Call for urgent action after protests

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Church ministers, community representatives and BATA and Uncedo taxi associations’ leadership met on Sunday afternoon 30 May to discuss a way forward following the past week’s shutdown in Makhanda. They also discussed how to ensure the service delivery failures behind the protests are addressed.

The discussions were convened by Archbishop Nkosinathi Ngesi of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church and held outside the municipal offices in Joza. The participants are expected to issue a joint statement soon.

The three-day shutdown of the town initiated by taxi associations and the Unemployed People’s Movement was suspended late on Wednesday 26 May after a provincial government delegation led by Cogta MEC Xolile Nqatha committed to a 14-day deadline for addressing specific service-delivery concerns.

Meanwhile observers say urgent and decisive action to significantly improve service delivery, along with a transparent and accountable leadership, are crucial to restore the community’s trust and avert increasingly destructive protests in Makhanda.

“The long-standing service delivery challenges being faced in Makhanda and Makana Municipality must be attended to with an urgency that cannot be overstated,” said Sakhe Ntlebeza, Programme Manager of the Makhanda Circle of Unity – an apolitical, multi-stakeholder civil society coalition.

Public Service Accountability Monitor Director Jay Kruuse emphasised the urgency.

“Until the Province and MLM begin to implement real effective solutions that result in significant service delivery improvements, trust will continue to erode, and protests will become more regular and likely more violent and destructive.”

MECs Weziwe Tikana- Gxothiwe (Roads, Transport and Safety) Xolile Nqatha (Co-operative Governance) and Mlungisi Mvoko (Finance, Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism) address members of the media at the Monument late on Wednesday 26 May. Photo: Sue Maclennan

A meeting on Wednesday 26 May at the Monument with MECs Xolile Nqatha (Co-operative Governance), Weziwe Tikana- Gxothiwe (Roads, Transport and Safety) and Mlungisi Mvoko (Finance, Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism) included Makana’s Mayor, Mayoral Committee, Municipal Manager and directors of Infrastructure, Community Services and Local Economic Development. Others attending included representatives of the South African Communist Party, South African Municipal Workers Union, a member of the SA National Civic Organisation, Makana Residents Association, Grahamstown Business Forum, Grahamstown Progressive Chamber of Business and the two taxi associations, BATA and Uncedo.

Representatives of the South African Communist Party, SA Municipal Workers Union, SA National CIvic Organisation and the two taxi associations hammered out an in-principle agreement with Nqatha. An hour before sunset, they emerged with the proposal to suspend the citywide blockade on the basis of a 14-day deadline for various commitments by the Province and the municipality. The Premier and Nqatha were to come to the Indoor Sport Centre Makhanda on 15 June to tour the town, speak to residents and see the state of the infrastructure for themselves. Targets for streetlights, roads and water were agreed to.

SACP’s KK Chule Papiyane District deputy chairperson Bongani Hanise and SAMWU regional secretary Wandile Duruwe led a delegation to report back to an increasingly restless crowd of community members. Many had been waiting at Fingo Square since mid-morning, expecting to be addressed by provincial government representatives.

“Some were not happy with 14 days,” said a community representative present during the announcement. “They said they wouldn’t stop the protest because the MEC never came and spoke to them.”

The Border Alliance Taxi Association’s Sibongile Waka addresses community members and taxi operators at Fingo Square as the shutdown was suspended on Wednesday 26 May. Photo: Vukosi Maluleke

Later, Sevenfountains residents blocked the N2 with burning tyres and on Thursday protesters again blocked the R67 at Martindale.

Addressing the media after the meeting, Nqatha briefed media on the Municipal Manager’s reportback to the MECs about progress in infrastructure construction, refurbishment and maintenance. He identified communication as the main problem and said the Mayor would lead a process to ensure residents are kept updated on infrastructure.

Border Alliance Taxi Association official Sibongile Waka confirmed the taxi industry’s decision to return to full operations on Thursday. “We agreed that we will open everything,” Waka said. “People must be able to go anywhere – work, shops, schools, even out of town.

Meanwhile the UPM said as from Wednesday it was no longer participating in the current demonstrations. “Although the UPM was part of the protest action initially with the Border Taxi Association and the Uncedo Taxi Association to protest against the lack of service delivery at Makhanda, the UPM has decided to call an end to the protest action for the reason that the message has now been conveyed to Makana Municipality and the Provincial Government,” read the statement signed by Ayanda Kota.

