Toyi-toying youth, burning tyres, barricades, teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, running battles with the police — these scenes from apartheid’s battlefields were rerun in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa, over the last week.
ANC-aligned representatives from the city council and provincial government were booed and chased from meetings when they tried to pacify angry residents with appeals for patience.
But patience has run out among people who have been living in squalor.
Housed in leaking shacks, in informal settlements, with no electricity, water or sewage, these are people who are forced to shit in the bush or in a bucket.
Fed up and angry with being ignored, they dumped their night soil in the streets to draw attention to their plight.
Protests have spread from the province of the Free State to six of South Africa’s nine provinces, and from one township to another in each province.
Everywhere protesters come from the poorest sections of the working class, from the ranks of the 40 percent unemployed.
They are condemned to earning an income on the margins, living in the backyards of others or on unserviced sites in informal settlements.
Ad hoc organisation has characterised these largely spontaneous revolts.
The protests were explosions of anger in which typically anywhere between 500 and 1,000 protesters blocked busy roads with burning barricades.
Another important feature of the recent protests is the high percentage of women involved.
Behind the protests lies fury at a set of neo-liberal policies that have helped preserve apartheid’s legacy of underdevelopment and exclusion. Provision of housing, electricity, water and other services is subject to the market.
For those impoverished by apartheid there is a miserly subsidy to buy a house.
Since the post-apartheid elections of 1994, the housing minister claims 1.2 million houses have been built — yet the backlog of those waiting to be housed remains over two million.
In the areas where water and electricity have been installed these are obtained on a “cost recovery basis” and regulated through pre-paid water and electricity meters.
Under these conditions, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to “cut themselves off” from the supply of these services because they are too poor to pay.
Protesters have directed their anger at ANC local councillors. Many of them are perceived to be corrupt and more interested in accessing lucrative tenders intended to promote a black middle class than in representing their constituents.
Calls have been made for the government to investigate the “agitators” behind the protests.
The deployment of the National Intelligence Agency to investigate if a shadowy “third force” was at work marks both the attempt by government to deflect attention away from the lack of delivery and transformation that lies at the root of the protests, and an attempt to criminalise the protesters.
Even the bosses’ newspaper, the Business Day, admitted that “the third force at work was poverty”.
Police repression has been brutal, including the use of live ammunition and stun grenades.
One protester, Tebogo Mkhonza from the Free State, was killed. Many more were injured. Some 100 face public violence charges and 13 face sedition charges.
In Cape Town more than 100 protesters have been arrested.
While the protests have seemed to take the ANC and commentators by surprise, for many activists this anger has been what lay behind the emergence of the new social movements fighting landlessness, housing evictions, water and electricity cut-offs and privatisation.
These protests, on top of the corruption scandal that seems destined to result in the resignation or dismissal of the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, come at a bad time for the government.
Cosatu, the largest trade union federation, has announced a programme of rolling mass action including a general strike on 27 June against job losses.
The strategic challenge at this time for socialists is to link these struggles into a broad united front against neo-liberalism involving labour and social movement activists.