Angry protests in 'coloured' communities were about class - not race

On Wednesday I was invited by a Johannesburg-based radio station to discuss the protests in Westbury, in Johannesburg, coming soon after the protests on the Cape Flats, specifically Bonteheuwel, and the presenters wanted to know whether there were specific issues that bedevil the “coloured community” in South Africa.

I realised that the premise of the discussion would be wrong, if one only tried to look for similarities in the protests in the two communities. I am also very reluctant to talk about the “coloured community” as an expert just because some people think I look like a “coloured”.

I must admit I struggle to describe what a “coloured” looks like or even sounds like. It seems like a large group of disparate people have being lumped into one “race” group and because I am supposed to be one of them, I am expected to be able to speak expertly about them.

We are lazy like that in South Africa. Often our analysis is based on the race of the person involved and not on the person’s views or their actions.

For instance, there was huge relief among many black people when it emerged that the person accused of raping a seven-year-old in the toilet at Die Dros restaurant in Pretoria was white. Surely, the race of a rapist should not matter. However, in South Africa, it will probably take a long time before this becomes a reality.

But I digress. I decided I should participate in the radio programme instead of allowing misperceptions to continue.

My problem with conflating this week’s protests in Westbury with what happened in Bonteheuwel and elsewhere on the Cape Flats last week is that the communities are very different, even though they have some things in common.

But what they have in common, I tried to point out on the radio, has more to do with class than with race. They are both working-class communities dealing with issues prevalent in working-class communities.

Yes, some people in these communities could feel that they are being ignored by the authorities because of their race, but the reality is that they are being ignored because of their class, as is happening to working-class communities throughout South Africa where there are regular service delivery protest.

Unfortunately, our governing parties (yes, there are more than one if you look at the different spheres of government) – who think they are ruling parties – do not really care about working-class communities, unless it is close to elections and they realise that they need votes. Governing parties ensure good governance, ruling parties tend to dictate, thinking they are more powerful than the people they represent.

For instance, in Cape Town, the problems of gangsterism and drugs are as big in some of the so-called African communities, but nobody focuses on it, maybe because nobody has protested about it in the way that the people of Bonteheuwel has protested.

There is another significant difference between the protests in Bonteheuwel and Westbury. In Bonteheuwel, they were mainly peaceful, while in Westbury they have often become violent and destructive.

Part of the reason for this could be the background of the community leaders. Many of the leaders in Bonteheuwel come from the mass democratic movement in the 1980s. They understand the value of building organisation as a tool to help address serious societal problems. I am not sure that the Westbury leaders understand this. I might be mistaken, but it looks like they are more concerned with short-term gain while being prepared to sacrifice organisational discipline.

It is a pity that, almost 25 years into democracy, the people who we entrusted to run our country, our provinces and our municipalities, do not seem to care about poor communities. One of the ways of addressing it is making sure that in these communities there exists strong representative structures who can liaise with the authorities all the time, so that we prevent this phenomenon of communities only being listened to at election times.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in Weekend Argus and other Independent Media titles on Saturday 6 October 2018)