Behind the political posturing and defensiveness are people with genuine unfilled needs

| Nathan Geffen
ANC Youth League march in Cape Town, 27 August 2012. Photo by Nathan Geffen.

None of the big political parties are showing the kind of leadership that is needed when it comes to housing.

On Monday between one and two thousand people took part in the ANC Youth League’s march from Salt River to the Western Cape provincial government. One of them was 21 year old Zansile Manqamane. He lives in a shack with six other people in the informal settlement of Barcelona, Gugulethu. He has been living there for eight years. He came to Cape Town from a town near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. For the last six years his family has been on a waiting list for an RDP house. He works at Gugulethu Square as a packer for a large retailer but sacrificed his income for the day to take part in the march. Why? Because he wants his family to have a house.

Manqamane didn’t strike me as a political ideologue or even dogmatic. He’s a young man who works a low-paying blue collar job. In our brief interview, he was likeable and engaging but also desperate. He said that both the national and provincial governments were responsible for the housing shortage, but he lives in the Western Cape and holds this government mainly responsible. He says he voted for better houses. When I asked him why it is taking so long for his family to get an RDP house, he replied, “I have no idea what the problem is.”

Manqamane said he’s a member of the Youth League but didn’t show a martyr’s devotion to the organisation or a visceral hatred for the premier, whom he referred to respectfully. He’s not a thug or the stereotyped image of a Youth League supporter. He’s a person with a genuine unfilled need and he wants the state to deliver. The reality is that neither the National nor the Western Cape governments have provided a house for his family nor have either explained to him why the delay, what the obstacles are and what’s to be done about it in the meanwhile. There is also no civil society organisation that is doing for houses what the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) did for HIV. So it is surely quite natural that Manqamane turns to the Youth League, who are making demands that resonate with him. No one in South Africa can honestly claim to have a solution to the housing shortage, but much more can be done to speed up the building of decent houses and ensure that in the meanwhile informal settlements have better access to decent toilets, clean water, electricity and cleaning services.

I followed Monday’s march in my GroundUp capacity. Here are a few observations about the march and its aftermath.

  • The Youth League intended this march to be peaceful. From what I saw the crowd was disciplined. There were lots of marshals and the leaders frequently instructed people to keep inside the march area. There was also a large police presence, larger than I’ve seen for much bigger marches. The Youth League’s threat to make the city ungovernable no doubt contributed to this.

  • By the standards of marches through the CBD, there was little disruption to business. I noticed some businesses closed while the marchers walked by, but if they stayed closed for longer than a few minutes, they were being unnecessarily paranoid. I have helped organise bigger marches for the TAC which involved more inconvenience to the CBD. Protest is an important part of life in South Africa. It is not usually the intention of organised protests to inconvenience people. A few minutes extra in traffic or shops closed is a tiny price to pay to give poor people the rare dignity of asserting themselves. Comments on talk radio that I heard like, “they’re disrupting business” were ungenerous. Some Adderley Street informal traders didn’t open yesterday out of fear. They have a genuine gripe. Nevertheless, had they opened, they would very likely have been left alone.

  • The Youth League is not a formidable force, at least not in the Western Cape. This was supposed to be a big march. There was a lot of hype in the build-up. Even organisations like TAC (at its peak) and Equal Education (currently) can organise marches at least five times bigger. There is no evidence that the Youth League can carry out its threat to make the city ungovernable. Though I don’t doubt its ability to cause occasional disruptions to services in the townships or to incite people to random violence like we’ve seen on the Cape Flats in recent weeks.

  • The Youth League’s rude, militaristic and inflammatory language is ridiculous, particularly towards Premier Zille and most recently —by the Friends of the ANC Youth League— towards the COSATU president, Sdumo Dlamini. Argument by insult, besides being ugly, doesn’t win intelligent people over. It is, sadly, a form of argument that is pervasive across the political spectrum. Middle-class people tend to disguise it better than the Youth League leadership. But whether it be David Bullard calling people a “motley assortment of bearded lefties, gullible Twitterati and the sort of people who read the Mail and Guardian” or Rhoda Kadalie suggesting she knows what gives people with different views to her a hard-on, the intention is the same: to let off steam publicly or mask weak arguments with attempted wit, poor humour and nastiness. This vacuous rhetoric is popular in Parliament and on South African news websites especially, but not only, the comments. It is very bad for our politic and the Youth League does not have a monopoly on it.

  • Patricia De Lille has an admirable track record of exposing injustice, but as mayor she needs to lead our divided city and not inflame its divisions. She has written an angry open letter to the Youth League. In it she castigates the organisation for marching from the wrong venue (Salt River station instead of Keizergracht Street), starting late, not dispersing on time, blocking access to the provincial legislature and not adhering to the requirement to follow the agreed upon route home. The Youth League stands understandably accused of being behind some violent protests, but yesterday’s march was an orderly and peaceful one. They should be encouraged to stick to this kind of protest. De Lille’s allegations are petty and provoke tension. It might not seem that way to people who haven’t organised large marches, but it is extremely difficult to get right the things De Lille has accused the Youth League of. Organising marches on small budgets for people coming from across the city is hard. From the perspective of public safety the Youth League did well yesterday. This is not good leadership by De Lille; it is cheap politics. She can and should do better.

Geffen is the GroundUp editor.

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