Jun 4, 2010

Peace Corps post of the week

My friend Noah runs into some trouble:
The people in the villages in this dirt road area have been asking for an asphalt road, or a tar road as it is called here, to be put in for some time. I have heard that they had been promised this road for years. Apparently it was all set to happen this year and the money was even allocated. Then the money was unallocated by some unexplained event and now the road is not going to be built. This made people angry, above all it made the taxi owners and operators very angry. The taxis don't last very long on the wash-boarded and rutted dirt roads which end up costing more for the taxis than travel on the tar roads. Money is a powerful motivator and the taxis were fed up so the next step they decided was to strike.

[...]

It really was not a good time for school to be let out because all of this week the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th graders are taking national tests. So I felt that we should at least try to let the learners finish the test. Alas, about 5 minutes later a bus stopped by and about 30 or 40 people came out and about 5 or 6 came into the office. They then had a brief conversation that I somewhat understood. Basically, they politely threatened to do bad things unless the school shut down. The students were sent home, which the students were happy about, and I watched on broodingly. I felt powerless and resented the fact that they were dragging people into their strike. As I said, the teachers were not very keen on keeping the school going and it really wasn't my place to get involved anyway so I watched in silence. In retrospect, it was probably a good idea to just shut the school down anyway, even if all the teachers did want to keep school going, we would not have lasted long against a bus full of angry people.

Since then, the schools have been closed and there have been regular protests bordering on riots in "T". They have been burning tires and blockading roads as well as burning tires outside of the post office and government halls and even burning some schools. There were many arrests and some people were shot with rubber bullets. I have heard lots of rumors but I can't be sure of their validity so I won't repeat them here. It sounds much worse than it actually is.

[...]

My thoughts on the whole situation are somewhat mixed. I do think the strikers/rioters are partially justified because the money they were promised for a fairly important project was mysteriously spent elsewhere. I don't think this was a particularly good time or way to go about showing their discontent though, almost everyone's attention and most of SA's money is being funneled to the World Cup so I don't think they will see anything until July. Moreover, why set fire to the school's and the post office? That seems like they are only hurting themselves or at least their own community but I don't know much about effective riots.
This kind of thing happens all the time--they've got a word for it, toi toi. It's always called "striking" here, but this case (like many others) seems categorically different--a strike is where you refuse to work en masse, not where you also force other entirely unrelated businesses and activities to stop as well, with accompanying random violence. What do you call it? Riot seems too unfocused, but perhaps it's good enough. (Noah's example, while disturbing, is pretty tame by the standards here. The taxi associations in Joburg have been waging war on a new bus system in Soweto.)

One wonders what happened to the money, but the "tenderpreneurs" (in Pierre De Vos's phrase) are the first likely suspects. I agree with Noah's feelings on the matter--that the riot (or whatever) was at least somewhat justified, but not to the scale and level of destruction it reached. It seems a common feature of the culture of entitlement I see often here, where if needs are not met immediately, the first reaction of a small but sizable number is to burn shit down. Regardless, I'm glad Noah's safe and let's hope this all blows over soon.

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