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Local government: The reasons behind the community revolts 2006-02-16
Dale T. McKinley

*Political commentator, community activist and independent researcher


A few months ago Dale T. McKinley, one of the government’s most formidable leftwing critics, published a comprehensive report commisioned by the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation on the reasons for community revolts on local government level. It is a penetrating, surgical analysis of how the ANC’s neoliberal policy is crushing poor South Africans, which makes the Minister of Intelligence, Mr. Ronnie Kasrils’ investigation by the National Intelligence Agency of the reasons behind the revolts absurd, if not volgar, not to speak of his blaming of a “Third Force”. On these pages Die Vrye Afrikaan publishes in the run-up to the local government election on March 1 with McKinley’s friendly permission the executive summary, recommendations and verbatim extracts on the revolts from his report. The full report appears in English at

The emergence of post apartheid social movements in the first decade of democracy has been dramatically shaped by the context of the South African transition.
At a political level, the 1980s saw the exiled African National Congress (ANC) emerge at the head of the people’s struggle against the apartheid regime. Underpinned by the doctrine of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the broad church strategy of the ANC ensured that the national struggle against apartheid would be prioritised over the class struggle against capitalism. In spite of the material location of people’s struggles (situated in direct opposition to the interests of capitalism), once negotiations had begun in the early 1990s, the ANC used its position to manage (including the suspension of) bread and butter struggles. The effect of this process was to institutionalise a narrow post-apartheid vision of the ANC and a negotiations-centric polity. Organisationally, the political hegemony of the ANC was not without destructive consequences for political and ideological diversity, and much of the space for independent grassroots organisation was virtually closed down. The context of the economy would also see the ANC’s commitment to the abandonment of an anti-capitalist front codified in the formal unveiling of the overtly neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic programme in 1996, reinforcing class inequalities and social unevenness. Anticipating massive opposition to the policy within it own ranks the policy was dubbed ‘non-negotiable’.

These contexts provide the background to more contemporary and emergent conflicts between the state and impoverished communities centred on basic socio-economic needs/services.

Section One: Neoliberalism and the Commons

Embedded in the crises experienced by capitalism in the late 1960s the process of globalisation is driven by the need to search for more markets and areas for investment. Thus it is often argued that the reforms grouped under the term neoliberalism are the primary means through which capital addresses the challenges to further accumulation. Theorists have also pointed out that neoliberalism involves the creation of “new enclosures” in so far as the end result of these strategies aim to forcibly separate people from whatever access to social wealth they have which is not mediated or co-optable by the market. Thus it is through neoliberal restructuring that nation states have been forced to adopt policies aimed at bringing necessary resources such as water, housing, electricity, health care, education, etc. under the rule of the market.

The specific challenges faced by apartheid accumulation strategies, saw the apartheid regime attempt a series of reforms that would eventually lead to the opening of a terrain of negotiations with the ANC. It was within this transitional negotiations framework that an accommodation between the ANC and big business emerged, including a ‘distributional coalition’ of white business and emerging black business premised on policies to promote globalisation and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). In this sense, key outcomes of the negotiated settlement were designed to address the specific crisis of the South African accumulation strategy.

As a result, that which was envisaged as fundamental to the redress of apartheid inequalities by the liberation movement (from basic services to the nature and forms of governance that a new government would assume) would slowly be encroached on by the market. Symbolically this shift manifested itself through GEAR. Under GEAR, the role of local government shifted from a redistributive one to an ‘enabling’, or ‘facilitating’ one and whereby real access has come to be determined by market forces, with the state becoming the facilitator of this logic. 

At stake in the current conflict between the state and new social movements is thus the very vision of the struggle against apartheid.  For the state, the reproductive demands of communities resisting apartheid (in particular the payment boycotts of the 1980’s) were merely a means of leveraging the position of the liberation movement in relation to the apartheid state.  For new social movements, strategies such as the payment boycotts were the key redistributive challenge of the new state and needed to be institutionalised.  The clash of these narratives represents the conceptual basis for the contemporary conflict between the state and communities in relation to basic socio-economic services and their ‘delivery’.

