South Africa Journal: When the State is All

While in South Africa, I’ve been enjoying Anton Harber’s excellent Diepsloot, an exploration of life in a teeming informal settlement north of Johannesburg that did not exist when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison but has since become one of the largest black “townships” in South Africa. I happened to spend a day in Diepsloot in 2004, and it was a chaotic blend of red rural expanse and urban squatter camp: today it is far more crowded.

Harber’s book begins as an anthropological essay, but shifts to a political study of the central question in South African politics today: service delivery. The people of Diepsloot have been promised housing, and the ruling ANC is attempting to provide it. But the machinery of government moves slowly, and government contracts also provide opportunities for corruption and self-dealing, leading to poor delivery and public frustration.

Meanwhile, the restive population is being organized by the ANC’s political allies, the South African Communist Party and the South African National Civic Organization (Sanco), who instigate protests, often violent, against the ANC. Each side claims the other is corrupt: the ANC accuses Sanco of “farming” shacks–renting them out to new migrants illegally–and manipulating the residents to provide protection money to the organization.

What is most depressing is that both sides seem to be convinced that only the state can, or should, provide housing. The idea that housing is something individuals should provide themselves seems totally alien–and unfair. There is a spirit of entrepreneurship in Diepsloot–but as Harber notes, many of the entrepreneurs are foreign, not South Africa. They do not share the same sense of entitlement that the locals take for granted.

The opposition parties are weak within Diepsloot. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is small but responsive; its local leader seems to understand the importance of a political alternative that stresses individual achievement, and hopes her involvement in the opposition will lead to new opportunities. But for the most part, voting for the DA is seen as an act of treason, and runs against the state-centered ideas that dominate local thinking.

In the Western Cape, where the DA governs, housing delivery has been more successful precisely because the government has focused on helping poor residents build their own homes. Yet the DA has been punished for its success, as word of the success entices migrants from ANC-governed provinces, overwhelming local authorities. It is tough to see how South Africa can resolve this crisis–which is as much a problem of ideas as execution.