The wretched scream for political voice by Graeme Addison (BDlive), 14 June 2016
Frank Mukhaswakule Primary at Mashau village in Vuwani, Limpopo, was burnt down by protesters. Worldwide, attacks against schools and hospitals take place four times a day. Picture: SOWETAN
IT SHOULD worry all politicians that in the run-up to the local government elections masses of people are taking to the streets to hurl rocks, burn tyres, and — in the most extreme cases so far — raze dozens of schools.
There is a widening democratic disconnect between voters and protesters, but sometimes they are the same people. The wreckers who set fire to libraries and computer labs include party loyalists. Many are close to the point of giving their allegiance to the EFF, but that would mean they are ready to engage in formal politics.
The EFF is leading a countrywide political insurgency — the word means radical opposition to authority and is usually applied to movements that fight in a jungle or wage urban warfare. The EFF’s insurgents are storming the battlements of the governing ANC and opposition DA in an outright bid to win control of many municipalities and become the authorities.
It is still not absolutely certain at the time of writing that the polls on August 3, the date set by President Jacob Zuma, will take place. The Constitutional Court has yet to rule on the thorny issue of whether the Electoral Commission of SA must collect the addresses of all voters. If the answer is yes, there is insufficient time to do so.
Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor shows that service delivery protests this year are on the increase, and 86% have involved violence. Most occur on the fringes of better off municipalities, where relative deprivation rather than absolute exclusion is the issue.
In Vuwani, Limpopo, up to 24 schools lie in ruins, torched and vandalised by protesters refusing to accept a Municipal Demarcation Board decision to merge parts of the Makhado and Malamulele municipalities. Depriving schoolgoing youngsters of their basic right to education looks like self-defeating behaviour by mindless mobs.
There may be more to it than that.
We may be witnessing a kind of political mass innovation at grassroots level. It’s driven by frustration and rage, but the angry participants may still be amenable to a reasoned response.
The South African dream is not dead. Police action is necessary, but this cannot be the state’s only strategy. The government has to revert to the founding principles of ubuntu (humaneness), and the rule of law and social justice.
Its participation in the elections shows that the EFF is seeking to bring the protesters under its banner in pursuit of a more inclusive democracy.
University of the Witwatersrand historian and political scientist Julian Brown is optimistic. In his recent book, South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: on Dissent and the Possibility of Politics, he argues that a new mood of political engagement is sweeping the country.
The political order in SA, he writes, is disrupted by protests that unpick the assumed relationship between the state and its citizens. The promises of "participatory democracy" made by the government in its attempts to reform the apartheid state are far from being fulfilled.
WHILE the state "may be capable of withstanding occasional protests, it is also unsteady in the face of continuing eruption of discontent". Insurgent movements, such as the EFF, are seeking to co-ordinate their followers under a new "unifying story" for the country, based on redistributive social and economic justice, Brown argues.
But there is a limit to what peaceful insurgency may accomplish. In India, the Naxala "forest people" movement has attacked schools during decades of insurgency — apparently, also because they reject the diktats of the place’s local authorities, who are seen to be in league with commercial elites.
The Naxalites have become a deeply entrenched armed movement in the northern Indian states adjoining Nepal, morphing from civil protest to adopting guerilla tactics.
Worldwide, according to figures released in May by UN children’s agency Unicef, attacks against schools and hospitals take place four times a day, and are on the increase in all conflict zones.
Usually, these attacks are carried out by the military or guerrillas, who suspect each other side of using public facilities to shelter their fighters. Yet, a substantial number of recorded incidents appear not to be prompted by the military, and instead happen at the level of civil and ethnic aggression. Never mind that schools and hospitals are there for the benefit of the community, they are seen as symbols of the state, of alien cultures or religions, and thus, as fair targets.
The common factor is that marginalised groups who are not well-educated and have little in the way of personal property or education feel that they are voiceless and that their only recourse is the disturbance of public order. That gets the attention of the authorities.
The protagonists are the debris of social dislocation, the landless, the jobless, the victims of "development" and "rational planning" based purely on economic calculus. Officials can never be taken at their word, businesses are there to loot the people, and protesters do not trust the media to give them a voice because journalists, too, are seen as agents of a system that excludes genuine dialogue.
This perspective came up at an election-reporting workshop I facilitated at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg recently.
A senior mayoral official expressed the view that the minority that is responsible for street mayhem did not know or appreciate the extent of the services that are actually being delivered by overstretched municipalities.
I had asked whether we really knew what was behind the burning of schools in Vuwani. A journalist said it was seriously risky to attempt to interview the protesters because the media were, like officials, regarded as the enemy.
This was quite unlike my experience in the 1976 Soweto uprising, during which journalists (even whites myself) were sometimes welcomed by activist students, provided they were not suspected of being a Security Branch informant.
Later, under the states of emergency proclaimed by former president PW Botha, mistrust grew and it became unsafe to seek out activists underground unless you were a known committed activist yourself. For liberal journalists, this was not an option, although some managed to penetrate the screen of suspicion to produce insightful reports and books.
The more things change, the more dangerous they remain; journalists have not been safe in this country’s conflict zones for decades.
The rejection of media as neutral arbiters is symptomatic of something much broader: disaffection from democracy itself — at least democracy in the form that lends itself to management by party elites and corporate lobbyists. "Managed democracy" appears fair and equitable, but is in reality skewed towards the incumbents. It’s all about patronage, lobbying, the selective prosecution of opponents while turning a blind eye to insider corruption, power broking to put pals in key positions, and pro-corporate law-making.
Insurgency against all of this is a global phenomenon. The signs and symptoms are similar everywhere, although the grievances and political outcomes can be very different.
Here and elsewhere, desperate, downwardly mobile middle classes have seen their real incomes shrink, while a tiny minority of the world’s super-rich become richer every day. Millions of disaffiliated young men and women in many countries have failed to abtain jobs and languish in the ranks of the unemployed.
Powerful players have control of the levers of government, and are able to direct law making and the executive powers of the state to serve themselves at the expense of all others. Mainstream political parties no longer represent voters, but represent instead the political class that lives off the electoral system.
SEEN in this context, the corporately owned media manipulate opinion to serve the governors who have their hands in the back pockets of business. The EFF’s campaign against "Zupta" strikes this populist theme with a loud clang, not just in poor communities, but among those who would like to enjoy their share of the spoils.
The insurgency has clout because it includes members of the elite who are wistfully standing outside the patronage machine’s reach.
The roots of systemic reform may be germinating at grassroots level. For one thing, the pernicious party list system — which puts the choice of parliamentarians and provincial and local councillors in the hands of party bosses — is proving to be the source of much conflict, including the ongoing political assassinations.
"The current system does not lend itself to participation by the electorate in the selection of candidates," said the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform in 2003. It recommended that SA should move to a mixed proportional/constituency system, making certain elected representatives individually accountable to their voters.
The evolution of the system, said the commission, was possible.
That was more than a decade ago and there has been no evolution. Parties with vested interests are proving tardy to reform the system.
Perhaps, as with industrial innovation, political innovation may be incremental over time — or come as a big, disruptive shock. With impetus from below in the form of insurgency, party bosses might get the message that their own survival in office depends on changing the way representatives are chosen and elected.
In times of trouble, new ideas and techniques arise.
If the insurgents can find an institutional voice within the structures of democracy through elections, they may be able to manage upwards, reform the structures, and limit corruption.
It could all go bad, of course.
Addison is the author of the three-volume Edge Series, a review of innovations in science, technology and engineering in SA