Ralph Mathekga: Alex shutdown might be only the beginning

For people whose lives are constantly disrupted by poverty and general destitution, the idea that peaceful non-disruptive protests will highlight their plight is unrealistic, writes Ralph Mathekga.

Just a few weeks before the May 8 elections, South Africa is grappling with service delivery protests which have been spreading across the country since the now infamous Alex shutdown.

It is not surprising to see protests becoming widespread in the days leading up to the elections. Anyone who has observed South Africa's elections in the past would know that this is a common phenomenon.

South Africa generally experiences higher than average service delivery protests per day, even outside the election cycle. Whilst researchers do not agree on the number of protests per day, South Africa is reported to have experienced over 2 000 protests in 2017. That's a high number and means that protesting is becoming a preferred mode of engagement between politicians and communities.  

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It is not surprising to see a protest movement such as the Alexandra shutdown spreading across the country, particularly in the townships in Gauteng. There have been similar shutdowns in other areas before. For instance, there was a shutdown in the municipality of Senwabarwana in Limpopo where communities complained about poor services and the state of public roads.

Townships such as Tembisa in Gauteng experience low-key shutdowns now and again, all related to service delivery deadlock. Towards the 2016 local government elections, the IEC reported an increasing number of protests in the weeks and days leading to the elections.

Therefore, there is nothing exceptional about what we are currently experiencing; it is a common phenomenon in the period leading to the elections. Voters have already realised that politicians often hastily make promises when elections are looming. Besides this, our political system responds better to crisis than a normal conversation about delivery of services. This is the reason why voters tend to engage in disruptive behaviours when they stage protests.

The more violent a protest, the more disruptive it becomes; and the more disruptive, the more likely it will be reported in the news. Localised protests become national news by the degree to which they are disruptive.

The idea of a peaceful protest attaining the desired goals has become laughable. For people whose lives are constantly disrupted by poverty and general destitution, the idea that peaceful non-disruptive protests will highlight their plight is unrealistic. For a nation that has engaged in violent protest for decades, violence has become the preferred method of delivering the message.

Political parties often display poor leadership to communities during these protests. Quite often, parties are generally concerned about extracting political mileage out of the protest. The Alex shutdown is a case in point whereby the ANC seeks to embarrass the DA-led administration struggling to build a relationship with the people of Alex. The ANC should be blamed for failing to deal with the squalor that is Alex, whilst the DA should be blamed for failing to tread a new path with Alex.

The Alex situation is a textbook case of failure of intergovernmental relations. There will be no long-lasting solution for Alex without cooperation between the municipality, provincial and national government. This means that the solution for the Alex relies on cooperation between the ANC and the DA at various spheres of government.

Those political parties that are instigating protests should know that one way or another, the problem will soon be on their doorstep. Protests are not going to stop once we are done with the elections, they will most likely continue as methods of disrupting business as usual in the system that is becoming unresponsive to the plight of the poor.

Voters will continue to exert pressure on politicians right into the elections, and possibly even more intensely after the elections. The shutdown movement might spread further after the elections.

- Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

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