A resident of Mothutlung in Brits, North West, stokes a fire during a protest on Monday about water scarcity in the area. Picture: SOWETAN
A resident of Mothutlung in Brits, North West, stokes a fire during a protest over water scarcity in the area in January last year. Picture: SOWETAN

IN ITS front page lead this Sunday, City Press reported that president Jacob Zuma had decided to spend the second voter registration weekend "relaxed" at his private residence in Nkandla, so he might "sidestep" potential service delivery protests in Gauteng, where he was due to campaign.

Obviously, his reputation already tarnished by the booing at former president Nelson Mandela’s memorial, Zuma’s standing would have suffered significant further damage had unhappy residents been able to target him in person.

Whatever the veracity of City Press’s argument, this possibility is certainly not without precedent.

Protestors harangued Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane out of Bekkersdal late last year — an incident that prompted her now notorious comment: "The African National Congress (ANC) doesn’t need their dirty votes". Others, including MECs, have been chased from the scene as they have tried to talk to angry residents.

Indeed, Gauteng, as is so often the case, is the touchstone for service delivery protests — think of the country’s xenophobic attacks. The province is fairly electric with widespread unhappiness and discontent. This massively populated concentration of people — in the biggest economy in Africa, relatively close to our neighbouring countries and thus the first port of call for immigrants and the locally desperate alike — remains the ultimate litmus test for the national mood.

Gauteng human settlements MEC Ntombi Mekgwe said last week the ANC had "no doubt in our minds that this sudden upsurge in violent protests is linked to the upcoming elections". The upcoming elections might well play a part in the increasing intensity and frequency of these outbreaks but they certainly aren’t anything new. As City Press reports, there have been 2,947 such protests in the last three months and 3,258 in the last three-and-a-half years — an average of 32 a day. Gauteng remains the worst affected. Mekgwe estimates the last 50 protests in the province cost some R55m in damages, as so much public property is ransacked and vandalised during protest.

ANC Gauteng secretary David Makhura has offered a different explanation, suggesting it had more to do with who will benefit from service delivery and who will not — an allusion to tenders and state contracts. One way or the other, stirred or spontaneous, the unhappiness is now palpable and Gauteng is suffering the brunt of its violent expression.

Whatever the explanation, the ANC can thank apartheid that this sort of widespread discontent has not manifested into a consolidated mass movement to dispose of the provincial government. Apartheid spatial planning means South Africa’s biggest economic hub is a disparate collection of hotspots — it simply has no central focal point where the urban and rural poor are massed in one geographic area. Rather, they are dispersed between Soweto in the South and Alexandra in the North and, between and around, in areas like Diepsloot and Orange Farm.

Traditionally, cities are not structured in this way. The poor and destitute generally occupy a single place; they are physically concentrated into a few areas, usually closer together than the fragmented and displaced collection of artificially created townships that constitute apartheid’s legacy. Had that happened, the ANC would have an entirely different problem and a far more serious one at that. Not only would grievance be shared, its effect would be multiplied and far grander, because concern is heightened in an environment where it is collectively felt.

The 2011 Gauteng City Region Review produced a map tracking service delivery protests in the province and across the country. Even back then, Gauteng leaps out as the hub for such demonstrations, a mass of sporadic uprisings. A more concentrated view of the province, however, shows that, the various hotspots are fairly dispersed, largely to the South and the North and along the provincial border.

As things stand, those expressing their unhappiness are forced to do so in micro protests, which spring up, on and off, throughout the province. There is no amalgamated, macro protest where those unhappy with the ANC’s performance have been able to unite on a sustained basis, and helping to preventing that is the fact that there exists no single geographic epicentre. Where is Gauteng’s Tahir Square? That has been the ANC’s saving grace.

Thus, the ANC and those that would represent it in government are able to move from one isolated incident to another, addressing each incident as though it were an aberration, particular to one area, ward or municipality.

However, were those people able to meet up across the city, given the scope of a wide range of common grievances, the environment would be rife for a far more meaningful assault on the ANC’s legitimacy.

It is ironic, indeed, that the one thing responsible for so much poverty and inequality in South Africa, and the rational that underpins the ANC’s national democratic revolution, should be the one thing that prevents a consolidated response to government’s failure to properly address its legacy. Apartheid has allowed the ANC both to define its agenda and to dilute any response to it; it is the one thing keeping service delivery protests random and unfocused.

It is supplemented and augmented by another element of the apartheid grand designed — a transport system thoroughly inept and unsuitable for the city’s demands and, on this front, the ANC itself can take much more of the blame. It has done precious little to fix the problem. Even getting its own members to big rallies necessitates a transport operation — from buses through trains — akin to the Allied Forces’ "big push". People are simply unable to get to one place easily and in bulk.

These sorts of peri-urban outbreaks are likewise more easily handled by police, although even then their limits are being tested. An isolated incident is more easily targeted and controlled but, as Marikana showed, anything bigger than mild unrest runs the risk of automatically being escalated to nothing short of a mini-war between the state and citizens. You can be sure, had people mobilised in a significant way, the police would be quickly out of their depth.

ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize said last year South Africa is not facing its own "Arab Spring". You can be sure that has more to do with our geographic profile than any lack of effort.

The booing of president Zuma is interesting when viewed from this perspective. Rarely in Gauteng are people able to gather in large numbers. It might have only been a relatively small section of the 40,000 people that attended the Mandela memorial that damned Zuma that day but you could immediately sense the deep unease felt by those responsible for protocol. In the right environment, unhappiness can spread like wildfire. The timid and uncertain quickly find confidence in the words and actions of those that share their concern. Very quickly, the unstated grievance can become a rallying call to mass action.

With regards to service delivery protests, to date the ANC has been able to avoid this in the province more generally. It must live in fear that those communities suffering its poor performance some how link up across Gauteng.

That is unlikely to happen, but you can be sure those at Luthuli House must be quietly thanking Hendrik Verwoerd. He has delivered to them not only a reason to unite people behind the party but a geographic nightmare that acts as a bulwark against any consolidated response to its profound failure to turn the situation around.