We must come together if we want real change

While most of East London was glued to their televisions, radios and computers watching the Springboks utterly thrash their English rivals to win the Rugby World Cup, an all too familiar scenario was playing out in the suburb of Stoney Drift.

Certain residents, sick of being abused and forgotten by their government, decided they were tired of being patient and took matters into their own hands. The result was a network of illegal electricity connections that criss-crossed all across the suburb.

While such actions may be understandable given the desperate situation, illegal connections are dangerous and led to many injuries and even a human fatality. In the end, the municipality was forced to react and came in to do what should have been done years ago.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of it as we reported on page three of this edition. With their only access to electricity taken from them, residents from the Stoney Drift informal settlement decided to take to the streets to protest the municipality’s refusal to acknowledge their pain and right to basic services.

Situations like this are never as cut-and-dry as they might appear and I could honestly fill this entire paper with a discussion of the many intricacies. For now, though, I want to focus on one of the more damaging results that inevitable arise during a protest – the splitting of communities into two ‘teams’ in fierce and often violent conflict with each other.

On the one hand you have the protesters themselves, which in Stoney Drift are made up of residents of the informal settlement. These people have spent the last 25 years being told by politicians that they are free and that the “new” South Africa meant a new life for them and their families. They have also spent the last 25 years realising that this was a cruel and tragic lie.

These are people who are forced to live in squalor, who are forced to experience the humiliation and discrimination that comes with poverty every day, who have had to watch friends and family die because of the poor conditions of their environment while at the same time, being forced to watch from the sidelines as a slow and inefficient government seemingly ignores them while their neighbours reap the benefits that they are forever locked out of.

Given this situation, is it any wonder that they eventually get sick of waiting and take the matter into their own hands? While I don’t wish to condone illegal electricity connections since they are legitimately dangerous to passersby, especially children, it is just as foolish to ignore the reasons for their existence in the first place.

This brings us on to the next “team”, the residents who oppose the protesters. As I’ve already said, there is no simplistic good-bad narrative here and there are equally valid reasons to oppose the protesters.

The biggest reason is the violence and destruction of property that can accompany a protest. As we’ve reported twice now, some Stoney Drift residents say they and their families have been threatened with violence if they dared to speak out about illegal activities they’d witnessed.

One person even said their children had been threatened which is a horrendous act of cowardice. No matter what grievances a person might have, nothing can ever justify the harming of innocent people, especially children.

At the end of the day, such conflict is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. As long as we continue to fight amongst ourselves, we avoid confronting the real systemic issues in play that oppress all of us.

The real antagonists in Stoney Drift aren’t the protesters or the anti-protesters. Rather, they are the corrupt and inefficient power structures that allowed the situation to become this desperate in the first place. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can truly come together and bring about the change we desperately need.

Until then, we’ll just continue warring with each other while those in charge laugh all the way to the bank.

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