The law, like the suburban American house, is designed to order a particular pattern of relationships, many of them oriented around the heterosexual nuclear family. For real people in contemporary circumstances to inhabit the house the law built, one has to find side doors and discreet corners, while the dominant space changes little and the façade remains unaltered. The two big L.G.B.T.-rights Supreme Court victories that came before Bostock—Windsor and Obergefell—did exactly that: they carved out a place for monogamous same-sex couples who want to marry (statistically, these are more apt to be white middle-class people like the plaintiffs) in the house of the American nuclear family.
Why are South Africans in Tokoza, Diepsloot, Mashishing, Emalahleni, Simile and other townships across the country protesting “poor service delivery” by blockading roads with rocks and burning tyres and throwing stones at police? The government seems to be at a loss. It has commissioned a report on these “service delivery protests”, and has decided to audit elected local councillors and municipalities to try and stem the tide.
Pardon me for being a party-pooper, but I would be shocked and surprised if these steps – while sincere and laudable – will bring and end to the protests.
And although the announcement that the ANC is beefing up its constituency offices so that its elected representatives can better respond to the needs of the voters who elected them is to be applauded, this move on its own will not make much of a difference either. This is because in my opinion these protests are the result not of technical or technocratic problems around “service delivery”, but rather because of larger problems in our society and our political discourse.
Surely it is far too simplistic to say the protests may be the result of an ANC plot – as Helen Zille stupidly suggested. And it is also far to easy to blame Thabo Mbeki and – like Sipho Seepe – to suggest that local councillors are perceived as part of the previous Mbeki regime and protesters are therefore protesting against Mbeki.
I suspect the protests are at least partly caused by the fact that we live in a deeply divided society, a society in which the ever increasing gap between rich and poor is exacerbated by the neo-liberal economic policies of the government. This means rich and poor receive vastly and scandalously different services and opportunities. Rich people can send their kids to good schools, live in clean and leafy suburbs and have access to streetlights, tarred roads, clean water, electricity (well, most of the time) and all the other municipal services that money can buy.
It seems obscene that in the middle class suburb where I live, the City Council regularly sends workers to sweep the streets and collect the falling leaves while a few kilometers away people do not have access to clean water and live in shacks. The kind of justifiable resentment bred by such glaringly obvious injustice will eventually boil over unless people feel that something is really being done about it.
The government, of course, knows this and is committed to improving the lives of poor South Africans. But because the ANC is the only viable governing party and because the ANC-run government is one of the few profitable employers for people who do not have high end skills, or do not wish to “fit in” with the dominant Western culture (or have too much dignity to do so), nepotism and corruption in appointments is inevitable and thus often result in the appointment of spectacularly unqualified and heartless individuals to important positions at municipal level. The result is that services deteriorate for those who do not have the wealth to contract out of the public system and those affected see the wealth of the white elite and the wealth of the well-connected public officials and they get bloody angry.
All this would have still been okay if the government was less technocratic and more democratic. It seems to me the enormity of the task of transforming South Africa has led the government to exactly the wrong conclusion, namely, that in order to effect change clever people in government offices had to devise plans, listen to consultants and then had to implement “service delivery” in accordance with these plans – regardless of what people really wanted.
“We as the ANC have liberated you from apartheid and now we will liberate you from poverty,” the government seems to think. This grandiose but delusional elite-driven governance is perfectly illustrated by the N2 Gateway Housing Project. With the best of intentions the government decided to “upgrade” the Joe Slovo settlement. Some clever official devised a plan in terms of which the residents of Joe Slovo would be moved to Delft, 15 kilometers and a R10 taxi ride away, and new houses would be built in Joe Slovo for an emerging lower middle class clientele. The officials just forgot to actually ask the members of the Joe Slovo community if this was what they really wanted. The results have been disastrous.
As Steven Friedman pointed out this morning, the government seems to confuse “service delivery” with “public service”:
Public service, by contrast, starts from the recognition that, in a democracy, the government’s job is not to “deliver” to citizens. It is, rather, to listen to them, to do what the majority asks, if that is possible, and, where it is not, to work with citizens to ensure that what is done is as close to what they want as it can be. It stems from the core democratic idea that government works for citizens and that it cannot do this unless it listens to them.
The protesters are demanding public service, not delivery. While the causes of the protests differ from area to area, in every case people want to be heard and to be taken seriously. The protesters are saying that they are citizens with rights and that they insist on being treated accordingly.
In some cases, people do want cleaner water or better neighbourhoods. But that does not mean they want officials to “deliver” to them. A study of people who benefited from government housing subsidies in the 1990s found that those who had larger and better houses were not more satisfied than the rest: the only people who were happy were those who said they had been able to choose their housing type. The beneficiaries were saying that they did not want the houses officials thought they should have, even if they were technically “better” — they wanted the houses that they chose.
Constant claims that citizens want “service delivery” are antidemocratic because they deny citizens a voice: reporters and commentators do not have to listen to what protesters are saying, they can decide for them what they do not like.
What we need is a more democratic and responsive state, not one fixated on numbers and targets. We need a state that not only believes its slogan of Bathopele – people first – but also follows it. Of course, such an approach would remove much of the power from the elected officials and government apparatchiks and lower their status and would make it more difficult to justify the need for their fancy cars and inflated salaries.
But until we have more democracy and less technocratic centralism, people will continue to protest, burn tyres and throw stones at police.BACK TO TOP