When violence broke out in North West Province in South Africa in January 2018, the intensity of the anger seemed to shock government officials.
As a newly contracted chief director of the Products and Platforms inside the Government Communication Information Service (GCIS), I had traveled to the North West town of Mahikeng on 4th December 2017 to conduct training of officials in the use of digital platforms as part of my job description. Within a month of my trip, the province had descended into chaos.
The training provided was ostensibly what in the corporate world is called "Customer Relationship Management" in that I was working with a team of officials tasked with communicating government plans to the people.
At the same time, GCIS's mandate is also to gather the people's comments to monitor the mood and expectation and then report back to the centre of power, with particular reference to basic services. Things like clinics, water, electricity and education are the cornerstone of the democratic government's campaigns, so it was vital to properly assess what people say to improve delivery of service. However, it was clear that the GCIS staff were more interested in providing a filtered view of reality rather than an accurate picture of what was actually happening on the ground for fear of upsetting the perception that everything was swell in the new democratic South Africa.
Everything was and is not.
These officials and others I met during my year contracted by the state all repeated this fear to me. That they would rather not feed what people were saying back to Pretoria for fear of being disciplined, or even overlooked as a so-called 'trouble maker'. In the words of state workers, it is known as Career Limiting Activity.
While sitting in the GCIS offices in Mahikeng on the 4th December, a man walked past the boardroom and hammered on the glass where the words "Government" appeared This was a violent act, and the man's intense hatred was something to behold.
My colleagues sitting in the boardroom said it happened often.
I relayed this to my colleagues back at GCIS, but we were working on a number of major projects and at that point the North West province was very far away in the minds of communicators. Mahikeng had not exploded into violence yet. The significance of the moment passed me by.
In the latter respect the local officials appear to have failed dismally, thus the surprise reaction to the news that people were attacking state workers in the province. We should have known better, as the province had experienced other low level acts of violence in towns like Krugersdorp and Rustenberg.
The fact is basic services like water had failed for some time before the community basically gave up talking and began to act on their own volition. The protests rapidly escalated into something far more serious for the ruling African National Congress than merely a few local communities, and began to take on the character of protests during the apartheid era.
Government buildings were targeted, and ANC party members were attacked physically in various towns. While the government communication team I worked with tried to quickly respond to the collapse of the state in the province, the president was under pressure to respond as quickly as possible. While many believed the violence was really only about two political factions inside the ANC - Zuma's vs Ramaphosa's, it was really all about corruption.
It was also deeply embarrassing for the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who had taken up the cudgels against corruption in order to make it a centre-piece of his administration and the violence could be spun as merely a fight for leadership of the poorly managed province.
However, the same senior National Executive Committee members named in corruption probes remained in powerful positions and the new president appeared unable to act against these people. Not a single high ranking official has been arrested for what is clearly rampant corruption. Confidential information showed that in some municipalities, 100% of the council managers were corrupt. The President is just unable to remove all these men and women without losing his position as leader of the ANC. Most of those involved in corruption were deployed by leaders who curried favour with Province Premier, Supra Mahumapelo, amongst others.
The patience of the North West community gave out, many had experienced water failure for two years and had been promised services by the then incumbent Premier Mahumapelo. After months of violence, he eventually agreed in May 2018 to take a "leave of absence" over allegations that his administration had frittered billions of rands of taxpayers money away in nefarious tender irregularities.
Ramaphosa then appointed an inter-ministerial task team to investigate the violent protests in Mahikeng as well as throughout the province led by Jacob Zuma's ex-wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The team found poor governance, a shortage of skills, incompetence, and irregular supply chain management practices were behind the lack of service delivery.
It shied away from using the word corruption.
In November 2018 Dlamini-Zuma met Premier Job Mokgoro, North West MECs and administrators in Pretoria to assess the work that had been done to implement the North West intervention since its inception.
Its main role was to rebuild the citizens faith in both government, and by association, the ruling party.
As the Task team investigation dragged on, Mahumapelo refused to take responsibility for the clear cases of corruption and maladministration, preferring to use his colleagues in the ANC to defend him on the basis of what he said was a conspiracy to get rid of him. That was the official line inside government corridors, where staff believed the clashes were based purely on a political bun-fight between ruling party echelons, with some other political parties thrown in for good measure.
