About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The democratic deficit

Residents of Harrismith, protesting the lack of delivery of services took to the streets on August 31 2004. They blocked the N3 highway, disrupting traffic. The police reacted swiftly and brutally, firing rubber bullets and pellets resulting in the death of a young boy. Rather than addressing the community's grievances and meeting with local community leaders, a number of those arrested as being the organizers of the protest were seen as national security threats. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was called in and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) began to consider charges of sedition against the 13 accused. No one in SA unduly disturbed at this turn of events. Eventually, before the matter got really out of hand, the government was prevailed on to withdraw the sedition charges.  But the whole affair left a bitter taste in the mouth, police tactics to break up the protest were reminiscent of a not to distant past. The government's implicit belief that the protest was organized by individuals who had a sinister agenda, perhaps agents of others who wanted to bring down the state, echoed Mbeki' preoccupation with  "those" (never named) who wanted to belittle South Africa's achievements. Or perhaps there was another explanation: that the ANC couldn't believe that Africans would actually rebel against the ANC. The protest, it turned out, was just the tip of an emerging crisis as it was following by disturbances in other townships in the Free State and then across the country. See endnote 55, Chapter 22.

The following articles from the Mail & Guardian relate the story & its aftermath.

On 1 September SAPA reported that:
[On 31 August 2004]

"Twenty children were shot when police tried to disperse a group of protesters on the N3 highway outside Harrismith on Monday, Free State police said.

Captain Paul Kubheka said about 4 500 children descended on the N3 highway on Monday morning to highlight concerns about service delivery in the area.

"Steps were taken to calm them down but they forced their way onto the N3," said Kubheka.

"This had serious implications because it is a national road."

Kubheka said police opened fire and two youths were hit with pellets -- one in the leg and another in the hand.

"They were already on the road and there was no other way of controlling them," Kubheka said.

Eighteen other children were admitted to the local hospital with pellet wounds.

Kubheka said four other children were admitted to hospital with cuts and bruises after they had been pushed against a wire fence during the protest. None of the children were seriously injured.

Kubheka said the highway was clear by 1pm but the children had moved into the Intabazwe township of Harrismith where they were setting tyres alight.

The area was being monitored by a large police contingent drawn from all the police units in the surrounding areas.

"Police are monitoring the situation. We are trying to avoid a confrontation."

Kubheka said the youths called themselves "The Concerned Group" and appeared to be made up of many community organisations. - Sapa

Mail & Guardian Online
South African police still too quick on the draw
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya: JUDGEMENT DAY
14 September 2004

It was a sad day when listeners of SAfm that used to market itself as one for the well-informed, praised high-handed police action in Intabazwe, Harrismith that led to scores of injuries and the death of a 17-year-old youth.

Listeners who made time to call in suggested there was no price too high for the maintenance of law and order. They all but said that the police had found themselves in a kill-or-be-killed situation — and that they had rightly opted for the former. Some well-informed listeners muttered that the youth should count themselves lucky that only one in the group was killed.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, including the well-informed.

What makes me uneasy is that if the well-informed believe high-handed police action is justifiable, I shudder to guess what the less sophisticated are thinking. Unlike those who spend their time listening to inconsequential gossip relating to rap stars such as 50 Cent and catching up on the latest American slang, the well-informed ought to know about the South African police's propensity to use the jackboot.

I would have expected the well- informed to remember Sharpeville 1960, Soweto 1976, the Vaal Triangle in 1984, Uitenhage in 1985, the Trojan Horse incident in Athlone, Cape Town in 1986, Winterveld in the former Bophuthatswana in 1986 and Brigadier Oupa Gqozo's Bisho in 1992, where 29 died at the hands of that "independent country's" security forces.

These infamous uprisings were known, in the language of the oppressors, as "disturbances". All entered the history books because police believed the easiest way to deal with a "disturbance" was to open fire on the crowd.

It could also be argued that the police in Harrismith used rubber bullets and pellets, instead of the live ammunition they preferred prior to a democratic dispensation.