“The UPM condemns in the strongest possible terms any illegal actions that took place during the protests… Regrettably, opportunists have seized the opportunity of the protest to cause violent disruption and effect intimidation of citizens, which was never the object of this protest.”

Incidents on Wednesday included the setting fire to entrances to the City Hall, Joza Post Office and Joza municipal offices (Housing Department). All were extinguished before causing serious damage.

Police arriving to monitor the situation at Graeme College speak to a tactical response officer guarding the gate on Tuesday 25 May. Parents rushed to fetch their children as groups in taxis went from school to school, ordering them to close. Photo: Sue Maclennan

On Tuesday, in a campaign of fear reported on social media by those affected as it happened, groups drove around town in minibus taxis, forcing CBD businesses and schools to close. Parents rushed to fetch frightened children and combat-ready private security guards were deployed at schools, as the groups approached.

Catering staff were removed from at least one independent school, as well as the University. With shops and food outlets in the town shut down, students in the university residences received meal packs.

In a statement from its Communications division following Tuesday’s events, Rhodes University said it sympathised with the underlying reasons for the protest caused by a failed municipality and the poor state of the city.

“It does, however, condemn the further damage to the economy and reputation of the fragile town by today’s events. The University further condemns the protesters’ actions who confronted sub-wardens delivering food to fellow students and stole the food.”

At Eastcape Midlands College, students said they were threatened and forced to leave the examination room, midway through writing an important exam.

Pharmacies were among the businesses forced to close and one doctor said patients had been unable to get prescribed medication.

Barricades of rocks and burning tyres and rubbish blocked intersections across the city and drivers who tried to get past or through were turned back. Groups of protesters reiterated the service delivery failures that prompted the shutdown.

Smoke from the fires lingered well after the protests were finished and into the night.

The Makhanda Circle of Unity Tuesday called on Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane to urgently intervene.

In a letter signed by co-chairs Professor Owen Skae and Dr Vicentia Kgabe, the MCU said, “We write to you express our profound concern at the debilitating state of Makana Municipality, and urgently request for your intervention in the rapidly deteriorating situation that has prompted protests…”

The MCU said while, for the most part, this protest action had been done peacefully and within the law, Tuesday had been marred by violence, destruction of property, threats, and intimidation.

“Businesses have now been forced to close, examinations have been suspended, vital health services cannot be delivered, and students are not able to access food. This cannot be condoned.”

On Wednesday, local police were reinforced by Public Order Police from East London, Queenstown and Cradock.

Taxi operators were furious after police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets in the Fingo Square intersection around 8.30am on Wednesday 26 May. Shutdown co-organiser Lungisa Sixaba said it hadn’t been clear why the police had acted and vehicle owners complained of dents left by rubber bullets.

Some public schools remained closed on Thursday and reopened on Friday 28 May.

The MCU’s Ntlebeza said, “The long-standing service delivery challenges being faced in Makhanda and Makana Municipality must be attended to with an urgency that cannot be overstated. There is a need to foster and sustain collaborative, joint efforts to restore and revive the municipality, particularly because we recognise that extended failures to provide basic services to citizens and subsequent protests because of this are most harmful to currently disadvantaged persons and communities.

“This needs to involve all stakeholders in the city, who have articulated their commitment to contributing wherever possible to the development of Makana.

“In turn, this must be accompanied by an accessible, transparent and accountable leadership which actively responds to the needs of its citizens – it is this combination that will allow us to map out a way forward.”

The Public Service Accountability Monitor’s Jay Kruuse voiced similar concerns.

“There is a growing trust deficit between ordinary residents of Makana and those in public positions,” Kruuse said. “This is increasingly becoming more dangerous. Until the Province and MLM begin to implement real effective solutions that result in significant service delivery improvements, trust will continue to erode, and protests will become more regular and likely more violent and destructive.”

Kruuse said finding lasting solutions for Makana required the Province and the Municipality to make unpopular decisions.

“These include  holding councilors and managers to account; dealing correctly with poor performance and abuse of office Taking these corrective steps will see trust grow.”

Kruuse said better communication and greater openness using the Open Government Proramme local initiative could help move local government forward in a more constructive and accountable manner.

A group of Ward 3 residents toyi-toyis below Mary Waters Secondary School. Photo: Sue Maclennan

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