Recently we heard the shocking news about a community in the North West that went about burning schools because they were unhappy with a gravel road that was meant to be tarred. To make matters worse school children were prevented from going to school, in an attempt at getting the local authority to act.
Now, sixteen years into democracy, this is very difficult to understand. Why would a community behave this way? Should government respond by saying that those schools will not be rebuilt? Surely, actions should have consequences.
Former trade union leader and government minister, Jay Naidoo, speaking in the context of the launch of his book, ‘Fighting for Justice’, said that burning a school was criminal. Not many people will disagree with Naidoo but the situation demands that we attempt a deeper understanding of what would possess a community to burn schools and jeopardize the future of thousands of children. No doubt education remains the only hope in a country with gross inequality and an unskilled base. But just dismissing the misdirected anger of the poor as criminal doesn’t help us to understand it.
While it is obviously regrettable when public property is damaged there is a reason which popular protest, from Paris in 2005 to London in 1981 and Johannesburg in 1976, often targets government property. Protest, to be effective, has to target an accessible target with the appropriate symbolic value. When rage is felt against a government then government property will always be a potential target for protest.
During the eighties the burning of schools was a fairly common occurrence in South Africa. But of course the context was different and then the overriding, and certainly damaging call, was ‘liberation before education.’ Clearly, our context has changed dramatically. In explaining the burning of schools, Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s secretary general, offered one line of analysis. He spoke of a social gap and the fact that townships had lost their leadership. Many township leaders have moved into middle class suburbia, thus leaving a serious leadership vacuum, resulting in incidents like the burning of schools. This is a very problematic and reactionary argument as it assumes that the poor need to be under middle class control.
An explanation that demands greater attention is the idea that communities are seriously and even desperately frustrated as they feel that they are not being listened to. If we pay attention to the thinking of people organising and participating in unfortunate incidents like burning schools and libraries, one thing becomes immediately clear. And that is that these protests are in response to a crisis of local democracy rather than what has often been referred to as a crisis of service delivery.
It is true enough that in most instances failed service or misguided delivery is where things begin to go wrong. But even here the problems with service delivery are often due to a lack of democratic public participation in decision-making. For instance, if people are not consulted about issues like the tarring of roads and the building of low cost housing, protest is likely even though service delivery is happening.
For as long as government officials continue to assume that a mandate at the polls gives them a mandate to act in a unilateral and top-down manner for five years, these protests will continue. Ordinary South Africans had a taste of popular democracy in the great democratic upsurge of the 1980s and expect the post-liberation democracy to take the same popular form - to be ruled by the people rather than ruled by experts.
Of course, protests take various forms. The wave of popular protest that has convulsed the country since 2004 has operated within and without the ruling party. In some cases the key tactic has been the march, usually aimed at local councilors and in others it has been that time-honored tactic, the road blockade. In some cases protest has led to short explosions of rage and in one case it has led to the development of the largest and best organized social movement in the country. In a few cases there have been attacks on public property.
Of course these levels of intense social conflict are potentially very damaging and extremely embarrassing some sixteen years into democracy. Imagine what the world must think when their eyes turn to us to see an action replay of the 1980s with burning tires, teargas, rubber bullets and pitched battles between the very poor and the police in our streets. Protests and the burning of schools and other state property are an indication of the deep levels of frustration in communities and clearly about a deep crisis of local democracy.
The logical resolution to this crisis is not that the poor need middle class stewardship from township leaders, civil society or any of the competing middle class left sects. The logical resolution to this crisis is a genuine change in the nature of local democracy.
The government needs to take public participation seriously and to recognise that ordinary people have every right to be part of the deliberations and decision-making that will affect their lives. And commentators and experts, be they in the media, NGOS or the academy, need to learn that they should listen carefully to the voice of the poor rather than just make easy assumptions about what they think people are saying. In some cases the left has just as far to go to learn this lesson as anyone else.
Experts would like this crisis to be only about service delivery because then the response to the crisis would be to bring in more expertise. But a crisis of local democracy means less reliance on experts and taking the intelligence and experience of ordinary people more seriously. It means fewer Powerpoint presentations and more community meetings. Then, perhaps people will not resort to doing the unthinkable, like burning schools and libraries.
Leadership is Required to Connect to the People
the article by Imraan Buccus titled "Burning Schools Point to a Disconnect Between Communities and the State" raises important questions about democracy and leadership.
The assertion of a social gap by the COSATU Secretary General cannot be dismissed that easily as attempted by Imraan. the fact of the matter is that indeed our local communities have been left without experienced leadership as a result of exodus to previously white areas. As a result, legitimate community protests are led by emerging activists who do not command necessary community activism experience. This is not to question their right to lead protests but is rather a true state of affairs. On the other hand, the 1994 democratic breakthrough demobilised the spirit of community activism in the society because people felt "their government was in power" and would henceforth serve their interests. This is an area that experienced activists may want to reflect on with a view of ploughing back their skills rather than positioning themselves as spokesperson of these communities.
Secondly, it has been established that there is no link between the legitimate community protests for tarred roads and the burning of schools. the community leadership that organised the protest have distanced themselves from the acts of burning schools and pointed out possibilities of criminality, especially because the school were burned late at night when the protest marches were long over. the conclusions reached by Imraan in this regard may be challenged!!!
Thirdly, whereas there is a general agreement that there is "disconnect" between the state and communities, these facts cannot be exagerrated by unrelated incidence such as the one in question. the disconnect requires a careful analysis and I am of the view that certain democratic spaces can be effectively utilised to close these gaps; for example:
Ward Committees, IDP processes, partnerships between government and civil society organisations, etc. These opportunities will require leadership on the part of the government and it is true that there has not been visible leadership in this regard.
Democratic Decision Making
I am a Quaker. For those who do not know Quakers are a wholly democratic religious organisation. Every member has an equal say in all decision making. Community decision making meetings are open to all members and a communal decision does not exist until no member of the community disagrees with it. Quakers came into existence in England in 1652 and have always operated in this manner. Decision taking can on some occasions take a great deal of time but when arrived at they are well rooted within the community. It is difficult if not impossible for factions or lobby groups to develop and flourish under theses circumstances. Local government could do no harm to follow the same practice.