New premier Job Mokgoro has revealed that six senior executives have been suspended and are facing disciplinary action linked to serious financial misconduct and corruption. Five others in the department of health are likely to face charges of fraud, corruption and bypassing treasury regulations - the amount quoted topped R350 million.
Two others in the office of the premier who are chief directors, have been charged with irregular payment in relation to an ICT contract.
Eleven others in the office of the Premier face an ongoing investigation, while 31 other cases have been registered.
Now the very same premier is back at the helm of the ruling ANC in the province after the High Court in Johannesburg found that the party had not followed its own constitution when it decided to disband the ANC's provincial national executive in North West.
His action is also doubly ironic as he previously scandalised whistleblowers by declaring they should not take their own party to court. The court also ruled that a Provincial Task Team led by Job Mokgoro ostensibly to deal with corruption be dissolved by Friday 15 February.
LEGACY OF FAILURE
But 2018 was not the first time the North West Province had exploded in violence. The first inkling of a major problem began as long ago as 2014 when service delivery protests erupted in North West over water shortages.
Violence broke out when residents from communities living near Zeerust marched to their local municipal headquarters to demand water be piped to their villages. They targeted government buildings for special treatment, torching a tribal office and an ANC ward councillors home.
Earlier that year, residents of Mothutlung took to the streets over the same issues around water. When that protest had ended, four members of the community had been killed in clashes with police. It also led to the
then provincial premier Thandi Modise losing her job.
In 2014 the town of Boitumelong was also affected by severe protests characterised by a high level of anger and violence. Six houses and a community hall were gutted, then the crowd targeted police homes and destroyed seven.
More than one hundred people were eventually arrested but Modise admitted at the time that the issue was serious.
“Regrettably the violence has cost much in terms of a life lost," she said "destruction of private and public properties for which those behind the orchestrated violence should be held responsible.”
It was apparently unclear to Modise that she was indirectly responsible by failing to respond to service delivery complaints for over two years prior to the outbreak of violence.
Residents had warned they were aware of services being impacted by nepotism and irregular appointments and corruption related to installation of high mast lights as well as water metering contracts.
Modise was aware of these complaints, and said so in her report during 2014. At the time, President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence, preferring to lay blame squarely on the shoulders of the protestors.
This inability to take responsibility for what the people of the province were complaining about eventually cost the next premier his job too. Supra Mahumapelo arrived on the leadership scene as a replacement for the struggling Modise and over the next three years, appeared to drive the province further into the ground. It failed more audits during his tenure than before.
The escalation of conflict in early 2018 led to the new president Cyril Ramaphosa cutting short an international trip in order to hurry home and deal with the upsurge. The particularly worrying sign for his government was the propensity for protestors to target symbols of the ruling ANC and the government in particular. This echoed the anti-apartheid struggle period when protestors would turn on mayors and other deployed supporters of the then National Party government.
When protestors started targeting government workers, it led directly to the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) striking and shutting down provincial health services over what they said was a lack of action to protect their members.
Eventually the South African National Defence Force was called in to help in a move that also echoed the apartheid era, albeit for different reasons. Basic law and order had broken down in the same way as during the mid-1980s when violence was approaching civil war levels in South Africa and the army had been called out to help the police.
That's precisely what the apartheid government did in the mid-1980s in an attempt to provide services and quell rising violence.
The health depot in Mahikeng was shut down by protestors which caused a sudden shortage of crucial drugs including anti-retrovirals used by HIV/Aids sufferers. Twenty two hospitals and over 400 clinics were in immediate danger of running out of these crucial pharmaceuticals.
Once the situation had stabilised, attention switched to Mahumapelo. His name had surfaced already in reports involving the notorious Gupta family and there were calls for him to resign. Eventually he was removed in an acrimonious process.
But he somehow has made his way back into the corridors of power in the North West after appealing against the dismissal based on faults in the process. The facts of why he was removed were never disputed by his lawyers.
Placed under administration following the collapse of governance and service delivery, the premier is at pains to point out that progress has been made. However, the list of types of progress and specific actions aimed at cleaning up the province have not been made public.
The North West has been under administration following the collapse of governance and service delivery which sparked widespread community protests.
The report by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has never been fully revealed, we are told that the ANC and government will somehow deal with the same issues without removing the very same corrupt officials lurking inside each municipality.