Protests expose a weak link in local authority

DISGRUNTLED: Balfour residents go on the rampage over poor service delivery. Pic: Alon Skuy. 22/07/2009. © The Times.
DISGRUNTLED: Balfour residents go on the rampage over poor service delivery. Pic: Alon Skuy. 22/07/2009. © The Times.

IN 1901-02 Vladimir IIyich Lenin wrote a political pamphlet, What Is To Be Done, which was inspired by the novel of Nikolai Chernyshevsky with the same title.

In this Lenin analysed the situation in Russia more than a decade before the October Revolution.

Lenin saw workers losing patience under an oppressive system, with outbursts of desperation and vengeance rather thana struggle. This led to antagonism between workers and management, with workers not always conscious of the irreconcilable difference of their interests to the economic and political system of the day.

He argued that this consciousness could have been brought to workers from without.

I was reminded of this passage after the week of sporadic acts of protest that prompted one of our newspapers to dub them "the week South Africa burned".

This paper even went to the extent of drawing up a map of areas that have been caught in the conflagration that has engulfed the country.

How can people who voted for the ANC a mere three months ago all of a sudden, and out of the blue, embark upon a Damascian conversion and "revolt" against a movement they returned to power with an almost two thirds majority?

Local government has long been an area of concern to the ANC. It is clear that our people still have great faith in their movement. They, like the workers of Russia before the revolution, believe that the system of local government marks what might seem "irreconcilable differences" between them and their elected representatives.

They are doing this without rejecting the whole of the post-apartheid political and social system.

The government's own mid-term report, released by the Presidency a few years ago, has demonstrated,without doubt that the ANC government has indeed improved the lives of our people especially the poor.

This has covered the areas of education, health and social security services.

But it should bother us that the very masses now resort to identical tactics that were so necessary to undermine the system of political oppression that characterised the apartheid years.

Are the arson attacks on the community clinics, police station in Marambane or the brazen looting of shops by members of the so-called South African Unemployed People's Movement in Durban an acceptable way in which people unhappy with service delivery should behave?

Asking the question differently, how would looting or stealing food from Pick n Pay, Checkers or any other retail stores provide a job to an unemployed person or deliver much-needed services?

These are unacceptable methods of new forms of struggle. They deserve to be rejected by the mass of our people. Our people cannot be allowed to use the democratic space that was intentionally created by the Polokwane outcome to destroy the goodwill that has since been generated.

We cannot - to borrow from the French revolution's experience of excesses - countenance a reign of terror, however noble and just the people's basic case may be.

Our trade unions - despite the occasional violence - tend to conduct disciplined strike action, contrary to the strikes that toppled the oppressive system of apartheid.

These protests have occurred in the week in which President Jacob Zuma told a gathering of black professionals in Johannesburg that "our people have lived for the entirety of their lives in a recession".

This is particularly the case, given the fact that we have openly declared that the term of this administration will be dedicated to creating a government founded on ubuntu as espoused by Nelson Mandela and other founding fathers of the liberation movement.

The ANC has announced that a performance audit of all councillors and municipalities will be conducted in order to gauge whether people are happy or indeed municipalities are carrying out their mandates, that is, delivering services to the people.

Without being too defensive, these protests expose a weak link in our local government structures and function. Councillors are supposed to be an area of dynamic contact between ward-based ANC branches and our people.

The ward committees are expected to play an active role in terms of community involvement and participation. These protests might partly serve as a litmus test for how functional or dysfunctional the ward committees have been.

We need to defeat the notion so easily displayed by the country's liberal establishment that would like us to believe that our people voted with their hearts and not their minds.

We must defend the people's right to assembly, to demonstrate, to dignity and a decent living wage.

In this context we must guard against those elements, particularly among the worker's and communities, who might want to hijack the people's genuine grievances and tarnish the image of people's organs such as trade unions or civic organisation.

Finally, we need to fix local government and recapture the words again of Vladimir Lenin when he wrote his earlier paper called Where To Begin and relook "at the character and main content of our political agitation and our organisational tasks".

This surely will enable us to put our local communities on a par with the promise of the Freedom Charter.

We need a local government sphere that is more proactive and responsive.

The writer is the spokesperson for ANC President Jacob Zuma