South Africa has seen its first protests under lockdown. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to understand what is at stake.
“Some do not have enough to eat”, wrote China, “and the food parcels only go to those earning below R3600 even though those who are earning more also face the same hunger problems as they are at home”.
China lives in Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa, where the dynamism of civic life is matched by the hardship of economic life. Almost half of the local residents are unemployed, and roughly the same percentage live in informal housing. China is one of the 70 participants in our Lockdown Diaries project that has been running over the last two weeks, covering occupied buildings, informal settlements, townships and suburbs in Cape Town.
Since the lockdown began, it has been clear that residents in poorer areas of Cape Town have been struggling to make ends meet. “People are starting to get frustrated about this lockdown”, reported Esethu from Khayelitsha in his second diary entry for the project. “[there are] long queues in food stores and prices of food in spaza shops are sky-rocketing every day”. Although food parcels have reached some areas, many participants report similar problems two weeks on. “Food is hard to come by, I am suffering myself”, said Sam, who lives in the informal settlement of Shukushukuma to the south east of Cape Town. “There are also people who are in the same position as me, we are all complaining about the same thing. We have been waiting for Sassa [South African Social Security Agency] up until now’.
“Do you know how painful it is to eat less because you’re trying to conserve food so it could last the whole month?”
And so, when struggling residents in the nearby township of Mitchells Plain protested on the streets calling for food parcels, their actions were not unexpected. But to say that a protest is expected is not the same as saying that it is understood.
Over the last 15 years, protests have played an important role in the politics of post-apartheid South Africa. When other platforms for politics seemed to narrow, close, or prove ineffective, people have performed their politics on the streets in the hope that they will be heard. The power and importance of these political performances, however, have sometimes been undermined by the commentary surrounding them. Even before talking to protestors, commentators all too often think that they know the script: this is a ‘service delivery protest’ to demand the basic services promised to all citizens after apartheid, and it is likely to turn violent.
In practice, such protests are actually driven by varied and diverse grievances. They are rarely just about the efficient delivery of a toilet or an electricity pole. At their root, these protests are driven by a desire for substantial inclusion in post-apartheid South Africa. But when we start trying to pinpoint what that looks like in practice, we see a great variety of hopes and aspirations grounded in different ideas of gender, employment, authority, nationality, and home.
Similarly, the immediate triggers for these protests have been diverse and they are usually deeply anchored within highly specific power struggles, which may ricochet from the local to the national level. In reality, whilst the issue of service delivery is rarely completely absent, it may only be symptomatic of a far broader or deeper issue. Violence is also far from ubiquitous in street protests. Where it does emerge, it is often in retaliation to the aggression of police officers. Those who predict the scripts of protest may end up missing more than they reveal.
Protesting broken promises
As it is with service delivery protests, so it will be with protests during Covid-19 lockdown. There are clear structural forces that are likely to make life unbearable under lockdown for millions of South Africans: high levels of unemployment; a clamp-down on precarious and informal work; rising food costs; and limited social welfare in a country still dogged by the legacies of apartheid and the realities of contemporary misogyny and racism. Recognising the structural forces at play in any country is crucial, but they should be the foundation – not the limit – of our attempts to understand people’s lived realities. Ultimately, what we need to know is how these structural forces intersect in people’s lives to shape local social, political and economic dynamics. And for that, we need to centre the voices of those on the streets, giving them the time and space to explain the nuances of their needs and experiences.
Read beneath the headlines, and you find that the Mitchells Plain protests were ignited by a specific betrayal: the promise of food parcels that had never materialised. We see these undelivered promises in other areas too. Philip in Hangberg for example, says “we are still waiting for the government, the department of social development, the City of Cape Town, to come on board, to bring food parcels”. The depth of the story in this area, the historical hopes and betrayals on which it builds, the suffering and solidarity of the communities, and their varied responses to this crisis has yet to be told in the media.
Drawing on our Lockdown Diaries project, we suggest three areas of inquiry that are important in exploring – rather than pre-empting – protest scripts. These are indicative, rather than exhaustive, examples of the space we must create to understand protestors on their own terms.
First, the specifics of people’s grievances are important. “Do you know how painful it is to eat less because you’re trying to conserve food so it could last the whole month?” Ash asked. “I personally skip a day and eat the following day because I know if I eat every time, every day I will run out of food.” Ash lives in Delft. But for Ash, the issue was not primarily economic – it was geographic. “Running out of food is not the issue, the issue is not being allowed to go buy some unless you have the damn permit, which we don’t have”. Ash needed to use a car to fetch supplies. Driving to fetch groceries is legal but, Ash explained, “word is that should you be stopped by cops or soldiers driving then you should have something that says ‘you’re allowed to drive’”. Consequently, he has remained indoors. Understanding the nuances of people’s struggles is vital. Just as all protests cannot be understood under a single label, not all protestors will be drawn to an event by a single set of demands. If we want to understand the pull of a protest, we have to look beyond the spectacle on the streets and behind its apparent leaders to understand the diverse dynamics at play.
“The Lockdown has impacted many poor families so badly and has caused sleepless nights to so many, while rich (people) are living a good life because they can afford anything.”
Second, contestations around local governance are crucial, as we seek to grasp how protests can be understood and how solutions can be found. In recent years, positions of leadership have been fiercely contested as opposition to the government has proliferated and factions within the ANC have multiplied. Below the level of the ward committee – where much of the everyday work of debate and distribution happens – the contours of contestation shape who is heard, who is marginalised, and, in the context of food parcels, who is fed. As one resident in Imizamo Yethu argued, “some leaders are corrupted, they take most of the food for their families”. Suspicions and allegations of misallocation often emerge during the distribution of resources but this is particularly true in times of lockdown, where public distribution is not possible. One resident in Khayelitsha, for example, reported that those who were sent by the ward councillor to make a list of recipients for food parcels had been “skipping houses”. Whilst there could have been a legitimate reason for their behaviour, uncertainty easily bred distrust and discontent.
This brings us to our final point: justice matters, on every level. In our diaries there was a clear sense of justice and injustice operating on multiple levels. Nationally, there is a keen sense that Covid-19 has not been a ‘leveller’ as some have suggested. “The lockdown has impacted many poor families so badly and has caused sleepless nights to so many”, China said, “while rich (be it black or white) are living a good life because they can afford anything’. But protests are not just triggered by national tensions: comparative local disadvantage also counts. Respondents reflected on the ways in which poorer areas that bordered richer areas were more likely to get help; the degree to which tensions were mounting between shop owners and their clients; and the tensions within households and between families.
Unfortunately, given that the burdens of lockdown rest heaviest on the poorest and most marginalised in South Africa, there are likely to be more protests throughout the country. Exploring protests with protestors can move us beyond labels and slogans to understand the core issues at play. At the moment, one message resonates throughout the Lockdown Diaries: participants recognise the need for the lockdown to prevent Covid-19. They want to help protect their own health, that of their loved ones, and their broader community. In their current situations, however, many face a paradox of protection. They are expected to stay indoors without being able to eat or feed the very family they are trying to protect.
To read more of The Lockdown Diaries visit lockdowndiaries.org.