TWO of the biggest headaches for the African National Congress (ANC) at the moment arguably lie in the rising phenomenon of service delivery protests and deteriorating metro support — with the two coinciding in Gauteng, among other areas, as is evident in last year’s provincial polls.
In the past, service delivery protests did not necessarily result in an erosion of support at the polls, but, for a number of reasons, the consistent disapproval expressed by Gauteng residents on the streets could be considered the proverbial canary in the coal mine that signalled a growing vulnerability for the ANC in the province’s three metros — Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg.
At the recent ANC national general council, the party’s head of political education Nathi Mthethwa expressed concern about the protests and a commitment to ensuring a response to service delivery concerns.
The imperative to tackle delivery blockages is not only seen as necessary to honour the government’s developmental mandate, but also to mitigate the risk of political opportunism.
“We should warn ourselves of the flammable social tinder,” Mthethwa said. “The dire situation of our people is characterised by poverty, which is very real. We have to address service delivery.… If we address (service delivery), we will do away with opportunistic actions by some self-proclaimed revolutionaries”.
His comments are revealing — they acknowledge that service delivery concerns are real, and that they need something to be done about them. In tackling them, could Gauteng offer a template on how to deal with service delivery failures?
Under the leadership of premier David Makhura, Gauteng provincial and local government officials have been told to work together to deal with the very real and practical concerns of previously overlooked communities such as Bekkersdal. Inter-governmental solutions are being used, such as contracting the City of Johannesburg’s Pikitup to take care of the substantial refuse problem in the townships. Such actions are co-ordinated by a war room, or Ntirhisano.
Perhaps as important in taking care of concrete concerns, or simply an outcome of this, is the restoration of trust between communities and government.
Makhura has always endorsed communities’ rights to protest, but by acknowledging and attending to the concerns of residents in so-called hot spots, communities have not felt the same need to take to the streets.
The data — although still tentative — suggest that the gains in mitigating Gauteng protests are evident. Looking at the proportion of protests represented by province, there has been a distinct drop-off on Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor this year. Last year, a record year for service delivery protests, saw Gauteng as the country’s protest frontrunner — representing 21% of protests.
This was typical; in 2004-15 Gauteng accounted for almost one out of every four protests. This can be explained not only by the population density in the province, but also the rapid and perpetual rate of in-migration that puts a massive strain on local government’s resources.
BUT this year (as of the end of last month), Gauteng has dropped in its representation of national protests to 15%. What is also perhaps lost in the data is that, of the protests represented by this figure, none have shown the same intensity as the likes of Bekkersdal.
The promise of fewer and less violent protests suggests they may well have come to represent a last resort for communities that have been thwarted in channelling grievances through formal structures.
If this is the case, South African society is probably not an incendiary one on the verge of an Arab Spring, and, importantly, the state still has legitimacy and authority.
For the government, this means that even in cases in which frustration has been expressed with poor and inept delivery, there is still the possibility of rebuilding relationships of trust. While it is logistically impossible for Makhura to have got Gauteng rid of all of its housing needs in the past year, communities appear to have had restored lines of communication with officials. If credible plans are communicated, it appears that communities are willing to withhold protest action and give officials a chance to implement delivery.
There are a further two reasons why an Arab Spring scenario is ill-fitting. The first is that service delivery protests have not taken the same massive city-wide form as seen in other countries, and tend to be localised to specific, typically marginalised communities.
Another consideration is that the ANC continues to capture the majority of votes in the vast majority of municipalities — increasing off an already-high base between 2011 and 2014 — by two percentage points from 64% to 66%.
Gauteng metros defy this aggregate majority trend, with ANC support dropping between 2011 and 2014 by 5.8% — the biggest drop over this period in any province. Support last year was 56.8%, the second-lowest of all provinces next to the Western Cape.
Nelson Mandela Bay is also in a similarly vulnerable position, with the very real threat of an opposition coalition wresting control from the ANC.
All of this makes Makhura’s war room crucial in securing the slim margins needed for majority ANC control of major Gauteng municipalities next year.
It may well be too early to attribute Gauteng’s apparent mitigation of protests to the war room, but the stakes for the ANC to get a handle on protests are clearly high.
FOR any municipality, regardless of political leadership, there is also clear merit in high-level, focused intervention, as advocated by the war room, to attend to the very real and pressing needs of disaffected communities. The alternative is violent and destructive protests that compromise the lives of people who already live on the margins of economic activity.
A distressing example of the sort of damage inflicted on the social fabric was evident when several schools were torched in Delareyville last month, obliterating school records, destroying library and computer resources and robbing children of groceries for a school-feeding scheme.
It is, therefore, worrying that, while protests in Gauteng have dropped off, in the past couple of years, they have picked up in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, especially in the metros of these provinces — Nelson Mandela Bay, Buffalo City and eThekwini. These metros are, of course, subject to the same sorts of in-migration pressures as their Gauteng counterparts, with protests commonly relating to the need for housing and basic services by households in informal settlements such as Port Elizabeth’s Walmer.
The Eastern Cape has eclipsed Gauteng as the most protest-afflicted province this year — accounting for 21% of protests (the same figure as Gauteng held last year), while KwaZulu-Natal is tied in second place with Gauteng at 15% this year.
It is noteworthy that neither province was far behind Gauteng in last year’s proportional tallies, suggesting that whatever lessons Gauteng’s war room has to offer, they may well need to be transferred to these and other provinces.
Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Danny Jordaan has established a rapid response team that could emulate Makhura’s approach in tackling service delivery blockages. But structures can take communities and politicians only so far — for the same gains to be made as in Gauteng, it is imperative for Jordaan to demonstrate hands-on resolve.
• Heese is Municipal IQ’s economist and Allan its MD