IT is difficult to believe that liberated South Africa, fifteen years into its hard-earned democracy, is witness to stone-throwing township protestors facing police rubber bullets and teargas. This year there have been 24 major protests, mostly in the country’s northern provinces and Western Cape. The dead and injured remain nameless and faceless and yet again anger has been turned on foreigners. Ethiopian and Pakistani shopkeepers in Balfour, Mpumalanga are the latest victims.

The apparent reason for these sporadic but widespread demonstrations is lack of service delivery. In some places the bucket system is still in use and pirated electricity is supplied from unprotected cables running across the street. The main demand is for housing, but the government’s approach is technocratic and provision is often linked to coercion: shack dwellers want houses at their chosen location and refuse to move. And shack-dwelling tenants are often not catered for. The days of apartheid seem not so far away.

Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University points out that local political elites well embedded in African National Congress structures have hijacked development, milking tenders and other resources. He describes a caste system within an increasingly bureaucratised and imperious party that, cushioned by four general election victories, is losing interest in grassroots democracy. While criminals have undoubtedly profited from unrest, the government is quick to label protestors as troublemakers; and the old South African bogey of the third force, an over-exaggerated element even under apartheid, is dusted off yet again.

Recently in central Durban two supermarkets were looted by unemployed people claiming to be hungry. The credentials of the leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement are dubious, but there is no doubt about the desperation of those involved. Nearby, overlooking their cardboard shacks, they see a new football stadium, named after the province’s most famous communist, Moses Mabhida, built at a cost of R2.6 billion for next year’s FIFA World Cup. While they were stealing bread, it was announced that the Minister of Basic Education had just acquired two luxury official vehicles costing nearly R2 million.

In mid-July, the ANC dissolved its regional structures in North West province and the Western Cape and contemplated doing the same in the Eastern Cape. Factionalism and patronage around competing business interests and control of resources have been officially blamed for this situation. Significantly, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe admitted that he could see this form of corruption everywhere. There is a clear link between open and violent rebellion and government failure to address the legacy of apartheid.

The response from President Jacob Zuma’s government has been ambiguous. On the one hand there have been dismissive references to agitators and rhetoric that could have come straight from P.W. Botha’s phrase book. But it is also promising a welcome audit of the performance of local councillors and municipalities; and standing committees on public accounts are to be established at all levels of government. In a significant but under-reported speech, Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Yunus Carrim (a member of the national executive of the Communist Party) warned against the ‘crude subordination’ of local government to party agendas. He appeared to be rejecting the ANC’s partiality to the Leninist concept of parallel and inter-locking party and state in favour of an independent public service. The deployment of party loyalists to professional posts has had a devastating effect on government cost-efficiency.

This week 150 000 municipal workers go on strike. Many of them suffer from lack of service delivery themselves because of poor management, vacant posts and use of casual labour. They have been told to tighten their belts during the recession, an argument that falls on deaf ears. The listeners feel they did not benefit from the boom times and see around them continued official wastage and opulence.

At central and provincial levels of government, highly-placed officials are being suspended every day pending investigations into fraud and other irregularities, bearing out Mantashe’s analysis and giving the voters an impression that a campaign against corruption is underway. But past experience suggests that all too often these cases drag on without resolution, abusing the long-suffering citizenry still further. And, returning to the root cause of the township conflict in the ANC’s patronage system, there also needs to be an assurance that action is in the interests of clean and efficient government, not simply the outcome of party infighting.

Marginalisation of the poor has been the underside of economic policy that has produced a growing black middle class and fabulously rich new business elite. Ironically, new Minister of Human Settlement (aka Housing) Tokyo Sexwale, a career politician in the wilderness during Thabo Mbeki’s administration, rapidly amassed from nowhere a fortune of nearly R800 million. The ambiguities and ironies abound: the current national budget contains R787 billion for a programme of public works, but Zuma now tells the country the 500 000 new jobs promised by this December will be delayed. The post-apartheid dividend is taking too long to deliver and, in the meantime, patience is running out in many of South Africa’s townships. 

This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 29 July 2009 and entitled ‘Simmering discontent in South Africa’s big divide’.