/ 31 May 2021

The Great Tax(i) Uprising in the Eastern Cape

Graphic Ca Eusebius Makhanda Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

You have to be in the street to know what’s happening.

Back in 2016, by talking to protestors during the rape culture and fees must fall protests at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (Uckar), I picked up some sense of what was driving the anger. You can never truly know if you are not at the same place as the protestors but you cannot even know at a limited level from a distance.

Fast-forward to May 2021. I am doing late nights trying to work out how to engage a class remotely – the same course was right at the start of lockdown 2020 when we didn’t even know if students had computers or data so I am starting from scratch this year. So the street is the last place I can claim to know.

I was chair of Makana Residents’ Association (MRA) up to March, but stepped down and so was not in the loop for preliminaries of a protest initially called by taxi associations and the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) that started in earnest on Monday 24 May 2021, escalated the following day and started to wind down on the third day.

The potential for anger in the community is no surprise – ongoing water issues left some areas dry for weeks, many roads, particularly in the township, are more pothole than tar, sewer leaks and trash are among the few things that abound. What was a surprise was the role of taxi associations which have not in the past been prominent in progressive protest or in confronting government on societal issues.

Add to this the fact that similar protests were springing up in other parts of the Eastern Cape around different issues and I wondered if there was a linking factor.

The only thing I could find was a report earlier in May that the South African Revenue Service (Sars) is going after taxis for tax evasion. Is it being overly cynical to see this as the real trigger?

By the time I had caught up with all this, we were in the third day of the enforced business shutdown, and I went over to City Hall where there was meant to be a gathering to “welcome” a delegation from Bisho. What I found instead was the desultory skeletons of two burnt out tyres, one in the entrance to City Hall and the other in the street outside. Two cars of bored cops decorated the otherwise desolate scene. After reports of teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades over the previous days, it was hard to believe there was an angry protest. Yet there was – it was just being kept at a safe distance.

So far I was in no position to know what was going on. Then I heard where the delegation from Bisho was holed up so, along with MRA’s current chair, Sally Price-Smith, and business leader Richard Gaybba, we went there and were admitted to what turned out to be an absurdly large meeting.

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs MEC Xolile Nqatha opened the proceedings with a lengthy lecture on how protest is supposed to be conducted and how this was not the way. My reaction? MEC, if this is not how protest is meant to be conducted, why are you here now when we (collectively – my organization and many others) have been doing it the “right” way for years with nothing to show for it?

After that, a representative of the protests stood up and asked if they could be excused for a few minutes to caucus. When they stood up and left, I was surprised to see most of them wearing South African Civic Organisation (Sanco) T-shirts. Where was UPM leader Ayanda Kota, who had been a vocal spokesperson, until he distanced himself from out of control actions and called for a stop to the shutdown?

My group conferred and we were not comfortable staying when we were not parties to the conflict and an over-large meeting would only prolong proceedings so we left, with support of the protest contingent. Later, I heard that the meeting had ejected everyone but representatives of the taxi associations, South African Communist Party, South African Municipal Workers’ Union and Sanco. So the leadership of the protest movement had metamorphosed since the start to an alliance of taxi associations and ANC allies.

At the end of the meeting, the MEC produced a statement, outlining the steps to resolving grievances. There are many but I want to focus on the water situation. Makhanda’s water problems, it seems, are down to crumbling archaic pipes, a prolonged drought and climate change. As a scientist, I hate to introduce technical jargon when communicating to a general audience, but just this once: this is what scientists call bullshit.

These factors are real but not fundamental. Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) has two sources of raw water: local dams that are all but dry and the national Orange River scheme. The plant processing the Orange River water, the James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works, was due for doubling in capacity by late 2018. This project failed just in time for the local water sources to run dry. In January 2019, we were promised that a restarted project would be fast-tracked. When only one of four phases was completed by January 2020, I called a meeting with then chief executive of the implementing agency, Amatola Water, Vuyo Zitumane. She explained how local members of the tender committee thwarted the award of further tenders and she put her foot down and insisted that they make an award. The next we heard of her, she was accused of all manner of wrongdoing and is now running a restaurant in East London.

Now, more than a year later, there is no evidence of fast-tracking. Not only has no other phase of the project been completed, but the plant is regularly breaking down and repeated shutdowns and restarts of the system are causing numerous pipe bursts. What the MEC says, within this bigger context is true. A water grid is designed to be kept at roughly constant pressure. Regularly shutting it off and restarting will blow out weak points. That is happening because the James Kleynhans plant is not keeping up and supply has to be shut off frequently to top up the higher levels of the system.

I am not on the street. I can’t know how the protestors actually feel. I wasn’t there when rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades were let loose. But I do know a political fix when I see one.

This was never about the very real problems of the community. This was about powerful constituencies positioning themselves in an election year, using the justifiable anger of the community as cannon fodder.

So what’s to be done?

I go back to the 1980s, when the United Democratic Front (UDF) was a federation of hundreds of small organisations. A collective arrived at a position then constituent organisations had to be sold on it. Debate could be lengthy and exhaustive. Another understanding at the time was that different constituencies had different ways of mobilising. Allowing them to work to their strengths helped build a massive wave out of tiny ripples that eventually overthrew apartheid.

Protest movements all too often take the view that anyone who can’t mobilise the way they do is against them. That is a block to wider coalitions forming and promotes opportunism as it is all too easy to join in with the mode of protest without buying into the wider cause.

The UDF was a major force in overthrowing apartheid. We checked that goal off at the constitutional level but structural racism and inequality remain major issues. So why do we not revisit the methods that worked in the past?