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South Africa

How democracy can work at community level: 3 lessons from a South African protest movement

todayJuly 2, 2024 16

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By Luke Sinwell, University of Johannesburg




Popular protests have surged around the world over the last decade. But do they work? And what lessons can be learnt from communities who have a history of militant protests?

When the African National Congress (ANC) was elected to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, many believed that popular protests, which were the norm in the fight against apartheid, would no longer be necessary. It was assumed that the party would deliver quality housing and education, safety and economic prosperity to the previously oppressed black majority.

But by the late 1990s popular protests in communities affected by water and electricity cutoffs and evictions ushered in a new era of social movements. One of the first communities to protest against the new government was Thembelihle informal settlement. The term “informal settlement” denotes an area where people occupied land and built shacks, usually without the state’s authorisation.

As a scholar of popular history and grassroots mobilisation in South Africa, I am interested in the role that ordinary people play in shaping policies and social structures. My most recent book focuses on grassroots or participatory democracy in Thembelihle.

I carried out an in-depth case study between 2018 and 2022 of the Thembelihle informal settlement of about 25,000 residents, 40 kilometres south-west of the inner city of Johannesburg.

I argue that Thembelihle is a hopeful reminder that mass action does bring real change to the lives of ordinary people, but only under certain conditions.

I draw three important lessons from this case study.

  • Firstly, when formal democratic institutions fail to address the needs of ordinary people, they must form their own organisations to represent their interests.
  • Secondly, it’s possible to create organisations that are genuinely accountable to the people who have set them up.
  • Thirdly, it is possible to imagine a world where electoral politics has a positive relationship with grassroots militancy.

The history

In 1983, residents erected shacks and made their home in Thembelihle. Many found it convenient since they found work in a local brick factory.

When the ANC came into power in 1994 promising a “better life for all”, residents in Thembelihle and elsewhere had a deep sense of hope about the future.

In 2011, the year that its residents led a week-long occupation of the roads in protest against electricity cuts, nearly half the population of the ward lived in shacks, and 40% had no income whatsoever.

With the onslaught of the political and economic crisis associated with COVID-19 a decade later, it is reasonable to conclude that these levels have either remained relatively static or got worse.

Organise to promote your interests

The first lesson is that organisations that represent the interests of local people can be effective.

In June 2002, the notorious security company called the Red Ants was sent by the government to forcibly evict the people of Thembelihle on the contentious grounds that the area was unsafe for human habitation.

Residents vehemently contested this, calling upon the City of Johannesburg to commission an independent geological survey. The government insisted that earlier surveys showed sinkholes in the area.

Thousands occupied the streets to defend their homes from being destroyed. This mass action halted the evictions and provided a springboard for the formation of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee. The democratic grassroots structure elects its own leadership and has been in existence for more than 20 years.

Our Resistance, Our History, supplied by author.

In 2015 these residents embarked on a three-week demonstration during which 72 activists were arrested. Negotiations followed between the government and Thembelihle’s leaders. By the end of October that year, the government decided to electrify the settlement. Today residents have access to electricity.

In 2016 then president Jacob Zuma even suggested during his visit to Thembelihle that residents’ persistent direct action had led the government to provide electricity to the entire Gauteng region.

Accountable local democracy

The second lesson this community teaches us is that it’s possible to build autonomous organisations which are accountable to ordinary people. Mass meetings in Thembelihle are controlled and led by the people themselves. Decisions are made by consensus or by show of hands.

Residents call the mass meetings “The People’s Parliament”. The “parliament” is called when residents wish to address a community concern. They normally consist of 200 to 300 people, but may soar to 2,000 during times of crisis.

As Trevor Ngwane, a community-activist in Gauteng, witnessed and documented in his PhD thesis, decisions could be made during the meeting and then acted upon directly afterwards. Ngwane calls this “grassroots democracy” or “Democracy on the Margins”. My recent article suggests that the people’s parliament in Thembelihle is an emblematic form of popular participation whereby the people govern themselves.

Electoral politics can bolster local mobilisation

The third lesson is that electoral politics can potentially reinforce the power of local organisations at the forefront of protests.

Residents formed their own party in local government called Operation Khanyisa Movement in 2006.

It is perhaps the only party in South Africa that has been directly rooted in, controlled by, and accountable to grassroots structures. The party’s candidates for positions on the local council are subject to the right of recall. It is used to ensure that candidates are under direct control of the community organisation that elected them.

These candidates are the only ones to my knowledge who sign a pledge which legally binds them to certain principles. For example, their salary will first be sent to the Operation Khanyisa Movement, after which they will receive a basic allowance or living wage. Candidates also pledge to lead struggles and protests in the community.

Khanyisa Movement councillors have developed an impressive track record in pushing forward the struggles of the community. These include supporting migrants among them, protesting for basic services, and calling for meetings with various government officials.

The struggles in Thembelihle serve as a reminder that the rules, norms and boundaries within which decisions are made at the ballot box, at public meetings and in the streets must be re-imagined on the terms of the dispossessed.

Without this, elected officials merely make attractive pledges they then break while speaking the language of the people, to pacify and control them, thus
denying them their rights.The Conversation

Luke Sinwell, Professor of Sociology, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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