However, the fact that one young person died shows the police still have the ability to kill. When are the police going to start using water canons and other non-lethal weapons to safely and effectively deal with internal disquiet. The police know that a rubber bullet shot at close range is as fatal as live ammunition.

There is simply no running away from it. Our police need serious retraining with regards to handling community protests. They need to accept that we now have a Constitution that guarantees the right to protest, the shackles of the gatherings Act, which regulates demonstrations, notwithstanding. The police ought to know that despite their opposition, Parliament enacted Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act to regulate when they can use deadly force.

The Government response:
Mail & Guardian On line
20 May 2005
Protesters face sedition charges
Rapule Tabane

Thirteen Harrismith residents allegedly involved in last year's protest against their local council face sedition charges.

Several lawyers described the charge as "very serious", adding that it could carry a minimum sentence of 15 years under the Criminal Procedures Act. The charge has prompted complaints that the state is out to intimidate protesters. The Harrismith upheavals centre on claims of poor municipal service delivery.

At a briefing of senior journalists in Johannesburg this week Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils warned against the exploitation of service-delivery grievances to further secret agendas, while Minister of Provincial and Local Government Sydney Mufamadi insisted that the Free State residents were the biggest beneficiaries of local government service provision.

The 13 accused plan to approach human-rights organisations, including the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) and Amnesty International, to help them defend what they consider disproportionately heavy charges.

In September last year residents led marches on the local municipality and barricaded streets to protest against their council's alleged delivery failures. Police shot dead one of the demonstrators.

The unrest was the first in a string of demonstrations in Free State towns that embarrassed municipalities and provincial and national government.

One of the accused, Thulani Mabanga, said they believed there was a political motive behind the sedition charges, as their protests were not intended to overthrow the government. "All the residents did was to burn tyres and march. Then police started shooting without warning. The police have no evidence of any wrongdoing by the protesters," Mabanga said. The National Prosecutions Authority (NPA) has confirmed the police officers implicated in the killing of a protester would be charged with murder and assault.

A lawyer for the 13 confirmed that they were being charged with sedition and public violence. The NPA said it was still finalizing the charges, but added that police had investigated a provisional charge of sedition.

The accused are out on R500 bail each and are due to appear in the Harrismith Magistrate's Court in August.

Kasrils said the intelligence agencies would investigate whether elements were taking advantage of public dissatisfaction to foment disrespect for the law. If groups were repeatedly involved in breaking the law and it appeared to be their agenda, the agencies were obliged to keep an eye on them.

Mufamadi this week told Parliament that the Free State had the highest percentage of households with access to free basic water and electricity — 90% and 91% respectively.

The FXI's Zakes Hlatswayo said his organisation was helping the accused with their defence. "Our suspicion is that the state is trying to intimidate other people from taking to the streets by pressing these serious charges. It is difficult to justify the public violence charge, let alone sedition."

Another accused, Sam Radebe, claimed the government had placed the accused under surveillance "because it suspected they were being used by some third force such as the Boeremag or the Democratic Alliance".

"These were genuine community concerns, and instead of tackling corruption in local government, the government is pursuing us. They are constantly checking who we meet with," Radebe said.

Mail & Guardian On line
01 June 2005
Govt wants to 'criminalise' protesters, says Cosatu

The government is "paranoid and overreacting" in enlisting the help of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and bringing sedition charges against protesters trying to highlight their plight, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said on Wednesday.

"Instead of listening and talking to the people who are demanding basic services and legitimate rights, and addressing their concerns, the government seems to want to criminalise them," said Paul Notyhawa, Cosatu spokesperson.

The labour federation cited a recent case in Harrismith in the Free State, where sedition charges were brought against protesters, as "a degree of paranoia".

"It should never be used against ordinary people campaigning for their rights and in demand of services promised by government, even if they have broken other lesser laws," Notyhawa said.

Sedition, he said, implies conspiracy to overthrow the government and carries huge sentences on conviction.

