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An anatomy of the recent small town riots

When I posted “Is it time for a South African Spring?” on May 3, I never thought that three weeks later the people of my own little town of Botrivier would explode into a furious, day-long demonstration against the Theewaterskloof (TWK) local government. By 5am on May 28 picketers had closed-off the town and tyres were burning on many streets. In the pitch dark all was chaos. Several large groups of protestors were toyi-toying and the police had donned their armadillo riot gear and had the teargas at the ready.

But the chaos was not as bad as it could have been. After the March riots in the neighbouring TWK towns of Villiersdorp and Grabouw, leaders in the Botrivier community formed an informal alliance to keep an eye on the situation here. They agreed that if there was indeed going to be a demonstration it should be properly organised as a non-political, non-racist and non-xenophobic protest march to hand over a list of grievances to the local government. Members from Cope, the ANC and DA were represented, as well as several religious leaders.

Their plan was for everyone to meet at the sports field at 10am and march to the municipal offices to hand over a memorandum of (41) grievances. But at about 9am things went seriously awry. The police and organisers were caught completely off-guard when one group of protestors went directly to the municipal offices, where, it turned out, not one TWK official was present to meet with them. The angry protesters attempted to destroy the municipal offices. The organisers and marshals rushed to the scene but for the rest of the day it remained a constant struggle for them to control the fury of the demonstrators.

Providentially, a senior department for cooperative governance and traditional affairs official was able to respond quickly to a request for help. With his intervention the protest was calmed down and a meeting was organised between members of the community and municipal officials whose presence he demanded at the scene. A mediation process was agreed on at this meeting and at about 5pm a report back was given to the demonstrators. Thereafter everyone finally went home.

Due to the sensitivity of subsequent events here in Botrivier there has been a community embargo on going to the press. But at a meeting on June 22, a watershed point was reached where real, open discussions were established between a fully representative group from the community and TWK local government, which effectively means the need for the embargo ended. It appears that the community and local government have finally accepted that the protest was indeed democratic and that the mediation process is back on track.

The prior belief that it was not democratic and an organised political attempt to destabilise the TWK government reveals the principal cause of dysfunctionality in most, if not all, local South African communities. The extremely conflicting and paranoid state of our politics divides communities and generates a high level of mistrust.

In the case of Botrivier, for a shameful example, this politically-based mistrust caused the collapse of the mediation process, which led to the second, totally-unorganised demonstration on July 2 — along with the xenophobic attacks on the shops of foreign nationals.

From what I have witnessed I believe the Botrivier community and TWK local government are jointly to blame for this disastrous occurrence because of the inflammatory rhetoric bandied about by both parties. The burning question now is how do we eliminate this barrier to meaningful constitutional democracy? I believe that two fundamental principles for achieving a democratic and accountable local government have to be adopted.

1) When a political nominee is elected as a ward councillor, he or she becomes the councillor for every citizen in the ward, not just for the political constituency that elected him or her. All forms of political posturing must be banned from the ward councillor’s new professional role as a paid employee of state government.

2) The community of every municipal ward urgently needs to be educated about the due process of participating in the practical matters of local government — together as one ward democracy without politics. All forms of political posturing must be banned from the democratic due process in order to establish trust in, and respect for, that process.

I further believe that in order to affect a truly democratic ward participation process in matters of local government two modifications are necessary to the current structure of local government.

1) The ward community itself needs to democratically elect its own ward committee and committee executive — independently of formal representative politics. In order to avoid any conflict of interest this means members of a political executive may not stand for election to a ward community executive and vice versa.

2) This democratically-elected ward committee needs to be formally recognised as a legal entity of local government. This can be done according to Section 2 of the Municipal Systems Act, which, under the heading of “legal nature”, now identifies “the community of the municipality” as such a legal entity.

Thirdly, a professional unit which works for and is accountable to the ward committee needs to be established and properly funded in order to do the huge amount of work required to meet the objectives of Section 152 of the Constitution. In other words, and while democratic participation remains a voluntary process, it is an unavoidable logistical necessity to underpin and capacitate the voluntary process with the full-time professional skills and adequate resources required to fulfil these constitutional objectives.

The last requirement is the rules of order for how it will all work. The basis for formulating these rules is quite simple. Formal political representation must deal solely with the broader governmental issues of, for example, policy, law, and integrated planning for the whole municipality. Democratic participative representation must deal solely with the practical, single-issue matters of ward community affairs.

