Citizen Voices

Unlawful prohibition of protests in Makana since 2009

Embizweni journalist, Emily Corke, explores the action taken by citizens against the service delivery woes of Makana Municipality, using research conducted by Jane Duncan.  Heres why people are not protesting in Makana.

Insufficient. Maladministration. Corruption.

These words featured in national headlines when describing Makana Municipality, widely known for its water crisis and financial debt. With a municipality with this much bad press, one would expect more frequent service delivery protests in Grahamstown, as in other cities in a far better state than Makana.

Picture by: Emily Corke

Picture by: Emily Corke

Makana’s Chief Whip and Proportional Representation Councillor, Julie Wells, said the reason for the lack of protests was due to clear communication with communities when services are down. Research shows a different picture.

In the last two years the only protests making national news are organised by students. Any other protests or gatherings are declared illegal and violent. These declarations are unlawful according to according to Professor Jane Duncan from the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies. She said the real problem lay in how protests are framed and registered. Duncan referred to the constant rhetoric of “violent service delivery protests” used by journalists.

Duncan and a team of researchers conducted an investigation into the protest data across a range of municipalities. “What is clear is that it has become more and more impossible to protest lawfully and this is used to attack the protest and put it down”, said Duncan, “We have to interrogate why and how they are unlawful.”

According to Duncan, journalists often miss the processes leading up to the protest. During the registration process, conflicting interests often arise: municipalities which are the source of the grievance are more likely to frame the protest as illegal. And, said Duncan, by labelling the protests illegal, the police feel more justified in responding with violent means.

In Makana the research shows the bigger problem is in who is allowed to protest and who isn’t. Duncan said, prohibited protests “weren’t really apparent until the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) came along”. While the UPM is not the only organisation to be prohibited, injunctions have consistently followed the UPM. The reasons for the prohibition of these protests were almost always unlawful, she said. “The relationship between Makana and the UPM has been fractious, particularly since the UPM embarked on a spate of protests from 2011 onwards,” said Duncan.

Marches organised by Rhodes University have had less trouble in registering a gathering. Research shows, in 2013 the only recorded prohibition was against Rhodes University, for a late application. But even this prohibition was unlawful as late applications can be considered, providing valid reasons are given.

Beyond the actual protests, Makana’s response depends on who is applying. The resolution of the so-called water crisis in Grahamstown was a prime example. “The municipality is complacent,” said UPM’s Ayanda Kota, “If the crisis takes so long, and it takes an institution like Rhodes University to threaten to close down, it tells you the immensity of the problem.”

Kota said that people in Grahamstown East, who have had no consistent water supply for years, have had to improvise to keep their homes hygienic and healthy. “Some residents have had to get up before dawn to find water for their families,” he said. However, the crisis was only brought to the fore last year when Rhodes students went without water for up to 16 days. After a student march and an open letter from the Vice-Chancellor, national government intervened and contracted Amatola Water Board to save the day.

Despite occasional incidents, such as residents unsuccessfully ransacking fire engines in attempts to get water, there has been little public protest about water supply. It was, said Kota, the reality for so many, for so long.

Research also showed that the way the police deal with protests in Makana differs according to who is protesting. For example, a march organised by the UPM and the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), earlier this year, was dispersed when shots were fired into the air. This protest was consequently labeled illegal and “inciting violence” by Makana and the media. There has been no such incident recorded in marches organised by Rhodes University.

Duncan said if the way protests are framed does not change, people will continue to take to the streets anyway, as their underlying grievances will remain unaddressed. In Makana, people eventually just accept their circumstances when their cries continue to fall on deaf ears.

Well’s comment comes with little substance when all the research is said and done. What is more worrying is the council’s reaction to the latest attempt to organise made by citizens.

The recent collaboration between various organisations and citizens across Grahamstown, the Makana Civil Organisation, has been one of the most successful collaboration I have seen for a while.

The Grahamstown Residents Association (GRA) and the Makana Unity League (MUL) have left much to be desired in terms achieving any sense of cohesion. For starters, you cannot claim to be an organization of Makana and Grahamstown if you cannot have any representative from Grtahamstown East at the meetings. But that is a discussion for another day.

Well’s on the other hand felt the collaboration was just like its predecessors.

“These people just sit and make uninformed rants about things they don’t know anything about but when we invite them to council meetings they do not attend,” said Wells.

This was how she responded when I asked her why there had been no presence to represent the council at these meetings. She added that she had no intention of attending any future meetings. Telling of how Makana deals with citizens. Why then should we expect citizens to protests when they get the same response every time. That is unreasonable.

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