THE voices of lamentation are ringing louder across the country. The people are rising up. They wave their fists at a democratic government.

The strategies used by township and semi-urban communities are reminiscent of a by-gone era, when freedom was a dream and justice an illusion.

Rocks and burning tyres are strewn on the roads. Adults and youths gesticulate and chant while throwing stones. Placards display all forms of demands and expressions of discontent with the government.

This is how the township folk would communicate their dissatisfaction with the apartheid government. Risking their lives, they stood in defiance of law and order. This is how people who have nothing to lose behave.

But we live in democratic South Africa. Surely it has to be different. This week’s protest in Lenasia South, and many like it across the country, challenge this assertion.

The protests we see in contemporary SA are popularly called “service delivery protests”. But what does this term really mean? Does it give any meaningful insight into the root cause of the instability we are seeing in poor and struggling communities?

Service delivery as a concept speaks to an important government imperative. The government holds — in trust — public resources provided for through taxation. It is obliged to allocate and distribute those resources for the benefit of society. This is what the service part of service delivery is about.

Delivery connotes expectation. There are people who have procured these services and are waiting for them to be delivered. Citizens procure the services provided for by the state by faithfully paying their taxes. We can include as tax items such as property rates as well as paying for municipal services.

The protests we see in contemporary SA are popularly called “service delivery protests”. But what does this term really mean? Does it give any meaningful insight into the root cause of the instability we are seeing in poor and struggling communities?

But service delivery in our context goes beyond that. Politicians have promised to deliver to the poor free amenities to the poor. Many of those who protest have the idea that they are not responsible for what goes on in their communities.

This notion has turned communities into passive clients whose occupation — or preoccupation — is to wait for the state to do things on their behalf.

It has in this way become a term of disempowerment. It gives able-bodied people an excuse to resign their destinies — social, political, economic and interpersonal — to some external parties, in most cases to state agencies.

But this attitude can be seen at play beyond community dealings with the government. It is seen in the dependency on external parties whether it be pastors or prophets, employers or those who colour themselves as benefactors.

All these take advantage of the debilitating service-delivery mentality of poor communities. Often they exploit these needy ones for their own enrichment.

During apartheid, township communities were characterised by activism — not just political activism. Communities understood that their survival and future prospects depended on their own actions.

Nothing was neglected. Residents were actively involved in community initiatives regarding education, safety and security, promoting social cohesion and welfare programmes.

There were street committees, parents formed school committees, there was township sport s and recreation pioneered by township residents. These communities took charge of their destinies.

Many in this country erroneously interpreted the arrival of democracy after 1994 as the quick fix to societal challenges. To them it meant that they could now relax while the black government delivered a better life to their doorsteps.

Politicians in democratic SA have prized votes over pragmatism. They have misinformed the poor instead of empowering them. Democracy and service delivery have been used to inculcate a political culture of entitlement in our country.

Democracy is not success but a means to it. Democracy only guarantees the opportunity to envision a better future. Realising the future requires our sweat and the exercise of our own initiative and not an uncritical belief in the coming of some political deliverer.

Wake up South Africans, a better life is in your hands

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