President Zuma, in his State of the Nation Address explains that continued and increasingly frequent, service delivery protests are an “expression of people’s frustration at the slow pace of delivery of Municipal Services”. I am no longer sure that is all that these protests are about. It is very hard to believe that the people of Ermelo, Kwazakhele and Vosloorus are really so cross about faulty street lights, potholed roads or broken manhole covers. Does it not seem more likely that these people are angry because they are still poor, still jobless and still hungry after seventeen years of democracy? Our President prefers to avoid the unfortunate truth that poverty and joblessness are not really the fault of an inept mayor or a lazy ward councillor. In fact, poverty, it is not really a local government failure at all, but rather a much more serious, fundamental national policy failure. A failure that was born in apartheid times, but now lies at the door of the presidency and with cabinet. It is convenient, perhaps to blame local government as the “fumbling, parochial, country bumpkins”, that just don’t get what “we at National” are trying to do. But it seems unlikely that this argument will stick for very much longer.
Moeletsi Mbeki believes this growing discontent will lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government within the next ten years. I hope that he is wrong. We have a functional, constitutional democracy that allows for orderly change of government though the ballot. We should make use of it.
What I rather argue is necessary in South Africa, is a new, defiant, revolutionary approach. Similar, in some way, to the spontaneous, revolutionary defiance that we witnessed in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Similar to the defiance we experienced in South Africa in the seventies and eighties. But, not the political defiance which was visible to all and which made headlines every day. If we look deeper than the political defiance of South Africans during that time, we see a less reported; less understood economic and commercial defiance. A defiance that is perhaps more interesting than the political defiance. In the seventies and eighties the poor, marginalised and the underclass set up many, many businesses, against huge odds and in contravention of the law. From humble beginnings, the poor established a multi-billion rand taxi industry with revenues to match JSE listed companies. The poor and oppressed set up a network of taverns, shebeens and spaza’s, with a national spread and convenience appeal to rival the most sophisticated food and beverage operations. The underclasses established a Professional Soccer League with attendance, viewership and advertising revenues to rival competing global sports and leisure operations. This defiant, spontaneous business revolution was almost completely overshadowed by South Africa’s political defiance.
This is the revolution that Mahatma Ghandi spoke about when he insisted all Indians spin their own cotton, thus closing down imports from Manchester. This is the revolution that Ghandi lead where ordinary Indian citizens harvested their own salt in defiance of British law. Ghandi inspired a revolution, where he led from the front and by example. Spinning his quota of cotton every day and marching 288 kilometres to “illegally” make salt at the coast. Ghandi’s approach was however, very dissimilar to the top down, central planning “productivity revolutions” of Moa Tzedung’s Great Leap Forward or Julius Nyerere’s “Ujaama”. Ghandi inspires a revolution of small business, defiantly capturing the market. Street by street. Sector by sector.
In South Africa this defiant, spontaneous revolution began to develop momentum in the seventies and eighties, but it never grew into its full form. I never came full circle. It seems, sadly, to have been halted, or significantly slowed, with the advent of democracy in 1994. Our defiance, in this country, has rather become characterised by things that we refuse to do and not by things that we do in fact do. “We refuse to teach the children!” “We refuse vacate the homes we have invaded?”” We refuse to be governed by the North West province!”” We refuse to tolerate these “aliens” steeling our jobs!” “We refuse to allow busses to transport people to work!”
How was it that we lost our pro-active spirit of defiance? Was it perhaps the election promises of jobs or the lure of tenders and BEE deals that took away our sense of urgency and defiance? Did “Freedom” take away the zeal to “Just do it”?
Perhaps it is time that this is this defiant, spontaneous, pro-active revolution should re-ignite. A commercial revolution, a business revolution; where the poor defiantly build businesses and capture market share, even breaking the petty laws and by-laws that stand in their way of growing chickens, brewing beer or running guest houses. Perhaps the role of local government in this revolution could be to firstly not stand in the way and secondly to refrain from creating conditions that continue to favour big corporate capital. Perhaps the role of national government could be firstly to come clean to the electorate about its inability to create jobs in anywhere near the quantities required; and secondly to show leadership in re-introducing the urgency and spirit of pro-active self reliance that we have begun to lose.
Government has a choice. It can lead from the front in this revolution or it can stand back, continue doing what it is doing and thus become a victim of it.
Let us see what they do.