South Africa: Burning Anger in the Townships

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There has been an explosion of riots and community uprisings across South Africa for more than 18 months.

Townships and squatter camps have been in flames as thousands of poor people burnt down local government buildings and fought against the police. These protests express the growing frustration among black South Africans at the dreadful state of public services, and their bitterness with the government.

Late last year, the anger of black commuters erupted at the wretched state of the railways in Johannesburg. The rioting that followed went to the heart of divisions in the city. Impressive roads and highways are used by a multiracial middle class to criss-cross the city, and by using private cars these commuters avoid the hardships of local transport.

Meanwhile, workers living in Soweto are forced to make use of grossly inadequate public transport. Between September and November last year 43 Metrorail coaches were destroyed by black commuters, most citing the delays to the service that see trains paralysed for as long as four hours as their motivation. Tebza Mokgope, a regular passenger, explained, "Most coaches are not clean, and you always worry about cockroaches getting into your bag and embarrassing you when they come out at your workplace... Put yourself in that situation, and think whether you would not have supported those who vented their anger by torching the trains."

The response of the government has been astonishing. It fast-tracked a plan to spend 20 billion rand (just under £2 billion and three times the annual transport budget for the whole country) on Gautrain - a high speed commuter service between Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria. This service will serve a tiny and highly privileged minority. It is estimated that Gautrain will be used by approximately 4 percent of working people in Gauteng province.

The ANC government ministers denounce the protesters as an "enemy within", but the real root of the discontent is neo-liberalism. No other country in Africa has embraced with such craven enthusiasm the agenda of privatisation and the free market. The resulting economic growth has meant considerable dividends for the rich and the middle class. The wealthy live behind their security gates - shuttling between house and shopping malls. Nowadays, everything is done in the malls - all social and consumer activity, including trips to the cinemas, restaurants and bars. This group, though predominately white, has been expanded by a new layer of black professionals.

The striking division in wealth induces a state of schizophrenia. You can move so quickly between wealth and misery that it is hard to maintain your balance. In many ways South Africa presents us with a vision of the future. The largely unchanging poverty of the poor and the working class is almost invisible in apartheid townships, and almost everywhere the interests of private business dominate government policy.

Since 1994 the ANC government has relied on an alliance between the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the main trade union federation, COSATU. This alliance has been a vital element in keeping the peace, but cracks are appearing. SACP branches have helped to lead protests in Gauteng, with its members publicly calling for an end to the partnership with the ANC. Others are refusing to canvass for the ANC in the municipal elections in March.

By January president Thabo Mbeki was feeling the pressure of these protests - he announced a 400 billion rand spending programme on local government over the next five years. He also promised the end of the bucket system (where lack of running water forces township dwellers to use buckets as toilets) by the end of 2007. The package also promises clean water and sanitation for every South African by 2010, and electricity by 2012. This announcement was made almost simultaneously with the revelation that the deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and her family had travelled on an airforce jet for a 70,000 rand shopping trip to Dubai. Revelations such as these have led to widespread cynicism.

These factors do not mean that the new political formations, independent candidates and community groups will automatically pick up votes in the 1 March municipal elections. The understandable cynicism will probably more readily turn into abstention. The question remains, can a radical opposition begin to emerge against the ANC and address a disparate movement that demands political expression and direction?


Leo Zeilig is the editor of a collection entitled Class Struggle and Resistance In Africa