15 April 2019

South Africa: Angry Citizens Take to the Streets Ahead of Elections

In South Africa, as the country gears up for general elections due in three weeks, a wave of protests has hit various parts of the country with demonstrators demanding better services and improved living conditions.

After President Ramaphosa's visit to Alexandra township last week, the mayor of Johannesburg was due to meet the residents today.

Residents across the country voiced their anger over squalid living conditions with protests in the Alexandra township to the north of Johannesburg, Pennyville township, Lwandle township in Cape Town, Kroonstadt town in Free State province, Vereeniging and Bekkersdal in Gauteng province.

The demonstrations, at times violent, have spread to other provinces across the country.

The unrest has already claimed the lives of at least four people. Burning tyres, road blocks and battles with the police were reported by the South African media.

The protestors' demands range from housing to access to basic facilities like clean water and electricity.

"Local governments don't seem to be addressing people's need unless there is violent protests," Isobel Frye, director of the Studies in Poverty & Inequalities Institute in Johannesburg, said.

"People are protesting because they don't have a house. You've got people who have put their names down since 1996 to get state-funded houses and who still haven't received a house."

There are large numbers of South Africans living in shacks made of corrugated iron houses where they cannot have access to running water or electricity. Housed in such frail constructions, their possessions are lost to floods and fires. The demonstrators are also angry at the absence of functioning sewage facilities.

Ramaphosa's visit

During his visit to the township of Alexandra last Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that he was appalled by the filth and dirt in the streets.

"You have sewage that lies on roads and in playgrounds where children play," said Frye.

Ramaphosa told Alexandra residents that he has seen "sewage spilling over Alex streets".

"I have seen that Alex is dirty and you don't want that," he said.

Frye explains that inadequate public transport system makes it difficult for the residents to look for jobs in central business districts.

Furthermore, she added, crime levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world.

"Whether it is in your house where people can attack you and steal and rob or whether it is walking down the streets. Social crimes are always linked to some kind of gratuitous violence, whether it is rape or murder," Frye pursues.

The Alexandra Renewal Project

In 2001, the Alexandra Renewal Project was launched under Thabo Mbeki's administration. 1.6 billion Rands were set aside to transform the township into an ambitious multi-facetted urban project aiming to improve the physical, social and economic environment of Alexandra.

"ANC members were employed to drive the Alexandra Renewal Project in Alexandra. There can be no question that the R1.6 billion set aside by the national and provincial government for the Alexandra Renewal Project has been looted and used by the ANC," accuses Herman Mashaba, DA mayor of Johannesburg.

The Alexandra people felt betrayed as they have never been the beneficiaries of that development project.

Same problems go round and round

Twenty-five years after South Africa's first democratic elections, after the apartheid rule, it seems that nothing changed.

The same protests on the same issues erupt at regular intervals. More so during elections time to catch the attention of politicians.

For Frye, the causes of the problems are complex and lies in the manner in which funds are budgeted.

"In South Africa, the budget for local development are allocated directly from national to local government. The local government is elected and as a result it has quite an autonomous political identity from the national government," explains Frye.

She added that nepotism prevails and, in many cases, people employed at the local government level do not possess the skills needed to carry out their jobs efficiently.

"The local councilors in power nominate as permanent employees, their own families or friends. So, you see the budget just disappearing and not being spent on what was provided for. The high level of unemployment means that there is a desperation for any kind of income," said Frye.

A vicious circle of voters and politicians

The issues angrily raised by residents in the poorer areas of South Africa are not new.

Why have they not been resolved in a functioning democracy such as South Africa? Frye believes it is due to how people vote.

"Politicians, at a local council level, at provincial or national government level, might be involved with corruption but the electorate keep returning them to power," she declares.

"They will continue, every five years, to return the same people to power, who make them angry and on whose behalf they protest and burn," says Frye.

They vote for the same politicians because "historically they have an affinity to the people because of the liberation struggle."

Frye believes that both the electorate and the politicians are using the run-up to elections to score points.

During his visit to Alexandra, President Ramaphosa announced that he has formed an inter-governmental team to meet Herman Mashaba and iron out a plan to solve service delivery challenges in the township.

Mashaba said Ramaphosa is simply playing to the gallery

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