Early on Monday morning, I went to run a short errand in my old township of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth. I finished quickly and decided to drive past our house in Ngxovu Street to say a quick hello to the family.
I soon remembered, though, that, despite the revelry around town, April 30 was not a public holiday and everyone was probably at work or school. So I turned around and took a detour through the township.
It took me along Singaphi Street, one of the main thoroughfares that connects the celebrated but poor areas around Red Location (with its anti-apartheid struggle museum) to the city’s fancier southern suburbs by way of the industrial area of Deal Party and the N2 highway.
As I reached the end of the long, winding avenue, I was suddenly confronted by an unusually large crowd for a weekday morning and assumed that I was caught in one of the protests that are now a feature of South African township life.
I was wrong. There were no burning tyres or barricades on the road. This crowd was orderly and even sombre. They had gathered to claim one of the most basic rights owed to them under the Constitution of the country they call home.
A large water truck stood on the side of the road and residents carried buckets, plastic basins, canisters and anything else they could use to get their ration and take it back to their homes. The queue must already have been a hundred and growing. It was starting to snake around one of the small dead ends that lead off many large streets in this township.
Since my arrival in town for the long weekend, many friends and family members had complained bitterly about taps that had been dry for days and even weeks in some parts of the large township. Supermarkets were doing a great trade in 20-litre bottles of water as residents who could afford it stocked up for cooking and ablution purposes. Water for flushing was now a bit of a luxury.
In parts of the city, particularly the townships that are home to the majority of residents, an intermittent water supply and unexplained electricity disruptions are the norm. Residents also accuse the city of communicating very poorly about the causes and estimated duration of service disruptions.
Remarkably, there have been no violent “service delivery protests” and no torching of public utilities in New Brighton. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps the people there are more patient than in other places. Perhaps such problems are new to them and they have not yet been tested beyond their endurance. Or perhaps their elected representatives are still responsive to their pleas and are believed to be doing everything they can to alleviate the situation.
Whatever the explanation for the relative calm of people who have had no water — and no plausible explanations — for weeks, it is dissimilar to scenes playing out in the rest of the country, and it probably will not last.
Violent protests are under way this week in Soweto and Mitchells Plain, two of the country’s largest and most politically significant population centres. In North West, the capital, Mahikeng, has been in flames for weeks. The collapse of services in that province is particularly egregious, and the sewage often runs down suburban streets in Rustenburg, its largest city.
In all of these and many others, the common denominator is poor black communities despairing of any notion that the ballot box or normal civic action is enough to persuade the authorities to take their concerns seriously.
Neither that feeling nor the political powder keg it has bred is likely to subside soon. At the local level at least, the state is unravelling and the citizenry has seen it. They are growing increasingly restless and impatient with the political covenant that keeps passions in check in less dysfunctional democracies. It will take the most skilful political management to reverse the tide.
We know how and why this is a problem for the ANC, which is still in charge of nearly 60% of the country’s municipalities and is still the author of much of the story of abject failure we see unfolding.
But increasingly, it is a huge headache for the Democratic Alliance as well. Since 2016 the party has been in charge of half the country’s metropolitan municipalities and, in the eyes of a growing number of residents, it has yet to do better than the ANC it replaced.
Service protests in Nelson Mandela Bay, Cape Town and Johannesburg are the DA’s headache, not the ANC’s. It does not help the party that in all the municipalities it captured in 2016, it must rely on politically unstable coalition or minority governments.
The “era of coalitions” that the party wanted to usher in as a new dawn in our politics may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Not that angry, rampaging residents care about any of that. Nor do they care for pleas that some of the problems their city governments are failing to address have their genesis in the ANC’s time in office. Even when the collapse of services is not the DA’s fault (in Cape Town, at least, it is), it is the DA’s responsibility to fix it wherever the party governs.
The “Cape Town story” — the notion that that city stood as testament to the good things that happen when the DA governs — was always hogwash, vulnerable to even the most cursory scrutiny beyond the city’s affluent suburbs. Now it lies in tatters, as poor residents wise up to the reality that the party does no better by them than the ANC did.
In more ways than one, the DA bit off more than it could chew in 2016. It may come to regret the strategy of getting the ANC out at all costs and taking over as many local governments as it could. As the townships burn, it looks as though it would have been wiser to ride the “Cape Town story” a little longer, at least until the party could incrementally win clear governing mandates.
It now heads towards the next municipal elections deeply implicated in the messy and violent collapse of the state at local level. It cannot blame the ANC for that.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy