Unpacking service delivery protests


Jackie Dugard* discusses the rise of service delivery protest, rising social tension and the limits of South Africa’s transformative project.

Since 2004, South Africa has experienced a movement of local protests, a rebellion of the poor, that is widespread, intense and reached insurrectionary proportions in some cases. On the surface, the protests have been about service delivery and against uncaring, self-serving, and corrupt municipal leaders. Many issues that underpinned the rise of Jacob Zuma also fuel the present action, including a sense of injustice arising from the realities of persistent inequality.

While there are debates about whether such protests are primarily about service delivery or democratic participation or both, the protesters have framed their actions as relating to service delivery and inadequate services. Often, the protests are triggered by interventions or more commonly, non-interventions by local authorities. It is likely that the protests are about both poor service delivery and an unresponsive government. Some have argued that the protests should be understood as being about “the material benefits of full social inclusion … as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations”.

In the recent case of schools burnt in the North West, some argued that the protests were a response to a “crisis of local democracy rather than a crisis of service delivery” although the two are inextricably linked. A recent study on local protests between 2007 and 2010 by the Community Law Centre (CLC) found a common mix of concerns by protesters across the country. Basic services with access to housing was the single most cited concern (36.33%). This was followed by access to water (18.36%), electricity (18.16%), poor service delivery generally (15.62%), sanitation (13%) and corruption generally (11.47%).

Despite protests becoming a regular feature, perhaps more protests per person than anywhere in the world, there is very little research into its causes, and framing and organising of local protests. A useful starting point is the research undertaken at the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on protests in Piet Retief, Balfour, Thokoza and Diepsloot.

The findings indicate three interwoven features in all three protests studied:

  • High levels of poverty and unemployment (in the context of a middle income country with stark inequality);
  • Inadequate basic services including water, sanitation, electricity, street lighting, paved roads, and insufficient or inadequate housing; and
  • In all instances, protests only occurred following repeatedly unsuccessful attempts by community members to engage with local authorities over issues of failed service delivery.

In Balfour and Thokoza, the brutal police response to the protests contributed to the violence. While there were attitudes of xenophobia, there was no evidence that xenophobia was the prime motivator behind any of these particular protests.

Government indifference

Particularly alarming is the indifference of government to the concerns of residents. In Piet Retief, after three years voicing grievances over living conditions to the local council, the residents of Thandakukhanya township formed a Concerned Group in April 2009. The Group drew up a list of demands, which it submitted to councilors in June 2009. On 15 June 2009, community members staged a peaceful march to the Town Hall to deliver the memorandum. In the hope that provincial government might be more responsive than local government, a copy of the memorandum was sent to Mpumalanga Premier, David Mabuza, who was given seven days to respond. Although the Premier agreed to respond in an open meeting the following Sunday, he failed to attend the meeting and sent the Members of the Executive Council (MEC) for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and the MEC for Sports and Recreation. After the Premier’s non-attendance, the community staged a second march where municipal buildings were burnt and two residents were shot dead allegedly by a traffic police officer and a security guard respectively.

From the UJ research it seems that grievances are systemic within municipalities and that complaints are similar across municipalities. Protestors ‘demands are also an attempt to build a more inclusive deal at the local level. This suggests the potential to link protests and also the potential for greater state repression against protesters.

The common underlying determinants of the 2009 protests in Piet Retief, Balfour, Thokoza and Diepsloot led the UJ authors to conclude that“frustrations with government service delivery and the protests which result from this will remain part of the South African political landscape as long as people do not have access to basic services and are unable to find effective channels through which to express their demands”.

Protests and politics

While UJ found evidence that protests increased since Jacob Zuma became president, there is no evidence that protesters ‘demands are rooted in a campaign against the Zuma administration, or the national policies of the African National Congress (ANC) or even local government electoral support for the ANC. Rather, protests were linked to“the failure of the ANC to implement policy at a local government level.”In the Piet Retief memorandum, the community demonstrated support for the ANC, stating:

We also would like to state it clear that the Mkhondo citizen’s concerned group are the members of the ANC …   We also want the ANC to win the local elections convincingly. We pledge that the councillors involved in misconduct be recalled to the structure with immediate effect. What is happening on the ground, it seems, is a critical disjuncture between national and local politics: communities cling to the ANC promise and see local problems arising from corrupt councillors who are betraying the ANC. Thus communities continue to remain loyal to and vote for the ANC, while protesting against local officials. The UJ research argues that “opposition to local authorities is possible without it de-stabilising support for Zuma and his administration”.

The divide between national and local politics is reinforced when national leaders have visited protest ‘hotspots’- e.g. in Balfour, where President Jacob Zuma paid an unexpected visit to Siyathemba township on 4 August 2009; and Diepsloot, where Minister of Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale spent the night in a shack on 3 August 2009 after the violent protests there. Yet, local conditions have not improved substantially. The medium- term reaction from the government in Balfour was a crackdown against Siyathemba community organisations by the South African Police Service (SAPS). Yet, although there is evidence of a decreasing ANC majority at the national level, –at least for the present –communities are hopeful that national politicians will still make a difference. For instance, after Zuma’s visit to Balfour, youth leader, Lefu Nhlapo, said“For him (Zuma) to come here shows us that he cares about his communities.”

The ANC party and the individual ANC councilor are perceived as different and this might perpetuate local problems of non-delivery and unaccountability. In South Africa today, no political party speaks more directly to the poor than the ANC. Thus, at least in the short-term, a local problem can be diffused and rising dissatisfaction over poverty and inequality can be moderated through the removal of specific local councillors (although there are few instances of this occurring). Hence, the central political economy stays intact and the ANC remains overwhelmingly popular.

However, social tensions are rising and the limits of South Africa’s transformative project are becoming increasingly evident, even if not yet directly politically relevant. While many of the protests remain local and concern immediate grievances, there are budding signs of linkages between working and non-working sectors of society, and between inadequate service delivery and structural socio-economic and political problems that might hold the potential for real popular pressure and genuine political change.


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