Protests not just about service delivery: SAIRR

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Service delivery shortcomings as commonly understood are only secondary factors in many of the protests in the last year, an analysis in the latest South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) Fast Facts pamphlet shows.
“Several were fueled by the fact that councils did not respond to memorandums. Corruption and mismanagement of funds were also cited as reasons for protests in numerous areas. Another prominent reason was the lack of jobs,” SAIRR researcher Nthamaga Kgafela says.

He adds it is quite clear “that service delivery or the lack thereof is only one component of community protests. The other factors may be even more significant, and simply classifying all community protests as ‘service delivery’ is an injustice to these communities because the real issues are not highlighted.”

The latest round of protests started soon after the election of President Jacob Zuma in April last year. “Some were labour disputes such as the nationwide municipal workers’ strike in July and August 2009, but the largest and most violent protests were from local communities.
“Last year’s protests, most of which occurred in July and August, led to the deaths of four people, some 94 injuries (mostly of protestors), 750 arrests, and damage to municipal buildings and police vehicles,” Kgafela says.

The analysis is similar to one made by Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg. Writing in the Business Day in July last year, Friedman said township “citizens are protesting not because they want ‘service delivery’ but because they want to escape it.”

He said there “is a great difference between ‘service delivery’ and ‘public service’. The first entails officials — and commentators — deciding what people need and then dumping it on them. …this refusal to allow people to make their own choices is particularly prevalent in housing, but it happens in other areas too: the removal of small traders from areas where some ‘service deliverers’ think they ought not to be is another grievance that prompts protest. Many local protests are reactions against this high-handedness and so are, in reality, protests against ‘service delivery,” Friedman avered.
“To suggest … that the solution is to ensure that officials impose their preference on citizens more quickly and vigorously is to invite at least another three-and-a- half years of protest.
“Public service, by contrast, starts from the recognition that, in a democracy, the government’s job is not to ‘deliver’ to citizens. It is, rather, to listen to them, to do what the majority asks, if that is possible, and, where it is not, to work with citizens to ensure that what is done is as close to what they want as it can be. It stems from the core democratic idea that government works for citizens and that it cannot do this unless it listens to them.”
“The protesters are demanding public service, not delivery. While the causes of the protests differ from area to area, in every case people want to be heard and to be taken seriously. The protesters are saying that they are citizens with rights and that they insist on being treated accordingly. In some cases, people do want cleaner water or better neighbourhoods. But that does not mean they want officials to ‘deliver’ to them.
“A study of people who benefited from government housing subsidies in the 1990s found that those who had larger and better houses were not more satisfied than the rest: the only people who were happy were those who said they had been able to choose their housing type. The beneficiaries were saying that they did not want the houses officials thought they should have, even if they were technically ‘better’ — they wanted the houses that they chose.”

Friedman says the constant claims that citizens want “service delivery” are antidemocratic because they deny citizens a voice: reporters and commentators do not have to listen to what protesters are saying, they can decide for them what they do not like. It is antidemocratic, too, because it assumes that the test of democratic government is not whether it does what the people want, but whether it is technically good at forcing on the people the technical solutions that appeal to the elite.
“As long as we understand popular protests as demands for ‘service delivery’, we will continue to make the government the master, not the servant, and we will continue to treat grassroots citizens as people fit only to receive the products devised by their betters, not as thinking and choosing human beings. And as long as we do that, people at the grassroots will remain unheard unless they take to the streets.”

By contrast, Kgafela says, the main reasons cited for protests in media reports analysed by the Institute were housing and land issues (28%) and basic service delivery issues such as water, electricity, and sanitation (32%).



Pic: The conventional face of service delivery protest