INTERVENTION:  Soldiers have been brought in to distribute water after last week’s violent service delivery protests in  the township of Mothutlung near Brits. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Service delivery protests in the township of Mothutlung near Brits last month. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE wave of violent service delivery protests sweeping South Africa has posed a puzzle. Why now, on the eve of an election, when living conditions in townships and informal settlements have been abysmal for years? What or who lies behind them? And what is their political significance — large, in that they portend a loss of legitimacy of the state and the African National Congress (ANC); or less, in that they will have a limited effect on the national political stage?

Bekkersdal, Mothutlung and Bronkhorstspruit are three of the sites where violent protests have made headlines in recent months. The service delivery issues were different in each: municipal corruption in Bekkersdal; water shortages in Mothutlung; electricity billing in Bronkhorstspruit.

As in the other 500 or so service delivery protests police have recorded over the past three months, residents were easily and quickly mobilised to join, and did so using the methods that worked so well to fight apartheid: toyi-toying, and burning tyres and public property.

Significantly, in all these communities, the protest that turned violent was not the first time people had marched and complained. But it was the first time after months of complaining that they got their leaders’ attention.

There is another, more hidden dimension common to all of them: the protest leaders had another axe to grind aside from poor living conditions. Whether on the losing side of some or other ANC battle or shut out from local business opportunities by more powerful factions, each leadership grouping had its own battle to fight over power and money, and mobilising service delivery protests was the best vehicle available to do so.

In Bronkhorstspruit, where residents were angry over electricity billing, it was a suspended ANC councillor and two groups of local businessmen shut out from council tenders that led people to the streets; in Mothutlung the leaders of the mass action over water shortages had recently lost out in ANC branch elections; and in Bekkersdal local business and unsuccessful ANC candidates for local government elections teamed up to lead the people into battle over a sudden and astronomical increase in grave fees.

Bronkhorstspruit is a good example of the alliances at work behind the scenes in disgruntled communities. The background is the incorporation of the town into the City of Tshwane in 2011. As is often the case when the seat of government shifts due to redemarcation, even though there was fresh investment in electricity distribution and sewerage reticulation, people there felt they were now "the unwanted stepchild" of a much bigger operation.

For local businesspeople, who had before held contracts with the local council, the upshot was more serious as they were placed on a database with all the other service providers of the city. But, says Matlakala Mashishi, a local businessman with a construction company, they were never called to provide services. "Even small projects like internal roads, they took for themselves. Local business didn’t get any. Why can’t they leave small things for local people?" he asks.

He was not the only one aggrieved. Other businesspeople aspiring to break into the tender business formed a business forum, seeking contracts such as catering, refuse removal and construction. Shut out from growing his business, which relies completely on government contracts, Mr Mashishi joined forces with the ANC Zithobeni ward councillor, Solomon Phiri, a victim of faction fights in the ANC, who had been suspended from the council for the past two years. Mr Phiri’s suspension is clearly irregular — the city says it goes against council policy — but nothing he has done has been able to reverse it.

Both Mr Phiri and Mr Mashishi claim councillors in the metro have people fronting for them, grabbing business opportunities; and that patronage is also exercised through recruitment for jobs as metro police trainees and in public works programmes, which the dominant faction has used to secure position on the ground. (Tshwane spokesman Blessing Manale says the allegations of corruption are vague and the city has no outstanding matters with either the auditor-general or public protector. He says clear criteria were attached to the recruitment of trainee metro police officers.)

With conditions much the same as in any other township — a large informal settlement and overstretched resources — residents were easily mobilised behind the fight against the City of Tshwane, led by Mr Mashishi, Mr Phiri and the emerging Papama Business Forum. In the process the fully stocked library, which serves thousands of Zithobeni schoolchildren, was gutted by fire, as was the police station and other municipal facilities.

In Bekkersdal, the alliance of the disaffected was strikingly similar. Protests were led by the Greater Westonaria Concerned Residents Group, which in August took up the fight against the sudden increase in grave fees from R270 to R1,970.

