South Africa’s held my mum in jail for 60 days. Her crime? Peaceful protest.
The treatment of sixteen middle-aged women, imprisoned without bail for demonstrating against poor service delivery, says a lot about South Africa.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the ways and customs of the Zulu people, but respect, dignity and personal responsibility are some of my people’s most important values. The worst thing a young man can do to his family is deface its name by getting into trouble. My mother, a churchgoing woman, and my father, a policeman, cared so much about keeping their children out of trouble that they always prioritised discipline over our feelings.
So I never thought I’d see the day my mother was in jail. She hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but she’s now been in prison for more than 60 days. The magistrate in South Africa has refused her bail because he claims she is a threat to the investigating officer.
You might be wondering what my mother did to deserve this punishment. Well, her offence was to protest peacefully with her friends against government service delivery in our local community of Colenso in rural KwaZulu Natal. The community demonstrated because it feels civil servants are not doing their job properly, leading to poor services.
The group is now being held in a crowded jail in Newcastle. Many observers, including prison guards, are commenting on the strangeness of the situation. No one can believe that sixteen women are being charged with pubic violence for holding a protest. No one was harmed in the rally, nor was any public infrastructure damaged, yet my mother and her friends are being treated like violent criminals.
They have to sleep on lice-infested mattresses, eat their supper at 13:00 and are forced to take showers at 02:00. When friends and family are allowed to visit (which is just twice a week) and bring food, it must be consumed in one sitting because they are not allowed to take back to their cells. Visits are only allowed twice and on weekdays, which means working people can’t visit their loved ones.
Who are these women? Most are mothers from homes of little means. Colenso is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone. It came into existence in the 1920s when Eskom, the state electricity utility, built a plant nearby. The men who came to work there brought their families. Their little working compounds eventually spilled out into a township with a population of thousands.
But since the Eskom plant closed down, more than 30 years ago, unemployment has been rife here. Young people move to Johannesburg and Durban as soon as they so they can find jobs and support their families. Many households live entirely on social grants, which accrue only to the elderly and young children.
The average community in South Africa is as poor as my own, and some much poorer. Because of this, state services are particularly crucial. However, the government is quite bad at delivering these. Service delivery protests are very common. When these happen in urban townships, they sometimes get violent. People destroy infrastructure, burn tires and loot shops.
When this happens, those responsible are often arrested. But it is unheard of for a group of middle-aged women protesting peacefully to be jailed without bail for so long. In fact, just a few weeks before the women were denied bail, the same magistrate granted it to 28 others – which included some young fit men – who had been arrested for similar reasons.
The Colenso strike was not an isolated event, but part of a long campaign to get more transparency on matters of public interest. This includes issues such as the municipality’s hiring procedures, decisions on where public funds are spent, and the billing of the community’s metered water.
As part of the campaign, community members wanted to block off the main road in Colenso leading to the city of Ladysmith. A tractor was set alight. The police intervened, shooting and killing one protester, a boy from a poor household. Members of the community have had to contribute money to pay for his funeral.
Some protesters have been calling of ward councillor Thuli Hadebe, who is a local representative of the government, to step down. She has an incentive therefore to pressure officials – cops, prosecutors, magistrates – to end the strikes. It is hard to believe that the militant reaction by officials has nothing to do with her meddling.
“The weak suffer what they must”
Looking at the unfairness of this all, I am a reminded of a popular phrase from the Melian dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
In South Africa, there are many instances where people in power act in ways that oppress the weak. One glaring method is through the phenomenon of “tenderprenuers”. These are individuals who acquire vast amounts of wealth by exploiting their political connections to win tenders, often for public services such as housing programmes. They cut corners (in some instances deliver no service) in order to milk as much money as they can.
As Sean Gossel, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town puts it, this means that “capital allocated for service delivery is wasted”. Moreover, he goes on to explain, “state capture merges with patronage politics at local government level. This is accomplished by managing and staffing municipalities with unqualified party loyalists – or close associates – who disseminate services inefficiently from a shrinking pool of capital, while further extracting rents through a sub-layer of corruption.”
If I have come across as overly fervent here, I hope you can forgive me. I am simply outraged at what the families in my community have had to endure in the last few weeks. Yet, as passionate as I am, I know my voice is small and no amount of raving will bring justice to my mother and friends. Add yours to mine though, and we might be able to help these women, whose only crime was to ask for better service delivery, to go home to their families.