Ian Dewar
Ian Dewar

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.

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