It has become a permanent feature across many democracies for newly elected presidents to be granted a grace period and/or honeymoon –where the media and public intellectuals have half-baked cordial relations with new president – of a 100 days. Well, not in post Thabo Mbeki South Africa, where the majority of citizens couldn’t wait for a fresher leadership to assume its role and start delivering on its election promises, and there are many of them. The moment President Jacob G Zuma-led Executive ‘checked into’ the Union Buildings, we began to read and hear of looming strikes from public servants over unfulfilled commitments of pay increases by the government. The public servants did not want to know which administration made those promises, all they wanted was the commitments to be realised. In June reports surfaced that in certain places in Mpumalanga Province the residents are fuming with anger over lack of service delivery, even though the administration shouldering the blame was only a month in office. The protests have gained momentum and have griped many parts of the country (at the writing of this article).
The Zuma administration, the largest in size, finance and the most educated in post 1994 South Africa, must have been caught unaware by the baptism of fire with which they were embraced, after all Zuma has been seen by most working class people as the answer to the plight they had endured under Mbeki. But what should be alarming is the manner in which a four month old and legitimately elected administration is being viewed in the same perspective as the previous regime was seen, if the violent protests are anything to go by. In the period between 1976 until 1988 – the darkest days in apartheid South Africa because it was in the latter years of that period that the State of Emergency was declared – the exiled ANC leadership issued a call to all oppressed people within the Republic to make the country ‘ungovernable’. They said recalcitrance was to be achieved through various avenues such as stay- aways consumer boycotts and most importantly: destruction of state and/or public property.
When one compares the conduct of the late 70s and 80s as a whole, and the burning of municipal offices, shops and other public property one sees that the chain of venting frustration through violent means has not been broken, even when the ‘enemy’ is a government elected by the same protestors. When public property was damaged in the past it was generally accepted, by oppressed people, that such acts would eventually force the racist government of the day to agree to the demands of the marginalised majority. In 2009, under a different government can we honestly say that by people looting and causing anarchy there is any legitimacy to such conduct? The answer is a resounding NO! This is informed by the fact that post 1994 politics are inclusive, or at least ought to be. Meaning that as citizens we have to jealously guard and defend our democracy and institutions that seek to advance betterment of the greater citizenry.
The grievance of people who lack the most basic services of clean running water, sanitation, well built houses and well equipped clinics are without a sent of doubt authentic, but the modus operandi chosen to articulate such grievances leaves very little to desire. In the same breath, the blame should not squarely be put on the protesting communities.
The government has to concede that this ‘lets wait for them to burn things first approach’ does not help the situation at all. The government has explicitly given people the idea that they are a reactive and not a pre-emptive government. What has further darkened the protests is the fact that the economy has taken battering as a result of the global financial meltdown and that certain national and provincial executive members such Communications minister, Sipho Nyanda, buy exorbitant German Sedans. How is a family living in an informal settlement in Diepsloot or Balfour, in the most putrefied surrounding suppose to react when they read that the government says ‘’we are working on it’’, but in that moment “we will spend money on ourselves”, and this is regardless of whether such luxury have been budgeted for. In fact there should be no budget for luxury in a country whose unemployment rate is between 20 and 30 %. As I have said that there is no justification for the demolition of public property out of any type of discontentment because in doing so we are setting of developmental aspirations backwards and derailing any gains advanced in the betterment of our lives.
In a constitutionally entrenched democracy such as our own, the greater population should be taught and made aware that the government of the day can not be viewed in the same light as that of old. At the same time the ANC-led government has to realise – and to do so quickly- that hunger and depravation starves people of any logic. Editor of The Saturday Star, Jovial Rantao, in his article entitled: ‘’The past echoes in today’s protests’’ says this of communities and their means of communications to the state, ‘’Communities need to be taught how to communicate their unhappiness in periods between elections. These periods are crucial, because citizens have only one opportunity every five years to choose a government.” He further says this of lawlessness: “Those who violate the law, for whatever reason, must be given an opportunity to explain themselves in court. We should be sympathetic to what fellow citizens are going through, but not lawlessness.”