A meeting was called, a memorandum drawn up and a march held. Added to the demands was a call for a forensic inquiry into the much-vaunted Bekkersdal urban renewal, a R1.2bn initiative dating from 2003.

Rather than changing the face of the township, as promised, the result of the project was street lights that worked for only a month before being stripped and used for illegal electricity connections, and several other failed economic development projects. (The Westonaria municipality says the lighting was vandalised continually and the development projects, which are defunct, were the responsibility of the province and not the council.)

It was after the municipality did not respond to the memo that the second march was held, at which things turned violent and property was destroyed.

While the grievances of the community are pressing — conditions in Bekkersdal include a river of sewage flowing down the streets from overflowing manholes — it is nonetheless interesting to look at who the members of Concerned Residents Group are. Some, like Wonder Modise, are leaders the community nominated to be ANC councillors but who were not chosen by the ANC. Others are local construction contractors, bitter that local tenders are won time and again by outsiders, cutting local businesses out of the picture.

IN MOTHUTLUNG, where earlier this month four people died in a protest over water, service delivery failures have a dark side that has not yet been fully uncovered.

The problem has been the supply of water, which failed over the December holiday period when a poorly maintained pump broke and the two back-ups had been so neglected they were beyond repair. With water no longer coming out of the taps, the Madibeng municipality arranged for tankers to supply the community. But the use of tankers, according to community members as well as the DA opposition in the council, has been steadily increasing over the years, accompanied by a reluctance by the municipality to put sensible maintenance measures in place to keep the pumps and pipes in good working order.

This has raised suspicion — further fuelled by a refusal by the council since August to provide the names of the contracted companies — that councillors and officials are benefiting from the water tanker contracts.

Accompanying this wilful neglect of the water infrastructure is a long history of governance problems and political interference by the ANC in the province. This has included the blocking of all attempts to improve governance and root out corruption. Although the council was placed under administration in 2011, the administrator’s close-out report was never implemented. A later report by the local government minister at the time, Richard Baloyi, also found its way to the dustbin when the mayoral committee, itself implicated, decided against its implementation.

While residents of Mothutlung have more than enough reason to protest, it was a group of ANC members, who had lost out in elections when the local branch relaunched some time last year, that got a bakkie and a loud hailer and called a protest over the water tankers. Among the first things they did was redirect two tankers to the home of ward councillor Solly Davids — whom they accuse of benefiting from the tankers — and open the taps into his yard.

The protestors were soon joined by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) active in North West. But by its own admission the EFF is not behind either this or other protests in the region. Says Alfred Motsi, a former Umkhonto weSizwe member turned Fighter who has been in Mothutlung and neighbouring Hebron: "Each community is doing its own thing. But we are a mass protest organisation so when there is a protest we are going to go there and advise. But it was the ANC and the South African National Civics Organisation who organised those people. We just made use of the opportunity that arose."

While the politics of insurrection are attractive to the EFF, it has neither the resources nor the capacity to stoke the violence as conspiracy theorists might imagine.

The internal dynamics of the protests also expose the absurdity of Gauteng safety MEC Faith Mazibuko’s claim that "a hidden hand" lies behind them. Instead, it appears the ANC in most cases functions as an internal opposition to itself, moving into protest mode or falling back to support the party when the occasion demands. Viewed like this it is not surprising both protest instigators and those on the receiving end will be found campaigning for the ANC in the coming election. Mothutlung’s Mr Davids says: "We have our structures here that will work for the ANC", while Mr Mashishi from Bronkhorstspruit says: "We will convince them to go out and vote for the ANC. We might have differences but we can’t sell the revolution."

The manner in which the ANC continues to hold sway locally and at a national level also explains why, despite an average of 34 protest incidents a day, according to police records, this is neither our Arab Spring nor the arrival of the Hot African Summer.