We squeeze South Africa’s problems into silos: towns, villages, townships and entire communities that are out of sight of those with money and political power. Cut off from everywhere else, these communities are bathed in floodlights and reached by roads that are easy to lock down, ensuring that any protest action or expression of anger can be isolated.
If you live in Alexandra, Khayelitsha or a thousand other communities where the government has failed to deliver services, you are ignored. Politicians will whip up votes with promises of fixes or by blaming foreigners for any problems, and then leave to live in neighbourhoods that you aren’t welcome to access. Those neighbourhoods are guarded by security cameras and armed guards, with the aim of trying to ensure that only a select few can move through them.
In Alex this week, protesters tried to take their issues to Sandton. That’s where the stock exchange and this country’s wealthy decide how things will pan out. Those haves and the have-nots are divided by the busy M1 motorway, with just two pedestrian crossings built for people to get to work on foot. Just like apartheid planners intended when they designed our cities, this allowed those protesters to be stopped by the threat of private security waiting on the other side of those narrow crossings.
Stopped. Blocked. Forced to stay out of sight. Ignored by politicians and the media. People in Alex turned to the one thing that the government responds to — violence. From protests about dry taps to rapists in schools and abusive employers, our state has made a habit of only responding when burning tyres make it on to television screens. Then the bubble that is built around communities like Alex is burst. The rest of the country has to pay attention. Politicians suddenly have to face the consequences of their inaction.
The Democratic Alliance-led Johannesburg munipality sent Michael Sun, the mayoral council member responsible for public safety, to Alex in an armoured Nyala. That vehicle, now painted white, is a potent reminder of the then yellow armoured vehicles that the apartheid regime sent to force silence on angry communities. No wonder people say little has changed in 25 years of supposed freedom.
Sun is quoted on TimesLive as saying: “I don’t understand why, if this is such a serious protest about service delivery, wouldn’t the residents meet me?” Here’s an administration that is suddenly listening and wondering why the people it doesn’t respect don’t want to be dictated to.
The city’s mayor, Herman Mashaba, sent out a press release blaming Alex’s problems on the ANC when it was in charge of Johannesburg. The mayor’s other tactic, when faced with anger about poor service delivery, has been to blame foreigners — stoking xenophobic tensions is a popular tactic with our dominant political parties. When desperate communities turn on those foreigners, burning shops and attacking them, the same politicians will come out against the violence. But they don’t stop stoking the hate.
Our political and economic system has become really good at building spaces where we can force people into silence, or ignore them when they raise their concerns. This is not how democracy should work. Democracy demands contested spaces and the free flow of information. We must listen to the people in Alex, Khayelitsha and all the other deprived communities of South Africa every single day. And we must take their problems to heart and act to alleviate the problems that beset their communities.