With 'service delivery protests' a common occurrence in South Africa, Richard Pithouse exposes some of the myths associated with the phrase.
The service delivery myth wasn't invented in South Africa. But our chattering classes have taken to it with more enthusiasm than a Karoo duck waddling towards the first puddle at the end of a drought. Given that one of its key tropes is that development should be governed by expertise and that this re-inscribes the rule of the few in the name of the many, we shouldn't be too surprised by this enthusiasm.
But we should recall that in the 1980s struggles to democratise society from below gathered real force and that ideas like people's education and practices like land occupations in order to found rent free shack settlements became part of the common sense of some strands in the anti-apartheid struggle.
In the 1990s the idea that development would be put in the hands of ordinary women and men by extending democracy beyond the polling booth was rapidly abandoned. This was one consequence of the unstable pact forged between the ANC and older elites in which concessions were negotiated, formally and informally, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.
What had been rendered as political and therefore as subject to public discussion and action during the struggle against apartheid was rendered, by mutual agreement between old and new elites, as technical, and therefore a matter for experts, at the dawn of parliamentary democracy.
‘Depoliticisation,’ Jacques Rancière tells us, ‘is the oldest task of politics, the one which achieves its fulfilment at the brink of its end, its perfection at the brink of the abyss.’
The service delivery myth is so ubiquitous that service delivery is often assumed to be the natural metric for measuring the performance of the state with the result that justice, dignity, lived experience and the day to day practice of democracy fade into invisibility.
The myth is so powerful that it is often able to impose an a priori meaning on dissent. It is a rare journalist who sees a need to actually ask someone on a road blockade what she is protesting for before writing about the latest service delivery protest. So even when that dissent is, in fact, rebellion against service delivery as it is currently practised rather than a demand for it to be speeded up, it is often recuperated into the symbolic logic of the dominant system as a demand for that system to strengthen itself.
The service delivery myth tells us that justice and redress are largely a matter of technical efficiency on the part of the state. It tells us that progress is something that can be graphed, tabulated and turned into percentages. The myth tells us that we don't need to ask, ‘what is to be done?’ because that is obvious and a waste of time and we just need to do what must be done faster.
At the heart of the myth is an idea of the people as passive consumers or beneficiaries who just need to be plugged into the grid of serviced life by a benevolent state. The myth assumes that people who aren't yet plugged in are still wallowing in the legacy of apartheid and that as backlogs are steadily overcome they'll join the rest of us and enjoy a better life. It makes us assume that patience is a virtue and that dissent at anything other than the pace and efficiency of service delivery is perverse and probably the result of malicious conspiracy.
Of course the state does need to be efficient, statistics can give us important information, some things are obvious and do need to be done with urgency and we do all need decent homes, clean water, sanitation, electricity, refuse collection, safe streets and all the rest. But when we start to take the service delivery myth seriously we start to collapse into some assumptions that are, to put it politely, fantastical.
For instance, the idea that service delivery is steadily chipping away at backlogs inherited from apartheid isn't always true. Our current social arrangements are producing new inequalities with the result that, for instance, the number of people living in shacks is growing despite the two million houses built by the post-apartheid state. And the number of electricity and water connections that have been installed tells us nothing about the affordability of the commodities that flow through them.
There are plenty of women with an electricity connection that have to get up at four in the morning to chop wood to make a fire to heat water to get their children bathed and fed before school because they cannot afford to pay for electricity. The fact that a house has been built tells us nothing about its quality, location, size or who actually lives in it and how the decision to allocate that house was made.
Moreover, progress is not always delivered by the state. There are times when an unlawful land occupation or connection to water and electricity will do much more for people than the delivery on offer from the state.
When service delivery is presented as the alpha and omega of what the state can do for the people and all protest is assumed to be a demand for service delivery, commentators are sometimes puzzled by that fact that popular protests often accompany service delivery.
In some cases this apparent paradox leads people to conclude that these protests are either the work of malevolent conspirators or that they are motivated by jealousy as some see delivery arriving for others. But one reason why protest often accompanies the moment of delivery is that delivery can be a disaster for people. When delivery means an eviction from a shack in a community of which you are a valued member and which is near to your work and your children's schools to a transit camp filled with strangers in the middle of nowhere it can be a catastrophe. When delivery means the installation of a water or electricity metre to someone who previously, legally or illegally, had non-commodifed access to water or electricity, it can also be more of a curse than a blessing. Delivery, in the form that the state currently offers it to people, is fairly frequently refused and it’s not unusual for it to have to be implemented at gunpoint.
Another reason why protest and delivery are often connected is that, at least in some places, it is routine for delivery to be mediated through local party structures for the benefit of local party leaders and their followers rather than through any kind of rational allocation. This doesn't just produce inefficiency. It also produces active exclusion that is defended by an increasing authoritarianism at the base of society. It is not at all unusual to find that people live in fear of local councillors and their ward committees and the branch executive committees of the local party structures.
When the technocrats point to the graphs in their power-point presentations the numbers they allude to will often refer to real progress. But they will sometimes also refer to new forms of exclusion, sometimes backed by state and party violence.
Society is a lot more complicated than the service delivery myth is capable of recognising. The simplicity of the myth is part of its attraction, but while it may lead to elegant PowerPoint presentations and snappy newspaper headlines, it doesn't function to simplify a complex reality on the ground. On the contrary, it masks that complexity and blinds us to the fact that the forms of development that we are pursing with the same monomania with which Ahab chased the white whale around the oceans of the world, are in fact, often producing new forms of oppression.
Statistics can be useful tools but they will only be able to speak to the lived reality of ordinary people with more fairness if we democratise our thinking about development and subordinate the state, and its experts, to society.
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* Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was first publishing by The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).
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