"Instead of criminalising the poorest section of our population, the government must seek to understand the genuine frustration of people who live in inhumane conditions, in slum settlements, where unemployment is massive and poverty universal," he said.

Cosatu called on the government to drop the sedition charges against protesters, withdraw the NIA from investigating protests and investigate the slow or non-delivery of services. -- Sapa

President Mbeki's reaction when residents of impoverished Khutsong torched parts of their own township and destroyed municipal offices and attacked local councilors homes when the national Council of Provinces voted to move Khutsong from the Gauteng and place it into the North West. Residents vehemently opposed the move and were never consulted by any branch of government. They felt their express wishes were not being taken into account. No one was listening. What they opposed, of course, poor as they were, was being moved from the country's\s most prosperous provinces where there was at least the hope of some alleviation of their conditions sometime in the future into one of the poorer provinces where their prospects for an improvement in their living conditions appeared to be remote. In his On Line letter, Mbeki the protests were 'mischievous efforts to elevate administrative issues, such as the demarcation of provincial boundaries, into important issues of the national democratic revolution, to divert attention away from the fundamental concerns of the masses of the people.'  'Khutsong protests mischievous, says Mbeki,' Sunday Times 18 December 2005;

South Africa: A democratic deficit
By Padraig O'Malley The Boston Globe
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1, 2006

BOSTON In the run-up to municipal elections in South Africa on Wednesday, Khutsong, a small mining township of about 170,000 people and heretofore staunch stronghold of the African National Congress, has catapulted itself to national attention. In recent weeks residents have burned the homes of ANC candidates, have run ANC national chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota out of town, and plan to boycott the elections.

The fury at the ANC is attributable to its decision last November to relocate Khutsong from the richest province of Gauteng to the poor province of North West, despite vehement opposition from residents. The community's objections were simply brushed aside by the government.

Why did the ANC, the party of the masses that still carries the mantle of liberation movement, handle the concerns of the people of Khutsong in such a dismissive manner? Was the Khutsong move an aberration or emblematic of a larger and potentially more pernicious malaise?

South Africa's promise was enshrined in the new constitution adopted in 1996 with enlightened provisions regarding transparency, accountability and constitutional checks and balances. But the ANC's hegemony is close to absolute and with that comes the usual perils of absolute power.

Under President Thabo Mbeki there has been a concentration of power in the office of the presidency to enhance the delivery of services and stamp out corruption. However, in a country as new to democracy as South Africa, there is a fine line between the point at which the concentration of power begins to disenfranchise rather than empower the people.

The electoral system of proportional representation means that the first loyalty of members of Parliament is to the party, not the public. Voters vote for parties, not individuals. As a result, the African masses, who were excluded from electoral representation during apartheid, are still powerless in many respects. They have the right to a non- racial franchise for which the struggle was fought but, paradoxically, little room to choose.

The ANC enjoys a 70 percent majority in Parliament, more than enough to amend the Constitution at will. It rubber-stamps the wishes of the executive and exercises little oversight. Having chafed at suggestions that it might use its huge majority to amend the Constitution that was so painstakingly negotiated in 1994 and finalized in 1996, ANC Parliament members have amended the constitution 12 times in the past eight years.

Under Mbeki, the Constitution has been amended to give the president the power to appoint previously elected premiers in ANC-controlled provinces. He also appoints the directors general of the national government departments (previously a prerogative of cabinet ministers) and the mayors of the cities under ANC control (all major metropolitan areas). Thus, for example, although residents of Johannesburg, for example, will vote for what is sure to be an ANC-dominated new city council and mayor on Wednesday, they do not know who the mayor will be. Mbeki will make that choice after the election. Even in local elections, where half the council seats are elected from wards, the ANC's national leadership vets the selection of candidates selected at the local level and simply replaces those it finds unacceptable.

Because the ANC deploys party members from one job to another - Parliament to business, prominence to obscurity, anonymity to importance - party members who criticize party policies may be redeployed to the bottom of the ladder in the huge governance hierarchy. Or their access to the leadership may be cut off.