Section Two: The Genesis and Evolution of Social Movements in Three Urban Communities

As the practical consequences of GEAR began to bear down on the lives of workers and poor communities, groups of people organised at community level to resist the effects of the policies of cost recovery and privatisation, flexibilisation and casualisation of labour, cuts in social spending, and the general extension of the rule of the market into all aspects of people’s lives. 

In this study, three urban, poor communities that have experienced, and continue to experience, conflict with the state over basic socio-economic struggles are presented as case studies. These communities are, Mandela Park (Khayelitsha), Bayview (Chatsworth) and Orange Farm (Johannesburg). Detailed histories leading to the formation of specific community organisations in each of these areas – namely, the Mandela Park Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Bayview Flats Residents Association, and the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee – are provided.  Through interviews, community organisation materials and qualitative research analysis, the various activities, organisational trajectories and emergent relationships with the state, private sector and other actors in civil society (local, national and international) are presented and analysed.

Section Three: Arresting Dissent

In all three communities, the closing down of any meaningful institutional space for the presentation of community grievances, combined with the generalised non-negotiability of the framework of the state’s economic strategy, has meant that attempts to seek government intervention in addressing local demands has failed. On the one hand, this has forced local communities to adopt more antagonistic strategies such as marches and reconnections. On the other hand, the inability of the state to offer any meaningful concessions to these community movements has meant that the state’s only recourse has been repression and the deployment of the various arms of the criminal justice system in ‘maintaining order’. In this respect our research has noted a number of trends and effects stemming from the conflict.

The local police, the council, and state service providers have come to represent for these communities the primary focus of social movement antagonism. In most cases, however, engagements between the communities and the state have taken on a conflictual character, mediated by the criminal justice system. However, the private sector, usually in the form of private security companies, has also played an important role in structuring perceptions of the state’s responses to community resistance. The need for strategic management of social movement activity has also seen the formation of strategic partnerships between the relevant arms of the national and the local state.

The courts have played an extremely important role in the conflict.  While the intervention of the judiciary in certain cases has had positive outcomes for social movements, for the most part the courts have been used to distract the attention of local movements or used to deal out punitive measures and discipline activists. Local Alliance structures have also played an important role, based on a strategy of the ANC to facilitate counter mobilisation in areas where community organisations have begun to challenge their local hegemony.

The conflict between social movements and the state has often had dramatic and far-reaching consequences for both the movements and the communities in which they work.  The greatest danger presented by the conflict is the manner in which its current terms structure a self-reproducing discourse of marginalisation and repression. On the one hand the extension of the logic of GEAR’s non-negotiability structures the state’s refusal to engage with social movements. On the other, social movements have no option but to shift to increasingly antagonistic activity.

Section Four: Social Movements and Democracy in South Africa’s Transition

The first phase of South Africa’s ‘transition’ has witnessed the ANC’s political and ideological acceptance of the broad framework of a globally dominant, neoliberal political and economic orthodoxy. In turn, this has led to the institutionalised (and false) separation between political and socio-economic change, such that democracy has come to be seen as synonymous with the capitalist market. The result has been a perpetual ‘crisis of democracy’ wherein institutionalised practices of representative democracy such as elections make little difference since the key societal decisions are taken by the ‘market’. In this context the emergence of new social movements is a contestation of this narrow vision of democracy.

Given that the rhetorical core of governance, since 1994, has revolved around prioritising the ‘delivery’ of basic needs and services to South Africa’s poor majority, the emergence of new social movements on this terrain is a practical manifestation of the very real impact/effect of the ANC state’s governance track record.  Thus, the existence and activities of the new social movements are not only a direct result of the socio-economic realities that pertain in contemporary South Africa but also represent a more general and positive contribution to widening and deepening democracy. 

