Throwing excrement in Cape Town: the DA has reason to feel miffed, but the situation is best explained by the Davies J-curve

It is difficult to avoid an abiding suspicion that the protesters flinging faeces in the general direction of the DA led Cape Town and Western Cape provincial administrations are not always, as they claim, signed up members of the downtrodden masses.

Among the reasons I am suspicious is a good friend told me that when the recent group of 176 protesters carrying bags of shit – let’s call it what it is  –  were offloaded at Esplanade train station in Woodstock she couldn’t help but notice the pitter-patter of Carvella clad feet,  the swish of Gucci handbags (in the hands not carrying the  shit …. hmm, whatever) and the sleekly clad and buxom bodies diagnostic of a certain species of yuppie political activist.

So, yes … it is difficult to separate the reality from the hyperreality , so to speak, when it comes to the semeiotics of the ANC’s clash with the DA, especially in the Western Cape.

A more interesting take, one that doesn’t bother with the relatively minor question of political parties’ attempts to manipulate or ride the underlying grievances of the poorest and most marginalised South Africans, is an excellent article by Gillian Schutte on The South African Civil Society Information Service website (SACSIS describes it’s function as: “

Schutte writes:

Though ‘shitting’ has to be one of the most taboo subjects around, it is a matter that we all deal with, on average once or twice a day. Defecation, and the rules governing it, undoubtedly comprises the complete gamut of human behaviour yet open discussion around it is deemed distasteful and disgusting. Indeed this is exactly how it played out when protesters dumped the contents of portable toilets on the steps of the Western Cape legislature in a backlash against the sanitation policy of Helen Zille’s administration. This policy offers communal portable flush toilets to shack dwellers at no cost — a system, which they say, is inadequate and often ends up filthy and untended.

Catch Schutte’s article here and I would recommend that you subscribe to the free email service.

That being said, spare a thought for the put-upon DA premier Helen Zille and Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille.

I stumbled across a thorough report from the Presidency (Department of Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation) into the state of sanitation services across the country. The report (download it here) makes a detailed comparison between provinces. I laboriously screen-snipped the graphs for provincial performances in informal housing areas and put them together in a graphic (which is a stretch for me, so I hope someone finds this useful).

This is what the scoreboard looks like:


(When you look at relative performance in formal areas the Western Cape  also performs well, bested only by Gauteng – although, I suppose, it is not useful to run this like it was a competition. The ANC has faced rolling service delivery protests across the country for many years and the tit-for-tat between the DA and the ANC with regard to the toilet issue has almost nothing to do with ‘the facts’ or ‘the truth’.)

However the graphic does confirm that the DA has outperformed in relation to a crucial area of service delivery to informal areas – the very areas from which it is getting flack in Cape Town. And that raises an interesting point about the stability of societies as they move away from authoritarian rule and high levels of absolute and relative poverty.

There is a peculiar fact, confirmed across the world and over a long period of time, that improved service delivery itself is a good predictor of protest and disaffection.

I have an instinctive feeling of why this might be true. The uniformly downtrodden, those with no hope and no expectation of relief from ‘the powers that be’ are less likely to be moved to demand more.

Interestingly this is precisely the situation predicted by US sociologist working in the late 1950′s, James C Davies. His theory is that rising expectations are related to the possibility revolt but only when rising expectations – brought about by, for example, some degree of service delivery – meet an unexpected slowing in that delivery.  His theory became known as the Davies J-curve.

Here is the point expressed graphically:


So the theory is that as a middle-class emerges from previously marginalised groups, as education and social infrastructure improves, the expectation of improvement begins to outstrip the maximum rate, or the sustainable rate, of real improvement. The first thing that happens is that resistance and dissatisfaction intensifies.

This is one of the many reasons transitions like ours can be scary and unstable. The old ways of doing things and the old, essentially stable, structure is abandoned before what is replacing it has moved in and filled the vacuum and the available space.

We are in the moment when ‘the old’ is gone but ‘the new is not yet born’.

2 thoughts on “Throwing excrement in Cape Town: the DA has reason to feel miffed, but the situation is best explained by the Davies J-curve

  1. Nic, I would be interested to see examples of various revolts and their relation to rising expectations.

    However I must disagree with your statement, “However the graphic does confirm that the DA has outperformed in relation to a crucial area of service delivery to informal areas – the very areas from which it is getting flack in Cape Town.”

    This presuposes that the DA was responsible for the service delivery. Seeing that the DA has only been in power in the City from 2006 and province from 2009, that delivery would have to been done in that period to support your contention.

    Looking at Table 8 on page 10 of the percentage of bucket toilets has remained static since 2001 to 2011 whilst access to flush toilet when from 88.5% to 91.6 in 2011, which period the ANC ruled the province for 8 of the 10 years.

    Interestingly a look at the statistics for other ANC ruled provinces show far more significant progress that the Western Cape. For example Eastern Cape reduced use of buckets from 5.7% to 2.3% in the same period and increased access to flush toilet from 63% to 80%. These percentage increases makes the Western Cape look decidely slow in delivery!!

    Of course the issue is the backlogs from apartheid and the Western Cape inherited the least backlog and has the most resources, whether under ANC or DA rule, to address these things.

    Just thought I would mention it…


    1. Thanks Max .. you are quite right and I am slightly irritated at myself for taking out a paragraph were I qualified that it could well be that the graphic purely represented ‘legacy issues’ and had nothing to do with the DA’s performance … if you look at the Presidency doc Gtngs ‘formal sector’ provision is at 100% .. and given the Western Cape and Gtngs relative historical status as advanced metropolitan areas it is no big surprise that they have ‘legacy’ advantages. and I realise that a static take on provision of services says nothing about whether any particular administration has improved on what it inherited. So I think your comments are a useful corrective.

      On the Davies prediction thing … I suspect something like Crane Brinton’s ‘tentative uniformities’ in his Anatomy of Revolution where he looks at tens of revolutions over hundreds of years and comes up with ‘economically advancing society, class antagonism, desertion of intel-
      lectuals, inefficient government, a ruling class that has lost self-confidence, failure in financial system, government finances in crises, and inept use of force ‘ would do a better job. I am tempted (but I should probably try and stop myself) to draw comparisons between Turkey, Brazil and SA protests … because there are some similarities … but actually that is torturing the external reality to fit a theory that is purely a collection of descriptive features. Also I am pretty sure that all three of those societies are stable on the macro level … and it is important to realise that as the deafening protests get louder. (and, as an aside, I have no doubt that more protest can as easily lead to greater stability as it can to growing possibility of catastrophic change … by releasing some of the ‘fingers of instability that honeycomb the system.)

      I originally came across the assertion that service delivery protests were only, or especially, happening in townships where service delivery had actually improved from an NGO that monitored municipalities a couple of years ago (perhaps the one that eventually became Municipal IQ?). I have an instinctive sense of why this is actually what we should expect … but haven’t worked out a good way of expressing that or seen any serious attempt to explain (predict) protest and social change in these terms aside from the neat, but undoubtedly simplistic, Davies J curve thing.

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