Cape Town was cold, wet, windy and miserable this past weekend. In a story headlined “Brace yourself for a stormy weekend”, the Cape Times advised its readers that “you might be wise to opt for the duvet, a crackling fire and a good supply of something to warm the cockles”. This was surely a sensible suggestion for those with a warm place to sleep and a bit of cash for supplies.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, when the northwester was pounding in at more than 50km/h, accompanied by torrents of rain and a spectacular lightning storm, I woke up with the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League and the Democratic Alliance (DA) in mind. These two organisations have been arguing as protests engulfed the Cape Flats in recent weeks.
Last Friday, about 500 residents of Kanana and New Rest informal settlements occupied the N2, reportedly threw stones and faeces at the police, and disrupted flight schedules at Cape Town International. Clearly the toilet revolution is yet to be settled.
A recent report by Municipal IQ says that this year has been the biggest protest year in South Africa since 2004, with the Western Cape leading at 24%. Karen Heese, Municipal IQ’s economist, is quoted as saying: “It was worrying that 88% of protests last month were violent. Almost half of the protests in July occurred in informal settlements.” Indeed, the protests claimed the life of a bus driver in Khayelitsha earlier this month.
These protests are everywhere, including Johannesburg’s financial hub, Sandton, where violence flared up last week, partially closing the highway. Their national profile indicates that poor people are simply fed up and are fast losing any remaining confidence in the ability of any government to change their living conditions.
So why do Western Cape premier Helen Zille and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille believe Cape Town to be different? If we buy their argument, residents of Kanana and New Rest got up at 4am on Friday and occupied the N2 because the youth league told them to make the city “ungovernable”.
The mayor and the premier were so terrified of this youth league that they filed a criminal complaint under the Intimidation Act seeking recourse through the criminal justice system. The youth league must really be powerful.
But this is a straw man. Zille and De Lille are calculating politicians. They aim to create a different narrative aimed at reassuring the core base of the DA. The message is that an otherwise beautiful and functioning Cape Town has suddenly come under siege by a violent and unruly youth league and that the police will be all out to restore law and order.
This narrative is meant to make it “acceptable” to see images of police shooting rubber bullets in battles with residents who are living in shacks. The subtext is that the cops are out looking for criminally violent youth leaguers.
This has a strong whiff of “swart gevaar” — the message of the apartheid government when it faced stiff resistance. The government tried in vain to reassure white South Africa by claiming that “terrorists” were putting schoolchildren in the front lines of protests.
So when De Lille says, “What is particularly disturbing in this well-directed action — with evidence again indicating that this was led by the (youth league) — schoolchildren were deliberately put in the front lines,” it sounds disturbingly familiar.
But what should come as a surprise to the mayor and the premier is that the N2 is not permanently occupied. Anyone driving along the highway is aware that those settlements are a time bomb waiting to explode — a place where any populist campaign will find fertile ground.
The reality is that protests are breaking out across South Africa because millions of poor people are sick and tired of the conditions they encounter every day. And the DA is facing the same crisis of legitimacy in the areas it rules that the ANC faces on a national scale.
The real SA is full of angry poor people. They are in revolt. Zille and De Lille can’t wish or charge them away. Instead, they’d better do something — fast.
• Morudu is a writer based in Cape Town.
[I would just add that we ALL better do something fast! Praying for courage, Alan]