The fact that most social movements are presently outside of the mainstream of South Africa’s institutional political framework indicates that an increasing number of poor South Africans no longer see active participation in the present institutional set-up of representative democracy as being in their political and/or socio-economic interests.  The existing state, its institutionalised politics and its socio-economic policies are increasingly being seen, and treated, as a central target of a class struggle emanating from poor communities. What the state has failed to understand is that the ‘democratic’ character and content of such struggle cannot be managed, manufactured and/or imposed.  Those struggling to create new avenues of political expression, governance and accountability and to free themselves from the shackles of capitalism’s ‘democracy’ will create it – and that is precisely what new social movements are in the process of doing.


The resurgence of popular grassroots organisations in the last five years has profoundly altered the political landscape of South Africa.  As a consequence of the antagonisms between these organisations and the state, South Africa has experienced increased levels of conflict in relation to the delivery of basic services.  In the interest of minimising the effects of this conflict it is necessary for all sectors and role players to actively seek out strategies that enhance democracy and facilitate meaningful dialogue. The various recommendations at the end of this report flesh out some possible avenues.


The resurgence of popular grassroots organisations – in the form of new social movements – since 1994 has profoundly altered the political landscape of South Africa and relations within civil society more generally.  As this research report demonstrates, the antagonisms between the state and social movements, a direct result of the adoption of neoliberal strategies and policies, have led to increasing levels of conflict around basic socio-economic issues/struggles.  The return of such conflict in the context of a society that has historically experienced the trauma of politically motivated violence presents a major challenge to both the social and political cohesiveness of South African still fragile democracy.  While it is highly unlikely that the current conflict between the state and the new social movements will go away anytime soon, there are possibilities for the terrain on which the conflict is taking place to be altered so as to facilitate greater space for dialogue and constructive forms of engagement between the antagonists.  It is within this spirit, that the following recommendations are offered:

For community organisations/social movements:

·                                 Develop programmes for the dissemination of information relating to existing structures of dialogue within communities (e.g., ward committees, community development forums and community policing forums).  This should be paralleled by the development of strategies for direct involvement in such structures with the explicit aim of democratising and empowering these structures.

·                                 Capacitate members to develop avenues for participating in policy formulation at the local, provincial and national levels of government.  At present, community organisations simply have not attempted, in a co-ordinated way, to impact on policy formulation, preferring to react to legislation as it begins to affect their daily lives.

·                                 Expand existing (but limited) initiatives aimed at broadening the knowledge base of social movement activists in relation to domestic macro-economic policy and international political economy (e.g. political education workshops).

·                                 In order to empower ordinary members of social movements, there is the need to embark on learning experiences that would raise literacy levels and basic life skills (e.g., night schools).  In addition to raising levels of general educational competency, such programmes would specifically empower women, who make up the bulk of the membership of new social movements and who are historically the most affected by the legacy of the apartheid education system, patriarchy and poverty.

·                                 The development and/or expansion of income-generating projects.  Where such projects already exist (e.g., the women’s consortium gardening project in Orange Farm), it is clear that they have served to enhance community solidarities and have also served to articulate alternative forms of collective livelihoods.  Although such projects are limited in the extent to which they present alternatives to state provision for socio-economic need, in the absence of the latter these projects could play an important role in meeting the needs of basic survival.

·                                 Deepening and broadening existing strategies for bringing social movements together and creating the space for dialogue between social movements at a national level (e.g. the Social Movements Indaba initiative).  This would not only take forward the development of policy alternatives to the current macro-economic trajectory but would also enhance solidarities between communities that are experiencing the negative effects of neoliberal restructuring.

·                                 A re-orientation towards identifying and accessing existing state programmes and resources that are ostensibly aimed at enhancing community development (e.g., National Development Agency initiatives/projects).  Presently, most social movements are completely dependent on financial assistance from either members and/or overseas-based funding agencies but have yet to develop way and means of accessing resources from their own government.

For progressive organs of civil society (e.g. NGOs like CSVR):

·                                 Orientating existing and new civil society projects/ programmes towards linking up with the work and struggles of new social movements. As things stand, social movements exist on the periphery of the NGO sector.

