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Democratic agitation needs a different protest language

The report by Municipal IQ (May 11, 2016) on the trends in service-delivery protests in the country is indeed very disturbing. A worrying component of these protests is the increasing level of violence that is associated with these protests. What is even more worrying is the fact that the violence is mostly perpetrated by the youth who should be in institutions of learning to equip themselves with the skills that may enable them to achieve a high level of self-expression and development.

Various research initiatives have concluded that service-delivery protests tend to be on the increase during the local election year indicating that they could be driven by competition for inclusion in the party election candidate lists. But a deeper examination indicates that the principal cause for frustration among the communities is lack of democratic local participation. Communities claim that the elected representatives are never available to consult with them and hear their complaints and understand their needs. They cry for their voices to be heard. They also complain that their representatives pay more attention to the commands and wishes of the party leadership than the community.

This revelation confirms the view of most analysts that the fundamental flaw in our democratic architecture is the electoral system that limits the powers of the electorate after the votes have been cast. Under the current system, the elected representatives believe their obligation for accountability is more to the local party leadership than the voters that elected them. The act of voting is in reality an act of granting power of attorney to the party to take decisions in the interests of the voters with little obligation for consultative participation with the electorate thereafter. This is the source of the growing frustration that easily finds expression in the growing and violent protests that have engulfed the country.

The political landscape in South Africa is dominated by the ANC. In a diverse country, which is also dealing with the challenges of transition into a democratic phase, how the ANC manages its own transformation is bound to have a big impact on what happens in the economy and the prospects for individual enterprise and development. The entry of the EFF and its appeal to the youth has shaken the political landscape in a dramatic sense and ignited competitive politics. This development should present a pressure valve for the communities that feel they have been neglected for a long time. It also provides an opportunity for those who feel neglected to adopt a different protest language that eschews violence as a means of expressing frustrations. This can only be good for our young democracy.

The next two years are going to be very challenging as it seems clear that the rating agencies will drop our national debt to junk status. The consequences will be dire especially for the poor in an environment where protests easily assume a violent dimension at the slightest excuse. Our young democracy is currently facing the toughest test in its 21 year history and the moment calls for visionary leadership and a focus on the national challenges that should matter.