The local state – its politicians, agenda and bureaucracy, is under popular attack

It is starting to be whispered that there is a “hidden hand” in the service delivery protests*.

The problem (of the protests) is serious and threatening and government is starting to worry about high-profile violence during the World Cup.

These protest share a strong crossover constituency and architecture with the xenophobic violence that occurred May 2008. At that time, Thabo Mbeki’s spooks argued that a hidden hand was at work – in one bizarre version Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation was fingered as triggering the violence to punish the Mbeki government for some impenetrably Byzantine set of motivations.

This time around the speculation is that the spreading protests have something to do with Alliance tensions i.e. the conflict (endlessly discussed in these columns) is fueling service delivery protests – I suppose that would mean either the ANCYL or Cosatu/SACP using popular discontent against the sitting council dominated by either the leftists of the nationalists respectively.

To argue that Alliance tensions is the (or even a) main driver is a bit of a stretch. The protesters themselves foreground slow delivery of housing and the whole gamut of services (toilets, sewerage, water, refuse , telecommunications, roads) but also have a sharp focus on corruption, maladministration, nepotism – and therefore, indirectly, on cadre deployment.

From M&G – Modderfontein Road in Ivory Park after service delivery protests

The protests appear to be coordinated. They have similar beginnings: “elders” – or the moral equivalent –  meet in a town hall to discuss grievances; they decide to march to the municipal offices in the town centre; they carry placards about Eskom, housing, corrupt council officials; on the way they are joined by youth and the unemployed, and the march swells; somewhere near the edge of the town centre police stop the now more threatening and chaotic march; stones are thrown and rubber bullets fired; the protest breaks into smaller groups and spreads; councilors and council property are targeted and running skirmishes with the police occur over a few days; the ANC sends a SWAT team to the area and this team either moves against the council or stands firm against “anarchic” and “violent” protesters. At any point during this process the attention of the mob can turn to the foreigners – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Somalians , Mozambicans, Angolans, Nigerians and those from the DRC.

It has become something of a legend and commonly accepted “fact” by foreigners living in South African townships that post the World Cup and in the lead-up to the local government elections in 2011 the xenophobic violence will erupt on a scale beyond anything that has happened in the past.

The Davies-J Curve – the real hidden hand behind the violence

One of the reasons the government and the intelligence agencies are suspicious about the violence is that it occurs always in municipalities where there has been a degree of successful service delivery. The violence does not seem to happen in areas that are absolutely poor and unserved and have remained so for some time.

Interestingly this is precisely the situation predicted by US sociologist working in the late 1950’s, James C Davies. His theory is that rising expectations is related to the possibility of armed conflict but only when rising expectations – brought about by, for example, some degree of service delivery – meets a downturn. His theory became known as the Davies J-curve.

What happens is that when material and other conditions are improving, expectations rise faster than the individuals own situation. The system seems to be able to cope with this, except when there is a downturn of some kind – this is the sharply curved “Reality” line in the diagramme above.

This predictive framework (usefully discussed by the Centre for Security Studies here) almost perfectly mirrors what has happened in townships and poor municipalities since 1994. The violence seems to spike in early winter and it seems to be concentrated in areas that have had by-elections. In general it seems to be at its worst after national local government elections.

We must assume that in the lead up to such elections the ruling party and its councils push service delivery and the promise of service delivery. After the elections delivery collapses.

Thus the expectations are on an ascending path as the reality of delivery veers sharply downwards.

Violence results and often the weakest and poorest are both the victims and perpetrators of that violence.

* Orange Farm, Sedibeng, Siyathemba township in Balfour, Leandra, Lesilie, Oogies, Accornhoek near Bushbuckridge, Chochocho near White River in Mpumalanga, Protea-Glen, Dobsonville-Gardens in Soweto, Ennerdale in Fine Town, Reiger Park in the East Rand, Parys, Diepsloot, Attridgeville and Mamelodi – all names of service delivery protest hotspots culled from recent press reports. While I cannot place all these towns on a map (and am not even sure that some are not colloquial names for the same place) it seems clear that there is an unfolding crisis of governance in many of South Africa’s 283 municipalities , especially in the poorest, semi-rural communities.

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