·                                 The creation of learning experiences involving NGOs/civil society activists aimed at augmenting existing knowledge of the work being done by social movements in poor communities and the associated socio-economic struggles that they have undertaken (e.g. workshops, seminars, popular booklets)

·                                 Assist social movements in the development of capacity-building programmes in relation to:

a)                                           Knowledge and application of basic constitutional rights and existing legislation that impacts on the daily lives of community residents and their socio-economic struggles;

b)                                          Available structures of dialogue with the state;

c)                                           Policy formulation at all levels of government (but specifically as applied to the local/municipal sphere);

d)                                          Domestic macro-economic policy and international political economy (i.e., economic literacy);

e)                                           The formation and sustenance of income-generating projects/community co-operatives;

f)                                           Accessing state resources earmarked for developmental programmes;

g)                                           Processes and procedures in lodging of complaints in circumstances where the state has acted unlawfully.

·                                 To undertake an audit of progress made by the state in giving expression to civil and political rights. An example of this would be to test the effectiveness of legislation such as the Gatherings Act in realising the constitutional right to social dissent and political protest.  As part of such an audit, determination would need to be made of the most effective mechanisms for disseminating the findings to social movements and other stakeholders.

·                                 Setting up a partnership of civil society organisations to play a watchdog role in relation to civil and political rights.  This would involve the monitoring of protest and conflict to ensure that the rights of all those involved are being respected and upheld. Practically, consideration would need to be given to the training and deployment of ‘observers’ in conflict areas and for specific events. Additionally, the partnership would also need to develop strategies for the dissemination of information related to socio-economic conflict and civil/ political rights.

·                                 To offer practical assistance for the networking of social movements and civil society more generally. For example, assisting in the establishment of community ICT centres, in conjunction with social movements, to allow for access to cheap forms of communication and information dissemination.

·                                 The extension of civil society media monitoring strategies to include coverage of social movement struggles.  In this regard, special attention would need to be given to the manner in which the reproduction of the marginalisation of social movement struggles is effected through the mainstream media.

For the state:

·                                 Establish an investigative commission to probe the role of the private sector in municipal/community policing, in particular, their involvement in large-scale cost recovery operations and evictions.  For example, the crucial role played by Wozani Security (the ‘ red ants’) in the Johannesburg Metro. Such a commission, would also review municipal guidelines in relation to the outsourcing of security functions to the private sector. 

·                                 Setting up specific training programmes for the police and other officials in the criminal justice system (e.g. magistrate’s, state prosecutors and public defenders) to acquaint them with legislation governing civil and political rights – for example, the Gatherings Act.

·                                 Develop specific protocols for municipal officials to be employed in the carrying out of cost recovery operations that relate to the carrying and use of weapons, conflict resolution mechanisms and procedures for non-violent punitive action.

·                                 The integration, of strategies aimed at minimising conflict centred on socio-economic issues, in both community policing forums (CPFs) and community development forums (CDFs).  An example would be for CPFs to develop guidelines to assist police in managing protests involving large numbers of people from the community.

·                                 To orient ward committees and other local government-community structures towards the inclusion of social movements/community organisations in a manner that minimises existing antagonisms and exclusivist tendencies.

·                                 The Human Rights Commission to consider a second round of ‘Poverty Hearings’ oriented around issues that have emerged as a direct result of socio-economic conflict between communities and the state.  This would include testimonies from community residents and social movement activists as well as assessing the impact of cost recovery operations carried out by the state in exacerbating the effects of poverty and intensifying conflict.

·                                 National government to convene a summit focusing on the socio-economic crisis currently affecting poor communities.  Such a summit would create space for, and extend, the current dialogue around issues of socio-economic import to move beyond the narrow boundaries that presently characterise state-community relations.


The convening of a ‘Right to Dissent’ national conference involving representatives of the state (from all levels of government), trade unions, NGOs, social movements/community organisations and the private sector (in particular, private security firms and those involved in service delivery).  Such a conference would be designed to create avenues for the sharing of differing perspectives on democratic expression and dissent.  It would also need to address the implications of the proposed anti-terror legislation on the status of civil and political rights in South Africa, the region and on the continent as a whole.


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