Listen and hear

Another week, another service delivery protest, another round of arguments about the causes.

The standard dismissal of grievances in such cases is that they are motivated not by the organic development of communities’ anger, but by the provocation of local politicians angry at having lost out in party list processes.

And the standard rebuttal is that concerns over housing, water, sanitation and jobs are at the heart of a new kind of activism, one that may ultimately culminate in Egypt-style mass protest.

Neither argument really explains the dynamics of protest in places like Ermelo, which erupted in violence this week. The timing makes it plausible that battles over the ANC local government election lists were a factor, but it is very difficult to mobilise people who have no legitimate grievance.

On the other hand, angry and disaffected citizens, frustrated with what they see as a failing government and limited political choices, may easily rally behind someone who argues he or she is a victim of the status quo.

In fact it is precisely the preoccupation of municipal politicians and officials with their own positions and patronage opportunities that is at the root of so much delivery failure. In this sense, real grievance and political manipulation are fundamentally entwined with each other.

A cure for these ills is a more genuinely and transparently competitive political environment. That ought to take two forms. Opposition parties need to up their game at local level and pose enough of a real threat to the dominant ANC to keep its representatives on the straight and narrow. The other is expansion of direct constituency representation, which exists at local level, but is often undermined by party bosses seeking to manage the process.

Both the ANC and opposition parties need to give life to the constitutional framework. If they don’t, they risk being overwhelmed by those who feel it no longer serves them and choose other means of being heard.

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