Why Cape Town has erupted and what we can do about it

| Gavin Silber
A police vehicle was stoned by protesting youths. Photo by GroundUp staff.

On the evening of Friday 3 August thousands of Khayelitsha residents were nearing the end of the long and difficult bus journey that city workers endure twice a day.

As one of these buses turned off the N2 highway onto Khayelitsha’s Mew Way, it was pelted with stones. The driver – 67-year-old Sandile Hoko – was killed instantly.

The bus ploughed through four shacks before coming to rest. Daniel Sass, who was in one of these homes, would die five days later. At least twenty-five others were injured. On Monday night, Xolela Poncho died when he was forced to jump from his truck when it came under similar attack. The fifth and most recent death was that of Nhlanhla Ngalo, who died on Wednesday two weeks after the bus crashed through the shack in which he was playing. He was 22 months old.

These tragic deaths have been attributed to service delivery protests that have spread rapidly in recent weeks. There has been much heated speculation about who should take responsibility for inciting the protests, but little analysis of the conditions that allow such protests to flourish. There has been even less reflection around how detached many privileged Capetonians are from these conditions – for whom the peak of public frenzy came not with the massacre on Mew Way, but when the N2 highway was blocked for a few hours. Probing these issues raises difficult but necessary questions about the duality of life in Cape Town, and what needs to be done.

Two decades into democratic rule, approximately sixteen million South Africans live without access to basic sanitation facilities – a damning indictment of our failure to meet early promises of a better life for all. In Cape Town today, a million people live in informal or inadequate housing on the city’s inhospitable periphery. At least half of these people have no access to basic sanitation facilities. Between 2002 and 2009 the number of city households in informal dwellings did not decrease – but increased by 100 000. Basic service provision to these communities is grossly inadequate due to lack of planning, monitoring and in some cases maladministration and corruption. Meanwhile, quality of life in the inner city and surrounding suburbs compares with the best-developed cities in the world.

The thirty kilometers from Cape Town to Khayelitsha along which Sandile Hoko drove his bus could well be three thousand. They are different worlds where life seemingly holds different values. While crime in the inner city has decreased by 90% over the past decade, crime in Khayelitsha is on the rise. The murder rate – the most reliable indicator of violent crime – has increased every year for the past three. Residents have lost faith in the police to keep them safe and the courts to provide justice. Criminals feel that they can act with impunity. Fear for safety has lead to a spike in mob vigilantism resulting in at least fourteen deaths by necklacing over three months.

Children sent to schools with the hope of securing a better future find not a place of learning and security, but rather a gang warzone where young “gangsters” fight with screwdrivers, pangas, knives and guns. During the past month thousands of children have stayed home from school for fear of being caught in the crossfire, while others had to flee to the Eastern Cape.

When children are not at school, they must play in overcrowded and under-served slums amongst heaps of uncollected rotting waste in pools of excrement and wastewater. In a relatively affluent 21st century city, it would be scandalous for a single child to die from diarrhea. Over the most recent diarrhea season in Cape Town approximately 27 children died from this entirely preventable illness.

Thousands of informal settlement residents have been displaced in recent weeks during one of the wettest winters Cape Town has seen in a decade. Families have lost everything they own in floods and heavy rains. In summer, the floods are replaced by fires. Hundreds of homes can be destroyed before flames are extinguished, as emergency personnel are unable to penetrate communities due to lack of accessible roads.

Residents are becoming increasingly frustrated. According to research commissioned by the City of Cape Town and conducted by market research company TNS, Khayelitsha is the only district in the City where overall satisfaction with local government has decreased between 2008 and 2012.

Some believe that the only way to vent this frustration and get government to acknowledge and address concerns is through protests that block roads, burn tyres, and in some cases violently destroy public property. They are not always wrong about the effectiveness of achieving at least half of this desired outcome. We saw last week that blocking a highway can make national and international headlines and induce at least some form of a response from government. Whether this tactic succeeds in prompting significant shifts in policy and budgeting is another matter.

Speculation around the cause of the protests has generally revolved around two explanations. They are said to be either “politically motivated”, or driven by “general service delivery concerns”. These two explanations are presented as mutually exclusive, but in reality they are not. Politicians (elected and aspiring) and community leaders tend to opportunistically feed on genuine anger to push their agendas. People do not face rubber bullets and tear gas unless they feel strongly about something and are utterly desperate. It is difficult for those living in a warm home to understand this desperation. A Khayelitsha resident noted recently that “only when you spend weeks in a shack with freezing water up to your ankles will you understand why people turn to violent protest”.

The ANCYL has received much of the blame for the protests. In a memorandum delivered on 1 August to Premier Helen Zille the Dullah Omar Region branch threatened to make Cape Town “ungovernable”. The day before Sandile Hoko’s Golden Arrow bus was attacked, ANCYL Regional Committee member Loyiso Nkohla is reported to have threatened to target Golden Arrow busses if the demands of the memorandum were not met.

The ANCYL subsequently distanced itself from direct involvement in these protests. Whether or not this is true, it does speak to the inherent danger of initiating populist campaigns of “ungovernability”. Once initiated, they tend to spread organically and become impossible to coordinate or control. It is unlikely that the League has been responsible for every protest, but it is no coincidence that in the two weeks following the call for ungovernability five people have been killed and many more injured as a direct result of protest action. The ANCYL must take some responsibility for this.

A vacuum in leadership has further exacerbated the protests. Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille has claimed that the “protests are not about service delivery problems” and that there is “no merit in the claim that the City is not delivering to the poor and vulnerable”. This has contributed to added antagonism amongst residents whose lived realities are being denied. Anyone who has spent time in Khayelitsha – as De Lille has – knows that residents are living in unbearable conditions. The Mayor and others have not done enough to illustrate an understanding of the suffering experienced by Cape Town’s poorest on a sustained basis but particularly over the past month of harsh winter conditions.

The protests will subside – as they have before – but the crises will persist. As the headlines fade, those privileged enough to reside in the Cape Town we see on the cover of travel magazines will likely forget that a million people continue to struggle in otherworldly conditions. This is an unsustainable situation in need of radical change.

Firstly, we must insist that our leaders lead. This means listening and meaningfully engaging – not talking at – communities, and must happen on a sustained basis and not just before elections or when people resort to throwing stones. Occasional public meetings are not enough. Communities need to be actively included in budgeting, planning, delivery and monitoring. This will never be done effectively unless politics is set aside, and government officials – including councilors, the Mayor, Premier, and other leaders at all levels of government - work hand-in-hand.

Secondly, Capetonians need to fundamentally change how delivery is prioritized in this vastly unequal city. Things are as they are not for want of capacity, but because we accept it. Until middle class Capetonians accept that squatting in a bush to relieve oneself is more outrageous than road closures, our city will continue to fester. It is time for all of us to take responsibility.

Gavin Silber is the policy coordinator at the Social Justice Coalition

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