By giving each legal entity its own distinct purpose in local government the conflict of interest apparent between politics and democracy could easily be eliminated. Then we would be enabled to get on with the really crucial task ahead — resolving the ever-worsening socio-economic crisis in this country.


  • Ian is an ardent optimist about constitutional change underway in South Africa. At heart he is a ‘hands-on’ engineer with experience across the research, construction, yacht-building and film industries. Ian currently works in rural obscurity on designing the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure projects required to implement Local Economy Development; the cloud-based IT systems required to connect communities with their local governments and the global knowledge economy; and the eco-efficient technology required to establish 'the green economy'.


  1. Tofolux Tofolux 25 July 2012

    @Ian, I hope that the saying “be careful what you wish for” makes sense to you now. I think it is very irresponsible to call for unrest in our country, noting that some of us experienced this at great cost. I think when one loses friends, family, comrades or see your house burning down, could that pound of flesh we pay, be the only answer for your ”redress”? Too many innocent lives are lost and here I point to the needless loss of life during the Arab Spring, is there no sympathy? Be careful what you wish for.I note that you do not mention that the DA has been in control of that municipality. You also do not contextualise their role in the breakdown of confidence of the voters there. But I am really interested in your proposals. You see for all the proponents of democratic processes, why is it that you never mention the hijacking of these processes by right wing forces? You mentioned political involvement but that too, is unconstitutional surely? But lets concentrate on the right wing forces in our country. Let us agree that they exist and let us agree that they participate in community fora. We also know that certain NGO’s in this country act like opposition parties. We only have to look at the example of the arms deals, the building of the CT stadium in Greenpoint in Cape Town etc, and conclude that these legal challenges cannot be done at the expense of those who are the face of thse campaigns. Iro ward comm, their antics in affluent areas r legendary and mind…

  2. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 July 2012

    Many whites are reaching retirement age, or taking early retirement (sometimes forced out of jobs by BEE), and moving to the country towns, which are more accessible thanks to the Internet.

    The corruption at local government level in much more obvious and in your face in the smaller towns. Everyone knows everyone, and what they are up to.

    Do you have a local Ratepayers Association? They are supposed to provide the Civic function you mention, and used to do so in the past. Our local group is no longer just called Ratepayers, but Ratepayers and Residents Association.

    But even they can’t help when Scorpions investigative reports get suppressed at Scopa (which happened to corruption allegations against the Mayor and Municipal Mayor here, in the ANC council days).

    In fact the Non-Independent Electoral Commission appointed the Municipal Manager as their electoral officer in the local elections although the Scorpions investigation at the time was very well known.

    We STILL have a piece of Municipal Ground, never sold, never transferred, and never put to tender, which now has a private block of flats on it!

    According to the ANC council at the time, when we asked the Ratepayers Association to enquire – this was done in terms of a 30 year lease, which was ALSO not put to tender!

    I have asked the Opposition Parties SO MANY TIMES to get their local branches to check on what has happened to local council, regional, state and parastatal land in the last 18 years!

  3. michael michael 26 July 2012

    We have had this kind of protests for decades it will not become a arab spring. The anc will not tolerate this kind of nonsense if the masses resort to violence.They will meet the fate of Andries Tatane.

  4. Ian Dewar Ian Dewar Post author | 26 July 2012

    @Tofolux. Well Tofolux you are way off base here. At no time did I call for unrest, I only warned that unless we do something about the crisis in this country it could happen – as it has recently in other equally-stressed countries.

    This being said, Section 17 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution entrenches our civil right “to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and present petitions”. And I happen to believe that the marginalized citizens of my town had very good reason to demonstrate. The conditions here are appalling, and in the five years I have lived here nothing at all has been done to ease their discomfort and struggle for basic subsistence.

    Yes the DA is in control here. But in my previous municipality the ANC was in control and they also did nothing. My personal beef is with the lack of compliance by all political parties to even attempt to meet the objectives of Section 152 of the Constitution. Or Section 16 of the Municipal Systems Act.

    In answer to your question, in no way is political involvement unconstitutional. Section 19 of the Bill of Rights guarantees our political rights too. The problem is that a political activist is also still a citizen with democratic rights as well. So what the Botrivier organizers did to avoid the demonstration being politically aligned was to make sure that ALL political parties were represented but only as citizens of the town. The paranoia of political power makes them all blind to this duality in our…

  5. Ian Dewar Ian Dewar Post author | 26 July 2012


  6. The Creator The Creator 26 July 2012

    Extremely interesting article. AFAIK, none of this appeared in the Cape Town papers.

