The Leandra community in happier times at a conversation in February this year
May 13, 2010 – “Why would they do such a thing? Here we are seeking solutions and they attempt to torch us. This is not the mind of a person who is really interested in resolving issues. These are criminals hiding behind service delivery protests.” These words, from a participant in the Nelson Mandela Foundation-supported community conversations on social cohesion, expressed the disappointment and shock that lay at the heart of the Leandra community after attempts by arsonists to burn the community hall participants had gathered in to discuss challenges their community face.
The Foundation and its partner, the Leandra Advisory Centre, held a community conversation at the Leandra Community Hall in Lebohang, Leandra on April 15, 2010. The event was part of a series of dialogues that have been held in Mpumalanga, aimed at exploring fostering social cohesion among local and host communities. This was the second community conversation in Leandra, the previous one having taken place in February 2010, where the Leandra community welcomed such forums as a potential vehicle for addressing their concerns.
“We don’t have such forums where all of us can gather to chart out a way forward irrespective of our politics, religion or whatever background,” one participant said during the February dialogue. It was during that dialogue that the community had prioritised certain issues and looked forward to what was set to be a follow-up opportunity to plan and take decisions around these.
For the past year, Leandra has been an island of calm amid tumultuous service delivery protests that have erupted in Mpumalanga, some of which have occurred in neighbouring towns, such as Delmas, Ogies, etc. Much of the last conversation was dedicated to understanding why Leandra was unique in this respect. In an attempt to explain the relatively stable relationships between migrants and locals, participants, during the last conversation had pointed to the historical exposure to migrants and the ease with which this strengthened the peaceful co-existence of people of diverse origin.
When it came to other issues necessary for cohesion, such as service delivery, which lay at the heart of the disruptions in other towns, the story was different. There was visible discontent, though not as overt as that expressed elsewhere in the province. One could discern marked tensions, waiting to explode.
There are several reasons that have been suggested for the outbreak of the longest wave of community protests that have hit the small town of Leandra. Not surprisingly, a number of these were the subjects of intense discussion among the community during the previous community dialogue.
For example, sections of the community point to the poor levels of service delivery provided to residents.
Many inhabitants appear to have lost confidence in the local government leadership and believe that only the transfer of the town to Gauteng, given its close proximity to this province, could address this poor service delivery record.
Other residents believe that Leandra’s problems are related to rampant corruption among local government leaders and the deliberate exclusion of certain sections of the community, particularly the youth, from governance and decision-making processes. By early April, a week and half prior to the conversation, the atmosphere had already degenerated and the town resembled a war zone – the result of destruction from sustained protests and uncontrolled littering by striking municipal workers.
The municipal offices and a community hall had been burnt beyond recognition and community members had narrowly prevented the burning of the local clinic. Errant members of the community had also vandalised a second community hall – which houses several community-based organisations (CBOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Leandra Advice Centre, which service the community – in an attempt to torch this as well.
At the heart of the community protests was a group of youths who had resolved to continue the protest until the provincial leadership acquiesced to their demands. In this atmosphere, the Leandra Advisory Office, in response to the urgent need for mediation, had offered the use of its offices to facilitate this.
As part of the preparatory process the team of facilitators met with these youth groups, as well as critical stakeholders in the location, to discuss the potential of using the space created by the dialogue as a stepping-stone towards resolving some of the concerns they were faced with. The youth expressed particular optimism for the possibility of using the dialogue to profile youth development as necessary to achieving cohesion in Leandra. Officials from local government and various departments, such as social development, the police and home affairs also committed to the process, to help restore the peace.
A number of government officials remained concerned about the safety of their vehicles though. Earlier threats to torch these had seen a number of satellite offices located in the area temporarily transferred to the regional office at Secunda. Based on assurances from the youth leaders, these officials committed to the process, hoping that such engagements would set up an environment to soften the hard-line stances that had so far developed.
About 101 people, including government officials, traditional leaders and members of civil society, community-based organisations and youth organisations attended the April 15 conversation. Members of the migrant and local communities living in the area were also well represented, but a small gathering of youth around the conversation venue led to some uneasiness. Apparently, the police had arrested 20 of their colleagues the previous night, as part of a clampdown on those responsible for the destruction of public property. The youth leaders were angry at this, but continued to affirm their support for the dialogue process as one of the few ways in which they could communicate their grievances to government.
At the start of the conversation, facilitators presented the community with a summary of the perspectives and concerns that had emerged during the last conversation. They grouped these into four key areas: the need for more youth development-centred activities; developing leadership capacity in a way that enhances community participation in decision-making; the need to address the pervasive crime and the degeneration of moral/ethical values. In groups of 15 and with the aid of a set of guideline questions participants discussed strategic decisions they could take to respond to these challenges. Using the “five friends of planning”, a tool within the Community Capacity Enhance (CCE) methodology, they prepared plans reflecting on resource availability and the timing of community action, identifying steps in the planning process. Discussions were robust and the stage to develop these plans during plenary sessions was set.
The so-far successful conversation was violently interrupted at about 12:30pm by the sound of an explosion at the entrance, followed by hysterical screams from community members. Someone had attempted to set the hall alight. Confusion set in as everyone fled for safety, first, towards the entrance, only to freeze as they got there, deterred by flames. Desperate, community members attempted to flee through two of the metal-grilled side entrances to the hall, to no avail. No one seemed to know what to do and the panic intensified when it seemed there was no way out of this life-threatening situation.
Realising that time was running out, as the fire raced across the flammable carpet, a number of participants began to stamp out the flames with their shoes, clothes and other materials they could find. Fortunately, their efforts sufficed, the fire being in its early stages, and members of the community, visibly shaken by this experience, were able to escape from the hall.
For the next two hours, the community hovered outside the hall, stunned and bewildered by the attempted arson.
“How can this be in the name of service delivery? Will this bring them their services? These are criminals!” one upset individual remarked.
Others were not willing to let the offender off the hook that easily and set off on a hunt for him.
“I can tell you right now I feel even more sorry for the guy that tried to do this. He should escape to Joburg because I fear for what they will do to him when they get him,” another participant added.
Clearly, we had not heard the end of the matter.
The attack brought to the fore fears expressed earlier by the migrant community in response to invitations to the February conversation. Then, this section of the community had expressed sentiments about being bombed while in the building. At that time, such thoughts seemed incredulous and even laughable.
Now, we stood in shock as the events of the day gave credence to such fears. A number of youth leaders were visibly enraged by the impact that this would have on their cause. To them such action was that of tsotsis (criminals) whose only interest was in sustaining mayhem and chaos.
After the bombing of the hall, Leandra came to a standstill – public transport didn’t work, youths were been barred from attending school and government offices had been forced to relocate for their safety – all in the name of service delivery.
Now dubious characters were exhorting money from residents for various “services”, such as providing security to the nearest available bus station, 4km away.
“When will we realise that violence is not the answer to anything? This approach only helps criminals. We, the ordinary people, are losing out. It’s our kids not going to school. It’s us having to wake up at four in the morning to get a taxi,” said one participant, as the conversation participants quietly ate their lunch outside the hall.
They were unwilling to return to the premises from which they had so narrowly escaped. More than ever, the need to establish ongoing dialogue and develop conflict resolution mechanisms to respond to concerns in challenged communities is becoming a necessity. Short of this, we will only be abandoning our communities to unscrupulous forces motivated by self-interest, bent on manipulating legitimate community concerns to perpetuate their questionable activities.