On 3 April, residents of the township of Alexandra embarked on service delivery protest, seeking to highlight the continued slow pace of development in the area, even though South Africa has experienced 25 years of democratic rule. The protestors vowed to shut down the township and block main roads such as the N3 Highway and London road. The protest comes in a time where the nation prepares to go the polls to elect a new government both on the national and provincial level. The occurrence of the protest should not come as a surprise given that the election season is often defined by an increase in service delivery protests that are often characterised as violent.
However, the Alex shut down holds historic importance given that this township just like its more affluent cousin, Soweto, has been home to some of the nation’s greatest political figures, including but not limited to the first president of the Republic, Nelson Mandela, former president Kgalema Motlanthe and former first lady Zanele Mbeki. How can a township that has housed man such as Madiba find itself in the same abject poverty that defined its existence and what does it say about our governance record and commitment to fight poverty?
Often when we discuss the issue of inequality, the contrast between Alex and Sandton, where wealth and poverty are simply divided by a road, is symbolic of the economic story of South Africa. It reflects the savagery of an unchecked capitalist system but also presents the results of white minority rule and disappointing post-democracy governance.
The story of Alex is a story shared by so many of the black townships that were created to house cheap black labour after the masses of our people were removed from the land following the 1913 and 1936 land acts. While the white minority enjoyed spacious gardens, the black majority were subjected to congested living spaces, where hygiene and health were compromised due to both poor living conditions but also a lack of services by a state that had concluded that the life of a black person is sub-human and that his/her living conditions must reflect their so-called state of “sub-humanity”.
In many ways, while the townships were used to house black cheap labour, they also were to be a daily reminder to black people that they were a people with no human dignity in the land of their forefathers.
What then is the psychological and spiritual impact of the continuation of that level of poverty 25 years on? Moreover, what is the impact of seeing relatively more affluent Soweto receive the level of development it (Soweto) has received in the past 25 years, even though Soweto, unlike Alex, is a good 35km away from Sandton? What does it do to a people who like generations past, have had to sell their labour for low wages, in a city which is not only symbolic of their toil for peanuts but that is the epicentre of inequality given that it (Sandton) operates on capitalist rules that binge of the principle of “only the strong shall survive?”
The middle class and the rich get annoyed by the blocked roads and burnt tyres, however, this is a small price compared to what the poor and working class have had to face in the hands of a black government. The middle class and the rich enjoy better access to those who hold power and are better insulated from the impact of poor governance. Nonetheless, the poor far more vulnerable to schemes of the evil doers, for when tender money is used inappropriately, it is one more child going to bed without a bath, one more child who must sleep in a shack flooded when it rains, one more child that must do homework by candlelight and one more child being killed due to illegal electricity connections.
You see the streets offer to the poor the same tools of liberation that Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela chanted “together, hand in hand, with our matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country." When existing channels to reach the government and make them listen to the people have been exhausted, the people will claim their dignity using the tools that were critical in liberating them in times past and that is through protest, often violent protest. When we question their methods, we do that in the comfort of affluence that protests, yet it is they who must face the evil of poverty, with all its demons. Rather than complain and shut the poor out of the room of public discourse, we must use of privilege to make their interests, our collective interests.
Yes, even those who assume that the high walls on Bryanston Drive and golf estates in Ruimsing will protect them must lend a hand or they risk a situation where the impatience of people will turn into a holy one, one that mirrors the anger that ran through the streets of Alex, Soweto, Gugulethu and all the other black townships in the 1980s.
Moreover, when this anger meets the right leader (I shall not mention names) that can hold the matchbox to spark that anger into an active resistance, where the people are told whom to blame for their poverty, no amount of constitutionalism or historic remembrance of the 1994 miracle will be enough to stop them! We owe it to the people of Alex and all our people who to this day do not enjoy the fruits of freedom, that their toil was for in vain.
That in our collective effort, we will seek to build a better South Africa and that if needs be, we too will join them in the streets until our government realizes that the interests of the poor are our collective interests. That the denial of their dignity is a denial of our dignity, that their pain is our pain, their struggle ours and ultimately their victory will be ours.
Remember the Arab Spring, remember the French revolution, the rise of Nazi Germany and the revolutionary wars that shaped the course of history. Need I say more!