The service delivery protest movement of largely African working class people since 1994 and more particularly since the early 2000s, represents a low-key civil war which has largely been ignored by the mainstream media. However the spread of the protest movement to the predominantly ‘coloured’ working class areas in Gauteng like Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and Newclare has received widespread media coverage because these areas have been politically silent for the past twenty three years and now suddenly exploded in violent protest.
The service delivery protest movement of largely African working class people since 1994 and more particularly since the early 2000s, represents a low-key civil war which has largely been ignored by the mainstream media. However the spread of the protest movement to the predominantly ‘coloured’ working class areas in Gauteng like Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and Newclare has received widespread media coverage because these areas have been politically silent for the past twenty three years and now suddenly exploded in violent protest. Predominantly African working class areas have also joined the struggle on housing and violent protests have erupted in Freedom Park, Orange Farm and Soweto. This represents a significant moment as it has highlighted the common working class interests that Coloured and African communities share. This means that the divisive Apartheid ‘racial’ divisions between communities are being addressed through common action on housing. For the first time since the mid-1990s community leaders have come together to organise a united mass action campaign on housing which cuts across all communities irrespective of ‘race’ or ‘colour’.
While service delivery protests is an old phenomenon, taking place on a ongoing basis in African working class areas since 2004 – every second day according to Municipal IQ1 – the entry of the coloured working class communities reflects a deepening economic, social and political crisis of the capitalist system under ANC rule. The social conditions of human deprivation – the lack of housing and overcrowding, crime, drugs, domestic violence, abuse of women and children, joblessness and poverty – has spread throughout society. The future is uncertain and the promises of “A Better life for all” in a post-Apartheid democracy have come to nothing. The status of Coloured and Indian working classes as “yard slaves”2 and the prospects of them enjoying the same conditions of living and privileges as whites have been blown into the wind.
Black majority rule and the new democracy has in fact narrowed the gap between the ‘coloured’ poor and the ‘African’ poor and “according to all social indices of poverty, unemployment etc the coloured working class follows their black African counterparts a close second.”3 In an interview with a WASP reporter and unemployed mother of three Wendeline Manuel (30) attests to the harsh realities of an uncertain future “I don’t work and we are living in my mother’s two-bedroom flat. We are 18 people living in this house and my mother is the sole breadwinner.”4 Multiple generations live in overcrowded homes and other squat in backyards. There has been little development in these areas since 1994 and the promises by government have not been fulfilled.
More than this, the common view held by ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’ workers is that they remain sandwiched in between the different racial groups as had been their condition under Apartheid. Except this time they are not ‘black’ enough while under Apartheid they were not ‘white’ enough. In the anti-Apartheid struggle the Black Consciousness Movement had consciously designated all the oppressed as ‘black’, based not on their skin colour but on the fact that they had a common oppression and denied the right to vote. The new South African democratic government under the ANC inverted the pyramid of Apartheid racial discrimination by aping the racial categories of the Apartheid regime thereby destroying the progressive character of the black struggle.
Today ‘black’ refers only to African people and Coloured and Indian people are excluded. “A common anecdote is that coloureds that fill ‘black’ in job applications are told they are not “black, black” in interviews”.5 The Apartheid era Group Areas Act effectively remains intact, as black squatter communities are settled in and around the old group areas. It is only the new black middle classes that have enjoyed the advantages of the repeal of Apartheid racial laws and today the upper sections of the African, Indian and Coloured (black) middle classes have moved to the white suburbs where they enjoy the facilities and amenities that whites enjoy.
The leadership of the Tri-partite Alliance must take full responsibility for the ongoing racial divisions in the society as they have abandoned their vision of a non-racial society in practice. Their only interest has been to share in the wealth and privileges with the white ruling class while leaving the national and class issues to simmer in society. COSATU as the leading working class organisation in the country subordinated its duty to defend the principles of non-racialism to the ANC’s dictates. They have abandoned the struggle for working class unity across racial lines and they imitate the ANC’s multi-racial designation of racial groups in society.
The response of communities to deteriorating social conditions has been explosive. Violent protests have broken out everywhere and young people man roadblocks to stop people from moving around and even travelling to work. While this has a progressive element to it, it can quickly degenerate into thuggish racist and xenophobic action and be taken over by the criminal element. The biggest crime that the ANC committed in the society is the deliberate disorganisation of the mass movement that existed in the anti-Apartheid struggle. The UDF was dissolved and all progressive formations in communities were disbanded. In some sense the elementary task of organisation has now to start as it were afresh. It has fallen to a small group of progressive Social Movements, NGO’s, trade unions and leftwing formations to assist communities to pick up the pieces and organise themselves.
They have met and agreed to mobilize the various communities in local Housing Action Committees. These Action Committees are scheduled to meet at a Conference to be convened at the end of June. This will hopefully represent the beginning of a strong and organised struggle for decent housing. It will also assist communities in overcoming the racial divisions that stand in the way of forging working class unity.
1 WASP Statement – Coloured Townships Explode
5 WASP Statement – Coloured Townships Explode