Helen Zille explains the Cape Town protests

The DA leader says there are no easy answers to the grievances in the city

Politicians must only promise what is possible -- and keep these promises

Suppose people voted for a political party that promised them eternal life. Both the party and the voters would be at fault. The party would be wrong in promising something it could not deliver, and the people would be wrong in believing it.

Now suppose people voted for a party that promised to lower taxes by 1%, and as soon as it came to power it raised taxes by 1%. Here the party would be wrong in failing to keep a promise that was possible, and the people would be right in being aggrieved.

The headlines in South Africa now are about "service delivery protests". This phrase, like most other labels, often disguises more than it clarifies.

I have relied on newspaper reports for an understanding of "service delivery protests" around the country. Every one is different. Each occurs for a different reason.

In Cape Town, I have been able to investigate the situation directly.

Let us look more closely at Masiphumelele, an informal settlement near Kommetjie, where a so-called "service delivery protest" turned violent this week.

This protest was not about "poor service delivery" or "broken promises". It was about demands that cannot be met.

The irony in Masiphumelele is that the protests are a direct result of the recent escalation of "service delivery". The injection of resources in a poor community inevitably generates conflict because not everyone can benefit equally.

Masiphumelele started as a series of dispersed sporadic land invasions during the late 1980s and early 1990s. About ten years ago, the approximately 1,500 families were consolidated onto the present location, and given serviced sites of between 100 and 150 square meters each. These are large sites in comparison with the sites that are allocated today given the escalating demand and scarcity of land. Some families opted for the free "RDP" houses on their sites, others chose to take the subsidy and build their own homes. Before the subsidies were approved, each site owner allowed up to six additional families to squat on their site, and charged them rent. Today, there are an additional 4,000 families living as "backyarders" on the sites provided for 1,500 families. Many of the new residents are relatively recent migrants to Cape Town. Municipal authorities were unable to prevent this facilitated "invasion" on privately owned sites.

Now that the site owners have received their subsidies and can start building, they are evicting the "backyarders". These hapless people are demanding additional land in the area, or accommodation in other local housing schemes, such as the new flats under construction in the innovative public/private partnership called Amakhaya Ngoku. They have refused relocation to land elsewhere. And of course, the dissatisfaction has created a vacuum for demagogues with political agendas. Now the backyard "evictees" are invading the surrounding wetlands and nature reserve. While a small portion of this land is being developed for some families, it is impossible to provide sufficient land to house everyone in the immediate area. No politician, as far as I am aware, has ever promised to do so. The tragic irony is that, if the site owners had not received subsidies, and the building of the flats had not begun, the current violence would probably not have occurred. These kinds of problems are often inevitable when development starts, because not everyone can benefit. In Masiphumelele it is simply impossible to accommodate everyone who wishes to be part of a formal housing development in the immediate area. Nor can we enable people to leapfrog the 400,000-long waiting list by invading land.

We can anticipate the same situation when we begin to build flats in Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. Despite years of negotiation and planning, it will be impossible to accommodate everyone on the site following repeated invasions.

The densities are currently so high that it is impossible even to put in rudimentary services, let alone build houses. This has repeatedly been explained to the residents. There is an approved list of beneficiaries that took many months to compile. Tragically, many people will have to be moved so that services and housing can be delivered.  And this is unlikely to be a smooth process, no matter how much negotiation precedes it. We must be absolutely honest about the choices: The current situation of "equal misery" cannot be replaced by "equal advantage" as development occurs.

These are the facts. Many people do not want to hear them. Inevitably local politicians will exploit the situation and promise poor people the equivalent of "eternal life". This will create more problems than it solves. Service delivery protests are justified where politicians make unrealistic promises, or where indolent local councillors and municipal officials are corrupt or fail to spend their budgets. (In this context it is worth noting that Cape Town has just achieved a record 97% spending rate in its capital budget, with no significant corruption scandals in three years.)

Currently our major challenge is to find enough land to house those who have to be displaced from shack settlements as we upgrade them. Shortage of suitable land is the single greatest impediment to development in many urban areas. Environmental and planning laws make it extremely difficult to release land for housing in a period shorter than 3 years. We must urgently begin the conversation on how we reconcile the need for land to house the millions moving to the cities with the need to protect our environment.

This applies with particular urgency in the City of Cape Town which is facing higher urbanisation rates than anywhere else in the country.

The protests in QQ section, (Khayelitsha) by residents calling themselves Abahlali Basemjondolo, is also a result of development in progress. At present, the residents of various informal settlements are being moved off the land they invaded because it is required for other infrastructure (such as railway lines). Their new location is a large site called Bardale, near Mfuleni. The move is happening in four phases. Beneficiaries in QQ Section, scheduled for "phase 4" late next year, are protesting because they want to move now.

Another major challenge confronting "service delivery" is the extent of the vandalism of infrastructure. Two thirds of the multi-million Rand budget for services is spent on repairing vandalised infrastructure, rather than installing new services. Just recently in Khayelitsha, sewerage pipes were stolen from a newly installed waterborne sewerage system in an informal settlement, BM Section. The City could literally deliver at three times the current rate if it were not for the sustained vandalism of existing services, ranging from dumping in drains, to the destruction of toilets and taps.

It is impossible to generalise about "service delivery failures". Each example must be analysed in context. It is rarely possible to identify a single scapegoat.

The challenge of upgrading the hundreds of unserviced shack settlements across South Africa is truly daunting. When I contemplate the obstacles, I can understand why governments in so many developing countries simply give up and allow shack settlements to mushroom wherever invaders choose to settle, leaving them to their own devices. We must not choose this route.

Rather we must tell the truth and do our best within the constraints we face. The government cannot build houses for everyone who needs them. The size of the waiting list, and the scale of in-migration is just too great. We must continue the home-building programme, spending every cent efficiently and effectively. We will also have to continue upgrading settlements, where they presently are, and find new land for those who must move to enable upgrading to occur. We must learn how to consult effectively, how to reach agreements that are as fair as possible, and how to deal with the resultant anger from those who refuse to accept the necessary compromises.

This will inevitably result in "service delivery protests" in the years ahead. There will be no shortage of political opportunists exploiting volatile situations. Ironically, the more we deliver, the more this will occur. But it is better to face these challenges than to give up. Above all, we must be honest about the facts, and not make promises on which it is impossible to deliver.

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, July 31 2009

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