These practices have created a democratic deficit and discourage criticism of the ANC from the new African elites. There is a self-imposed censorship among Africans.

Wednesday's elections will surely run smoothly. But whether democracy is broadening and deepening under Mbeki's stewardship is questionable. More likely is that there will be more Khutsongs.

Padraig O'Malley is editor of the New England Journal of Public Policy, a publication of UMass Boston, and co-editor of the forthcoming "Stick and Stones: Living With Uncertain Wars."

In a scathing editorial the Mail & Guardian told its readers that:

A time for vigilance
23 Aug 2002 00:00

In its editorial attack on the Mail & Guardian's new owner, Trevor Ncube, The Sunday Independent purported on Sunday, with its usual pompous presumption, to speak on behalf of all South Africans. Ncube is a foreigner, you see, who does not understand our government. The South Africans at the M&G beg to differ.

Ncube did not say South Africa is doomed to become Zimbabwe, nor that "the media should be negative, as blacks in government cannot be trusted with freedom", as per the Sowetan's ludicrous distortion in its news columns on Wednesday. What Ncube sought to highlight were embryonic forces in the ruling African National Congress which, unchecked, could take us down the same road. They are not the only dynamics in the ANC, though they have become much stronger under President Thabo Mbeki.

It is not only Jeremy Cronin who sees signs of "Zanufication" in the ANC. National executive committee member Saki Macozoma also sees worrying trends, as he noted in a debate with Ncube a few weeks ago.

The greatest threat to South Africa is the authoritarian nationalism which, in Zimbabwe, has ballooned into a collective psychosis. Its overriding preoccupation is the power, wealth and prestige of the elite. It has no interest in universal human rights and is interested in the law only as an instrument of its own power. It is hostile to the multiparty concept and independent centres of influence, particularly the media and trade unions. It acknowledges no distinction between state and party. Spurning racial reconciliation, it instinctively backs the settling of scores. It is prone to leader worship and sees plots everywhere.

Within South Africa, authoritarian nationalism has reared its ugly head with growing frequency in recent years. ANC business people and the unions have been fiercely impugned for alleged plots against Mbeki. Parliament was savaged for trying, under its constitutional mandate, to scrutinise the arms deal. One man's vagaries on HIV/Aids paralysed the government and the ruling party for two years, and conventional scientists were harassed to toe the dissident line. In contrast with regional parliamentarians and the Commonwealth, ANC MPs endorsed Zimbabwe's violent and fraudulent election, while their party still cannot bring itself to denounce, clearly, strongly and in public, the racial persecution that has intensified since the poll. And in the latest round of heavy-handedness, the hapless Cronin has had to eat humble pie for his mild criticism of ANC leaders.

The party's hostile attitude towards the media, evident during the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into alleged racism in the media, resurfaces in its pre-conference documents. While arguing for greater media diversity, these make it clear that it does not believe certain views should be aired, or certain commentators left free to voice them. Its hatred and anger at what it sees as excessive media power are underscored by the description of our comparatively tame press as "intrusive, embarrassing, irresponsible, disruptive, vulgar, brash and uninformed". At the same time, legislation has been tabled which, unamended, would convert the SABC into the poodle of the communications minister.

In this context, it is flabby-minded and irresponsible to argue, as The Sunday Independent does, that God's in his heaven and all's right with the country. South Africa still has a democratic order with a human rights culture that includes a free press. But it is equally clear that certain powerful elements in the ruling elite are, in their deepest instincts, enemies of constitutional democracy. Witness Thami Mazwai, appointed by Mbeki to the SABC board, who firmly believes there is no room for independent journalism in Africa.

The Sunday Independent would have us believe that the price of liberty is eternal complacency. In fact, what is needed is vigilance and courageous outspokenness, from the media, the non-government sector and the best elements in the ruling alliance. These will determine how far authoritarian nationalism comes to dominate South Africa in the years ahead.

Since 2001, the ANC has tightened its grips on the instruments of power and less prone to take criticism in its stride as part of the rough & tumble of democratic politics.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.