Failing local government systems: Alexandra’s perpetual affliction

On 1 March 2022, and as part of the processes of the national hearing into the July 2021 unrest, the South Africa Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) visited Alexandra township in Gauteng. For many, the July unrest, and general discontent in many communities like Alex, represent a nudge to society that the benefit of all, equally and without prejudice, from the post-1994 democratic project is a non-negotiable requirement for peace and security. It stands ghastly in the narrative of the democratic experience as a spectral reminder that until all are confident in the progressive realisation of their human rights, none can guarantee the security of theirs. 

The SAHRC inquiry into the unrest has sought to address a wide scope of objectives, including to find the causes of the devastation, to explore the role of public policy and law enforcement agencies in the final outcomes of the unrest, to examine the context around which the 350 people lost their lives, and to assess and come to terms with the sociopolitical issues, including poverty, high rates of unemployment and inequality, which remain structural and deeply entrenched as contributing factors to the unrest.

Alexandra was not only one of the most affected communities during the July unrest – it exists only in a state of perpetual affliction.

Accounts on the population size of Alex vary widely. The 2011 census indicated that 180 000 people occupied an area of 6.8km2, with a density of about 26 000 people for every square kilometre. 

Comparatively, Sandton, which is adjacent to Alex, was found by the same study to occupy about 220 000 people in an area of about 144km2 – at a density of about 1 500 people for every km2. Effectively, one person in Sandton takes up the same amount of space as 17 people in Alex.

The systems and tropes that are continually reproduced and sustained in the overcrowding of Alex exist only at the pride of the apartheid social and political order. The hostels, ghettos and tight corners are an endless confrontation with colonial perceptions of the incompetence and subhumanity of African people. 

At Madala Hostel, for example, the textural contrast between past and present is contestable. “Oh kazi sesenzeni” (Oh, what have we done now?), greeted a woman jokingly as we approached the courtyard upon our arrival. Underneath the giggle, layers of depreciated dignity simmer. 

Central to the courtyard is mounted a stampede of flies, buzzing over an animal carcass that sprawls atop a head of refuse. From the freshness of its stench on that Tuesday morning, the animal would have met its fate during a weekend feast.

In the villages, where the majority of the hostel-dwelling community originate, the burial ritual is a ceremony. Animals’ remains are respectfully returned underneath the soil. 

A few metres from the carcass, across puddles of sewer ponds, a giant rat lay over a mudpie of sanitary pads, diapers, cloth, household and human waste — defeated. Well-fed flies afloat. Toddlers suck on bottles nearby — learning to be human. 

Similar conditions meet the majority of those residing in Alex. For others, like at Stjwetla informal township on the banks of the Jukskei River, the situation is worse. 

For a long time, the Jukskei River has been and remains an area of concern for human rights organisations and environmentalists alike. Rising from Johannesburg, it joins the Crocodile River into the Hartbeespoort Dam. The river banks, despite endless concerns across various spheres and sectors, remain a site of callousness.

During the SAHRC Gauteng Provincial Inquiry into the Alexandra Township Total ShutDown, in May 2019, the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) stated that it had been working closely with the environment and infrastructure services department to ensure the cleanliness of the Jukskei River. The CoJ added that regular tests were conducted to check the water quality of the river. The SAHRC was informed that a motion to build a fence along the banks of the river in 2017 had been approved, but had yet to be implemented due to a lack of funding. The fence, the Commission was informed, would avert illegal dumping, among others.

The SAHRC requested implementation information on progress made in addressing littering and the illegal dumping of waste, more generally; and in respect of dumping in the Jukskei River. Further, the SAHRC requested specific plans to ensure proper enforcement of waste management and environmental protection by-laws, indicating the roles and responsibilities of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, environmental inspectorates and enforcement officers in this regard. The Commission further recommended that the CoJ provide sufficient, licensed landfills with reasonable or no gate fees to lessen illegal dumping of refuse. The sites, the Commission recommended, would have to be easily accessible and secure, at various locations around Alex to encourage usage. 

