Baring the brunt of service delivery issues – lack of water, inconsistent electricity and sanitation, a flawed public education system and lack of housing.
Covering hundreds of service delivery protests has exposed me to the reality that despite South Africa’s democracy and brilliant constitution, hundreds of thousands of people still live under dire conditions in both rural and urban areas.
For much of South Africa’s youth, these issues have a knock-on effect even when it comes to something as simple as doing homework after school hours.
During a protest in Vlakfontein, most of the protesters taking part were of school-going age.
“If we don’t have electricity, especially during winter, we can’t stay warm and it affects everything,” said Grade 10 pupil Thabo Nkosi.
“We can’t study for tests or do our work and eventually it starts affecting our marks because we fall behind,” he said.
A group of matric students crowded around us and explained the seriousness of the situation and how they suffer when the lights go out.
“We can’t study, we can’t do our homework, we can’t bath and we can’t stay warm with no electricity.
“It’s all wrong, this is our future and it’s falling to pieces,” said a pupil who only identified himself as Joseph.
Zama Ndlovu, 21, said her sister who was writing matric tests suffered from arthritis and the cold weather affected her bones badly.
“She is in constant pain and because there is no electricity she can’t stay warm with a heater or hot water bottle.
“She can’t even walk to school; my mom has to waste money to get a taxi for her,” she added.
Later in the day, we watched as they joined in setting tyres alight, pulling a stop sign out of the ground and helping older members of the community block the road.
When asked about why they had finally decided to join in, several pupils said: “Our parents are fighting for a better future for us, we need to join them if we’re going to make things better.”
However, on the other side of the spectrum, I was stopped by some school pupils who expressed their concerns about being unable to get to school because of the protest.
“If they block the roads, we can’t get to school because our transport can’t get in and out.
“I understand the problems and I’m affected too, but this is our future – what I learn in school today or tomorrow could come up in my final exams and if I don’t learn it, I fail and I won’t be able to get to university.
“I want to get to school – even if it means studying in the dark or by candlelight and being cold, I don’t want to mess up my future,” said Grade 11 pupil Lebo.
These sentiments were echoed just a few weeks ago during a housing protest in Ennerdale, when many pupils were forced to miss three to four days of school.
Last year, following a shack fire in Mangolongolo, which destroyed the entire informal settlement, several primary school-aged children said they had lost all their school books in the blaze.
They told me that their parents could not afford to replace them and were unsure what they would do until the end of the year.
Many residents said that if the area had proper water facilities and electricity had been installed as continually promised, the fire could have have been avoided.
“If it wasn’t avoided then it would have been easy to put out if we had proper running water – every house could have filled up their buckets,” said Lovejoy Shabangu.
In a brilliant article by Kevin Allan, Municipal IQ’s managing director, and Karen Heese, Municipal IQ’s economist, they looked at the reasoning behind protests which are “generally, poorly understood”.
Allan and Heese explained that “the rapid growth of informal settlements as well as metros’ unwillingness (until recently) to accept them as a permanent reality in their midst, has meant a slow response to the service delivery needs of communities in these areas”.
“In these cases, a large part of the problem sparking protests has been very poor communication between representatives of metros and communities, essentially the task of ward councillors and local officials,” they said.
“The reason for this is partly pragmatic – informal settlements contain neither the number of registered voters nor the local branch lobbying strength of more formalised areas, but also because the fluidity of informal settlements is such that they do not necessarily present themselves as organised communities with representative leaders.
“In truth, including communities from informal settlements in local governance and planning processes requires far more work than in other more formal areas of metros.
“An assessment of service delivery protests in metros makes clear how a lack of access to information often leads to the rapid spread of rumours of favouritism, corruption, and mismanagement – sometimes true, but often untrue.
“Added to this, the need for services in these areas is not only greater than any other area of a metro but indeed in most cases absolutely desperate,” Allan and Heese emphasised.
As a Jewish white girl who grew up in a sheltered environment, I didn’t realise how dire the situation was until I attended university and made friends with people who had come from informal settlements and expressed their excitement at being able to study in a library that had lights.
Embarrassingly, during my high school years, as load shedding became more and more frequent, I would complain about the fact that I couldn’t do my homework, watch TV or heat supper in the microwave.
Despite living parallel to the poverty, it never really occurred to me that so many people my age were faced with such dire circumstances.
Having warm water, lights, proper ablution facilities and a roof over my head were things I took for granted for years – today, that’s not the case.
While I don’t agree with the cycle of violence that occurs all too often during service delivery protests, I deeply empathise with the communities and their concerns, especially the youth, who bare the brunt of the situation.
What’s even more concerning is that service delivery protests have to become violent before residents are heard – this is something I witnessed recently following violent housing protests in Eldorado Park, Finetown and Ennerdale.
Only once after it had been on the news for days were residents and leaders addressed by government officials.
What South Africans are fighting for are basic necessities that all people in a democratic country like ours have rights to.
When young children tell you that it’s unfair to live like this and that their futures are at stake, we as South Africans need to hear the call and we too should be deeply concerned about it.
We shouldn’t be turning a blind eye or pretending that it’s not happening, because at the end of the day, our youth is the most precious asset who will take our country forward in the next few years.
An uneducated young population will lead our country into disarray and anarchy, drug and crime rates will continue to rocket as we are seeing now.
However, if we focus on making sure that service is delivered – that children can learn with the lights on – this small thing that we all take for granted could make all the difference.
It’s time that government starts practising what it preaches in our constitution. Instead of lining their pockets with cash, our informal settlements and townships must be their primary focus.
Being a journalist, visiting people’s homes and seeing the harrowing conditions in which they live has opened my eyes to the difficult struggles that this country still faces.
Struggles that we could face for many more years to come if government continues down its greedy and uncaring path.
At the end of the day, the future of our youth is in our hands – we can either be proactive and do our bit to pressure government into doing its job, or continue to turn a blind eye and watch as our future generations crumble beneath the desolation of poverty.