Service Delivery Protests - A Mechanism to Delegitimise Nonperforming Community Leaders
I have come to understand service delivery protests as a mechanism through which marginalised communities delegitimise nonperforming leaders. The association of violence and protest reflects deep-seated anger and the frustration of vulnerable community members, recently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, and the absence of local leadership. Many regard such protests as violent, spontaneous, unco-ordinated demonstrations of people consumed by a sense of entitlement to free services. However, an alternative interpretation is that they are a mechanism to capture the attention of the public and the higher levels of government leadership in the absence of a legitimate leader.
The recent violent protest at the Quarry Road informal settlement near the M19 in Durban lived up to the American maxim, “the streets are talking”. The fact that a community of around a hundred people should be forced to share a single toilet, should be of major concern to Ward 23 councillor, Mr Xolani Nala and should be at the top of his to-do-list. Instead of Nala speaking out on this issue, Mr Mbongeni Jali, a local resident took it upon himself to alert the public about what was happening through an interview with Mr Dasen Thathiah on eNCA. Jali mentioned illegal electricity connections and acknowledged the wrongness of their actions, but noted that the community has no choice, as they also need electricity. In a country where the power utility is struggling to deliver on its mandate, with more than 10 municipalities owing Eskom R43.9 billion, as stated by the Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, the need for power has never been as urgent.
EThekwini Municipality’s Energy Unit visited the area to disconnect illegal connections in order to reduce the city’s expenditure. The absence of Cllr Nala during the disconnections fuelled an already volatile situation. Being missing in action at a decisive moment when people need a leader is the death knell of one’s political career. Thathiah stated that he had tried to reach the councillor to no avail. His actions speak of a leader who no longer enjoys the support of the community and who has lost legitimacy and credibility.
Legitimate leaders serve their communities. A leader who is afraid of his people demonstrates that he has lost legitimacy, control and recognition. What other means are there for communities to express their frustration? Generally, they draw public and media attention in the hopes that national leadership will intervene. Frustrated communities are putting out a clarion call to say that current local leadership is illegitimate and no longer represents them. There have been many service delivery protests where ward councillors have failed to respond to media queries, forcing residents to speak on behalf of the community.
While at face value, the protests seem to be about service delivery, they are also extremely political. The Municipal IQ reports that service delivery protests tend to increase in the run-up to elections. With the 2021 Local Government Elections fast approaching, those vying for leadership positions seek recognition and support from the masses. They use protests to create visibility. It is no surprise to witness an increase in service delivery protests at this juncture across South Africa. Recently, the community of Osizweni, Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal embarked on a violent protest due to poor waste collection and the expulsion of waste collectors who claimed that the municipality owed them overtime payments. When Mr Mlondi Radebe, SABC News journalist, asked Mr Bandile Msibi the organiser of Newcastle Deserve Better what the aim of the protest was, he responded: ‘It is a [call on] the ANC Provincial leadership to [intervene] in this matter….to remove the mayor of Newcastle.’ This is just one of many examples of protest as a way of delegitimising sitting leadership.
Allegations that some ward councillors hoarded food parcels meant for vulnerable families during the COVID-19 pandemic, or distributed them according to political affiliations have exacerbated the predicament of poor communities. It would not be surprising if such communities engage in protests that, in the words of community activist, Mary de Hass, ‘boil over into overt violence.’ Thus, violent protests are the result of deep-rooted issues that are not addressed by those mandated to do so. Since nature does not allow for a vacuum, factions within communities capitalise on the shortcomings of local leaders and attempt to fill the void. While community leaders are sometimes sabotaged by political opponents, they are equally capable of shooting themselves in the foot through non-performance and corruption.
Public officials especially ward councillors, need to always be aware of community perceptions and engage in self-reflection on how well they are serving their constituencies. While opposing forces might try to seize power, when the people who elected a leader remain confident in him/her, his/her legitimacy is guaranteed. The measure of a leader is always based on the ability to serve. When people rise up against the state, a leader must remain visible, take charge of the situation and drive a noble narrative. Local leaders can only retain their legitimacy by displaying exemplary conduct and truly serving their people.
Mr Siyabonga Ntombela is a lecturer in the International and Public Affairs (IPA) cluster in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.
*This Opinion-Editorial was originally published in the Sunday Tribune on 1 November 2020.