Three years after these engagements, we stood in the middle of the Jukskei River Bridge and watched as a toddler of approximately two years emerged from their home and, two metres from the entrance, emptied out a small bucket of liquid towards the river. Below them appeared a pipe ushering raw sewage into the stream. As we lamented on the conditions that were shaping this new human into being, a passer-by confidently threw refuse over the bridge towards the river. 

A mere sigh later a boy, about nine years old, passed us to reach a more central part of the bridge. In one hand, a small black bag. In the other, a larger refuse bag. One after the other, he picked smaller bags out of the big bag and threw them over the bridge, until the big bag was light enough to swing over. 

Shocked, visibly pained and with a sense of despondency, a senior official of the Commission reached out and gently held the boy’s arm. The confusion on his face when asked why he was dumping over the bridge was genuine and sincere. Clearly, no one had ever asked him that question. 

Two locals stood nearby, appearing to know the boy. An uncle, father, or even neighbours, one presumed. Giggling at the interaction, one exclaimed: “This is our dumping site.” 

In that moment, it was impossible to not have flashbacks of the innumerate times that one has witnessed empty take-away containers and bags flying from moving vehicles on public roads. 

In many ways, the elders in those moving vehicles were once this nine-year-old boy. He too, was once that two-year-old baby – knowing the river only as a dumping site, and the mountains of refuse as home.

This place and the many like it across the country, which continue to exist as living monuments of apartheid’s thought leadership, can no longer be solely blamed on the pre-1994 government. 

The propelling feature of the mechanisms that sustain the deplorable human rights violations are habits. The habits of the poor to dispose of refuse illegally must be condemned, yet all the while cognisant that without conditions that suggest otherwise, new habits will not emerge.  

All that they know is all that they do. 

Similarly, what best defines the failure of the public service administration to address the crisis of Alexandra is habits. 

Between the euphoria and hope of 1994 and the lived realities of those on the banks of Jukskei River are a myriad of condoned actions and habits that have together crippled the potential of the local government sphere to realise the aspirations of the democratic project. Maladministration, rampant corruption, politicisation of public services and carelessness — all bolstered by the master of them all: weak or dysfunctional consequence management systems. The highly contested political context within which municipalities function render their administrative functions particularly vulnerable to political capture and interference.

In August 2021, the department of cooperative governance presented the State of Local Government Report to parliament. According to the report, out of 257 municipalities, 64 are dysfunctional. The primary causes underpinning the increase in the number of dysfunctional municipalities include the correlation between failures in governance and political oversight. 

If the government of South Africa will turn the tide against malfunction in the public service, especially at the local sphere, a radical shift towards habits that initiate a culture of care and interrelatedness is needed. 

This can only occur if oversight functions are resharpened, and consequence management systems repurposed for impact. A radical shift at local government requires, primarily, similar transformations in national and provincial governments.

Section 154(1) of the Constitution provides for the national and provincial governments to support and strengthen the capacity of municipalities to manage their own affairs, to exercise their powers and to perform their functions. Section 155(6) requires provincial governments to monitor and support municipalities and to develop their capacity to perform their functions. For South African society to rise above the impact of the current tide and temperament of global economics and politics on the poor, national and provincial governments and legislatures must, with immediacy, turn their focus solely on the development and capacitation of the local government sphere. 

If the national and provincial governments would capacitate local governments through determined accountability and oversight measures, meaningful transformation is inevitable. 

The alternative is a continuum of the downward spiral — like that of refuse falling into the Jukskei River — of many more municipalities. 

Intra-group tensions, like those between locals and foreign nationals, define community relations. In the wait for improved service delivery and the protection of human rights, stacked deeply among the neglect, another unrest brews.

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Philile Ntuli
Philile Ntuli is a full-time commissioner for the South African Human Rights Commission. She is also a member of the panel of the national hearing into the July 2021 unrest. This article does not contravene the rights and powers of the Hearing Panel contained in section 18 of the South African Human Rights Commission Act (40 of 2013).

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