North West protests: The politics of failure

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The demonstrations known as “service delivery protests” have become so commonplace in our fair republic that many news organisations don’t even bother covering them anymore.

Nowadays, it takes a death or two for the country to sit up and take notice. But dig a little deeper, and it seems that there are actually structural reasons for the deaths of three people during protests over water this week in the North West's Mothutlung, rather than somewhere else in the country.

These protests tell us many things about our municipalities, corruption, the frustration of voters, and, in particular, the North West itself. But the main lesson to draw from the events this week is that the political system in the North West is completely broken.

There is a direct link between the decision by North West Premier Thandi Modise to buy a new R1.3-million BMW with our money, and the deaths in her province this week.

As a statement, that may seem difficult to back up. But let’s consider the evidence. The ANC in the North West is almost unchallengeable. The party won 72.89% in the 2009 elections. The next nearest party came in with just over 8% (slightly amazingly, it was Cope). This is also a province with a very small independent media presence. This translates, almost automatically, into a proper one-party rule and an accompanying lack of oversight.

In other words, Modise knew that she could pimp her ride, and that there would be no consequences. There might be a question from the DA in the provincial legislature, which would be quickly derided as racist, and life would move on (maybe Cope would ask a question too, but who would care?).

It was only when the Sunday Times picked up on the story, and decided during the quiet Christmas period to throw it on the front page, that there was any reaction. And in real terms, there has actually been no political price for Modise to pay, at all.

This kind of attitude, this reaction to a lack of real political competition and a lack of oversight to the media, appears to have seeped through the entire province. People in government in the North West know they can follow her example. Which means that if you work in the Madibeng Municipality (motto: Prosperity Through Unity and Toil), and your job is to keep the water running in Mothutlung, you know you can slack off, and no one will care. Nothing will happen to you.

To make matters worse, should you be bored and decide that actually you want to indulge in a little corruption, you know that that’s okay too. Everyone does it, so why not? And so what if that means screwing with the water supply just so your mates can make more money through their tender to run the water tankers that are called in, when the taps run dry?

Then we need to look at the structures of the provincial ANC itself. To say that they have been damaged beyond repair is to understate matters. It was in 2008 that police had to break up a massive fight at the North-West ANC’s provincial conference at Sun City. Since then, we’ve had other meetings broken up by men with sjamboks, a provincial secretary suspended, and shots fired at officials from moving cars. All in all, the politics of the North West ANC has been a little like your average afternoon with Al Capone, for the last six years.

If you want to know the level of frustration of some ANC members with this state of affairs, just remember those ANC councilors in Tlokwe, who allowed the DA to take over the municipality, simply because they were gatvol.

This means that people in official positions have no reason to fear the provincial ANC either. Which just adds to the encouragement to loot the place. But it also means that when decisions are taken, factions have to be balanced. And as a result, tenders then have to be parcelled out to keep those factions happy.

And so there’s simply no chance of the best person for the job getting the tender. When you are dealing with water, that matters.

One of the fascinating aspects of this sorry, horrible little saga that claimed three lives has been the reaction of Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. She jumped in quickly, rolled up her sleeves, and set to work. First job: getting the three pumps that had broken down, stopping the water supply, into the workshop for repairs. Second job: the spin cycle. It was “strange” that these three pumps had all broken down at the same time. In other words, dear voters, this was sabotage. When pushed, she didn’t want to use the word “sabotage”, but it was clear that that was her subtext.

However, the provincial DA, with a media machine fresh from its recent Tlokwe victories, went into action, pointing out that two of those pumps had actually been broken for several months, and that nothing had been done to fix them. As the DA’s North West leader Chris Hattingh said on Thursday, it took just a couple of days to have one of these pumps fixed, so why did people have to die before someone just actually took the thing to the workshop? He backed that up by pointing out that according to several Parliamentary questions, Molewa had said in 2009 that there were problems with the water supply in the Madibeng Municipality.

At this point, Molewa’s spin cycle may have come to a spluttering, juddering halt. Whether the pumps were sabotaged doesn’t really matter. The real story is that the pumps were left un-fixed for months - that’s what really led to the water shortages.

But that’s not the end of the story. It seems impossible that the council didn’t know that this was the state of affairs. Why, when the water first went off five days before the protests started, did it not fix the bloody pump? What kind of moron takes the call pointing out that the water’s out, and does nothing? It takes someone with a particular attitude to do that. And lead, indirectly, to the loss of three lives.

While it may seem crass to blame any one person for what happened here, Modise must carry some of the blame. It’s not just the BMW. It’s that when she moved from being the ANC’s Deputy Secretary General in Luthuli House to become North West Premier in 2010, we had high hopes for her. She was someone who could debate, argue, concede a point, make a point, engage, and consult. Her back-story is particularly inspiring in its own way.

An MK-vet, who saw action, who is able to debate the ANC's military history against emotional former SADF members, she has done something almost unique among our politicians, and publicly discussed her own rape as a teenager. In short, she has balls, brains, and tenacity.

And yet it's all just been disastrous. Maybe she just got caught up in the wrong anti-Zuma crowd ahead of Mangaung. Maybe she just doesn't care. Or perhaps she simply ran out steam, as people do sometimes, and felt she had given enough of herself.

Either way, there is now a very real danger that there will be more of these violent protests. As Municipal IQ economist Karen Heese suggested on Thursday, there is now an arms race in these demonstrations. If one person dies, maybe you get an MEC coming to visit; kill two, and perhaps a minister. Kill three, and the Water Affairs Minister herself will get your pump fixed. And to look at the structural political issues in the North West, it seems almost inevitable that the same will happen in this province, again.


Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

STEPHEN GROOTES studied at Rhodes university

Article Source: The Daily Maverick