Struggle masses cannot be fooled by false promises of fat cats

The late, revered ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo once said that the masses are never wrong. He was referring to the mass struggles that were erupting all over South Africa as the people voiced their frustration and disgust with apartheid.

The late, revered ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo once said that the masses are never wrong. He was referring to the mass struggles that were erupting all over South Africa as the people voiced their frustration and disgust with apartheid.

This assertion came back to me last week when residents of the informal settlement adjoining New Eersterus, the village where I grew up near Hammanskraal, went on the rampage.

They barricaded streets, allegedly prevented workers from going to their places of employment and called for the mayor of Pretoria and other leaders to come to the village to address them.

Their central complaint is that, more than ten years after settling there, they still had no water and government merely made promises to deliver and never did anything about it. At some point the government had set up water tanks at street corners and pledged to replenish them every three days. This had apparently not happened, leading to people having to buy water at exorbitant prices from private dealers.

When I arrived at the village later that day there was smoke in the air, tension among the people and the signs of street battles between police and residents. Several people had already been arrested and a few residents had to be treated at the local hospital after being injured by rubber bullets.

I cannot remember when last there was the smell of tear gas in that village. New Eersterus in the late 1980s was one of the hotspots of anti-apartheid, anti-homeland action in the former Bophuthatswana. The people despised Lucas Mangope and his joke of a democracy.

Young and old alike did everything they could to kick him out of power. It was a time of tear gas, of torture and beatings by the Bantustan's hated police and army. But they did not break the people.

In 1994 the ANC was triumphant. The people, the masses as Tambo had said, were not wrong. They had triumphed after decades of struggle.

With freedom comes responsibilities - and some unintended consequences. For example, in the period after 1990 many communities saw the sprouting up of informal settlements right next to them. New Eersterus was not excluded from this phenomenon. A massive informal settlement spread for kilometres from Soshanguve Township right to the village.

And, of course, with freedom came expectation. All these thousands of people who now could have a piece of land to call their own also expected their new government to come to the party with electricity, roads and all sorts of other things.

After all, this was the government that spoke of things like Batho Pele - People First, which put at its heart the promises of the Freedom Charter. Shelter, water and dignity were the charter's key words. This was the government that had fought to say to them: you are people too; you deserve as good as every man or woman on the face of the earth.

And these masses of people were prepared to wait. They waited and saw their elected representatives driving around in nice cars but delivering nothing. They voted and waited for their piece of delivery. Nothing. How long can they wait?

The masses are never wrong, said the wily old ANC leader. What he omitted to say was that they are not stupid, either. They can see when a government is trying hard to meet their demands. But they can also see when they are being ignored.

The people who protested last week have been ignored for years now. They have protested, made representations and begged to be heard. But their elected councillors and the Tshwane metropolitan council have simply ignored them.

These villagers have realised that they are useful only at the time of elections, when they are addressed by political heavyweights. Indeed, in that village and squatter camp the ANC has wiped the floor with their opponents. To tell the truth, there is no opposition there.

These villagers are now asking where those leaders are. A year after the local government elections, they are asking what has happened to the promises made to them. The masses are not stupid.

Last week and over this past weekend, Tshwane politicians have been visiting the area and making new promises to the villagers. They are begging for calm and promising delivery in the near future.

But it is all too little to late. Those villagers have been waiting for ages for delivery. The blame for the violence and destruction that took place last week must be put squarely at the door of local politicians. They have failed to act with integrity and are now facing the wrath of the community.

But here is the main reason for concern. The villagers now know what makes a politician stand up and listen. They know that talking nicely does not seem to help. They see that if you want attention then you have to pinch the politicians' bums.

They are not the only ones who have come to his conclusion. In the run-up to the local elections last year there were many similar eruptions across the country. Some have died down, some are simmering.

If the ANC wants to come up with something useful from its policy conference in June, or its national conference in December, then this is the problem it must grapple with. The people are becoming increasingly restless at the slow pace of delivery.

The ANC government has to fire useless councillors and communicate a message that says: we will deliver as we promised. Otherwise it will face more and more anger from the streets. And, like the Tshwane metro council, it will only have itself to blame for its problems.