    Not sure that your conclusions are practical, though.

  7. Enough Said Enough Said 26 July 2012

    The revolution has started because the government is incompetent and not delivering. None of us want a revolution, but South Africans have brought it upon themselves by letting government get away with non-delivery.

  8. GC GC 26 July 2012

    Ward Committee/s have no teeth – agreed – it is a political and constitutionally established entity that hides this fact and needs revision.
    There is no democratic process in place to be elected to a ward committee. The existing electoral process is nothing short of a joke – what does it matter – the committee has no power anyway.
    There is confusion in the eyes of the population within each municipality with regard to the political function of the elected officials versus their municipal function. Being elected as a Ward Councillor means a free salary until the next election. What job does a Ward Councillor actually do? Have you seen and interacted with some of them?
    The biggest problem as I see it is the separation of the functions of the politically elected Executive Mayor and the Municipal Manager. Is this a honorary post? Who does the Town Manager take instruction from? Who is resonsible for lack of delivery? Would it make a difference if the Mayor’s post did not exist?

    The 41 grievances – I saw them for the first time today (they are not all municipal failures) – have been brewing for about 5 – 10 years and have been largely ignored by the municipality and no doubt will continue to be ignored. No funding is the standard response. The local population was promised social housing delivery for votes in the pre-election hype and a year later are eating carrots.

    The DA is delivering ANC policy with regard to housing in TWK – they get awards for excellence -…

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 26 July 2012

    Hospitals no longer have credit clerks collecting accounts from those who can afford to pay. Accounts are handed straight to attorneys to collect without even a bill being sent or a phonecall made. As a liquidator I know that if you hand debts to attorneys to collect the legal costs usually exceed the income.

    Municipalities no longer have updated rates. Our municipality has properties stil in the name of estates which were liquidated 20 years ago, and areas shown as plots where houses have been built at least a decade ago.

    The whole point of the “sunset clause” was to keep a trained civil service in place – but the ANC brought in BEE to circumvent that, and were upheld by the Constitutional Court, who over-ruled the High Court who had stated that Civil Servants must be the most qualified for the job.

  10. Ian Dewar Ian Dewar Post author | 27 July 2012

    @GC. The questions you ask reflect possibly the greatest cause of all local government problems – not enough information and very bad communication about what little there is. This problem was identified quickly, and agreed upon, at the formative meeting for the Botrivier mediation process. It can easily be resolved with the establishment of the necessary ICT system. This will be discussed, I’m sure, once the mediation negotiators get back together.

    As will the need for a duly elected, democratic ward committee. The problem as I see it with the current, politically managed process is that there is no mechanism of contract between local government and the ward community. As a result every matter tends to be very vague, incomplete, and non-committal. What we need are defined goals and objectives for each matter, complete with time-frames and budgets, and fully minuted records of how they were agreed upon. The result would be a legally enforceable mandate from the community (the missing teeth) – to which all parties would be contractually accountable in law.

    This is what I believe Section 152 (a) of the Constitution (” to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities”) in fact obligates local government to provide – a democratic due process in terms of that law.

    It will be complex to establish, I know, but it simply must be done to get real transformation back on track.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 July 2012

    I am very glad that the Public Protector is going into the way Eskom is conducting its affairs. There is extreme anger here, especially when people compare the tarriffs charged which vary considerably.

    I do hope she will look also at what is NOT being collected (just like the hospitals, just like the municipal rates) especially in terms of electricity supplied to neighbouring states and illegal connections not being disconnected (which appears to include most of Soweto).

    Eskom and Telkom were the 2 parastatals develpoed by the Socialist Afrokaner to provide CHEAP AS POSSIBLE services to the people – NOT to make either profit or loss!

  12. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 27 July 2012

    @Beddy, nobody is elected in SA and accountable to the people, the citizens of this country can only take to the streets to burn things down. The people running these towns were all appointed by the parties and they are not accountable to the people like in most democracies in the world. In most democracies in the world when there is a riot, the mayors would be there trying to calm things down. In SA the mayors all disappeared when there are riots in the communities. The point missed in this article is the people have no voice in the government in SA and it’s not a democracy.

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 July 2012


    At local government level the ward councillors ARE elected by the people – I have pointed this out to you before.

    However they have NO CONTROL of the main Municipal Civil Servants who are appointed by Luthuli House and not accountable to the councillors.

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