents uproot and relocate far away, thus reconfirming the rationale
for the fiery uprising a fortnight ago.

There were similar repetitive cock-ups by Mbeki’s ministers at another
site of famous community protest during the 2000s, Khutsong. Shiceka’s
predecessor Sidney Mufamadi and former defense minister Mosioua Lekota
were subjects of derision when they tried to defend the 2000 demarcation
exercise – a process managed, coincidentally, by one Dr Michael Sutcliffe.

The Khutsong protesters’ victory this year – persuading Pretoria to move
the municipality from sickly Northwest Province to rich Gauteng - won’t
solve their problems (as Diepsloot protesters should have alerted them),
but did send a strong signal that disruptions and ‘dual power’ (no-go
zones) can sometimes get you what you demand.

And indeed that intense militancy is precisely why the municipal workers
won a remarkable settlement last Friday. As inflation sunk to below 7%,
their 13% wage increase is an impressive reflection of the power from
“trashing our streets just to prove a point,” as the appalled Mercury
journalist Wendy Jasson da Costa wrote last Friday.

Sadly, da Costa, who has just arrived back from Toronto after a garbage
collectors’ strike, doesn’t quite get it: “Our striking workers can
learn a lesson from the Canadian municipal workers. It's not always what
you do, but how you do it, it that leaves a lasting impression. The
actions of South Africa's disgruntled workers evoke no sympathy. Their
actions stink.”

Maybe so, Wendy. But the revolting proletarians here won a huge victory
after just a week, while Toronto’s civilized strikers barely beat back
wage concessions after being out for nearly six weeks. (If I go on
strike again at UKZN, as we all did in February 2006, I suspect we’ll
take lessons from SA workers not Canadians, thanks.)

It just goes to show that everyone has a line, and we’ll all take credit
for being correct, whether our narrative is that of 'the Pretoria
politician', 'the municipal politician', ‘the economist’, 'the liberal',
'the autonomist', ‘the black nationalist’, 'the marxist'... and these
are just the few I’ve picked up from discussions and newspapers over the
last weeks.

Here, for instance is last week’s comment on protests from economist
Dawie Roodt, warning that foreign investors will take flight: “The real
impact on the South African economy is the message we’re sending to the
rest of the world that we’re pretty a militant bunch in South Africa.”

We’ve heard Pretoria politicians blame municipalities for lack of
capacity, and municipal politicians say – just as accurately – that the
Manuel/Gordhan squeeze makes it impossible to build or buy in capacity.

The liberal then says the problems are intrinsically-centralizing
malgovernance, affirmative action and cronyism; the autonomist says its
mainly the state’s failure to listen to local voices; the black
nationalist finds evidence of ongoing white power; while the marxist
cites national neoliberal urban policy and worsening macro and
microeconomic conditions.

One aspect of Pahad’s presentation on Tuesday confirmed for me the
merits of the latter, for to shore up his weak position, he quoted Marx,
Engels and Angela Davis (a US revolutionary-turned-academic).

Of course the initial impression left from such incongruence is of a
classical ‘Talk Left Walk Right’ routine, whereby nationalist
politicians across Africa remind listeners of older radical impulses –
invoked ever more loudly the more they turn to shoring up the status
quo. “Shoring up capitalism” is indeed how Pahad quite openly described
Mbeki’s broader project on Tuesday.

But after the seminar, when visiting his venerable teacher from Central
Indian High School (Fordsburg, Joburg) days, Dennis Brutus, who is
convalescing in Musgrave, Pahad was especially warm to the ideas of the
independent left, promising some space in The Thinker for new Brutus poetry.

Said Brutus, “I forgave him for calling me ‘Dennis the Menace’ in the
Sowetan before the big protest at the World Summit in Sustainable
Development in August 2002, and I hope he forgives the big crowd for
yelling ‘Voetsek!’ at him when he came to receive an anti-Mbeki petition
at the Sandton conference centre. It was a wonderful chat, and I
congratulated him on his new journal.”

Sometimes it seems that being in power can corrupt the soul and
revolutionary spirit, Mbeki being a case in point; while being out of
power can be humanizing – unless, of course, you’re in a township
service delivery protest or municipal wage struggle, in which case you
may have to alienate some people in power and in the broader society to
live another day.

(Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.)

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