Quick quiz question: 2006, 2008, 2009 — What do these three years have in common in South Africa?

These were years when the public at-large, the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the media, the establishment, or whatever else you might call it, started paying attention, if momentarily to poor people. In those three years major instances of often violent protests erupted in townships and slums throughout the country.

Unfortunately for poor people, and for the greater understanding of everyone involved, the reasons for these demonstrations have often gotten lost in a fiery haze. In 2008, the protests took the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign-born store owners and other migrants living in South Africa.

Such violence was clearly reprehensible. It also gave middle classes an excuse to ignore the valid frustrations of poor people whose frustrations boiled over in a particularly disgusting way. Instead of being ashamed in its complicity with a system that deprives the poor, toiling in sewage-ridden, shack-filled, unsafe and unfit slums, the middle class could rest on its outraged high horse. How dare South Africans attack others simply for not being South African?

Such sentiments are all well and good, but they also smack of willful ignorance. The violence in places like Alexandra last year was not fundamentally about hatred of foreigners. The acts of hatred were symptomatic of a greater frustration with the lack of progress in many townships. Based on my interviews with a number of shack-dwelling residents of Alex over the past four months (and I will grant the limits of this kind of anecdotal evidence), a discussion of foreigners is always accompanied by the larger issue of the general state of living in the township. “How can all these foreigners come here when things are already so out of control?” “We can’t get any jobs. Why can they get jobs?”

The frustration is not so much with foreigners, as the overall state of living. So witness the protests in Thokoza and Balfour this past week as the latest example of protests that appear to have hit closer to the mark in terms of public perception. This, despite worrying instances of xenophobic attacks attached to the demonstrations. “Service delivery” is once again the name of the game.

I interviewed Udesh Pillay, an expert on “service delivery” at the Human Sciences Research Council. He points out that the ongoing protests have their roots not in xenophobia, but in the more fundamental struggle for human dignity in the 1980s against apartheid. Many of the protests of this time focused on specific issues like rent prices and utility services, while aiming to “render ungovernable” townships throughout the country.

In the case of apartheid, the government could not respond because it was born of a system that was inherently illegitimate. Now, the government has been elected through legitimate means, but does not have the structures that will allow for constructive engagement with communities. Democracy does not end with elections. Community engagement with elected officials is the real nuts and bolts of democracy, a way for the will of the people to be heard and developed in the public sphere.

“Service delivery,” Pillay told me, is then a stand-in phrase for the greater lack of accountability that currently exists in slum governance. I would argue that it is this lack of accountability that is totally anathema to the middle-class-driven public debate on this issue. The assumption is much more cynical, and anti-democratic. They elected Zuma and the ANC. This is what they get. Why are they so violent and xenophobic? Why are their leaders so incompetent?

In order to move forward, such questions need to be replaced by those informed by a more democratic point of view. How can communities engage consistently and constructively with local government? This is an issue that has never been practiced well in South Africa. The apartheid government enacted policies concerning the overwhelmingly black poor without consultation, and in the democratic era little has changed in many townships.

Currently up for debate is why the government is not implementing their policies properly. Instead the questions need to be about how the policies are developed in the first place. The likelihood of proper implementation would then be much closer behind.

Obama likes to say that he is a blank slate where others project themselves onto him. Well it seems like Frank Rich’s column is having a similar effect. Some go global, but I try to keep it all in the good ol’ U. S. of A family. Stephen Walt paired this week’s Rich column with articles in the Sunday New York Times about the failure of Hamid Karzai and the opportunism of Richard Holbrooke. When I read Rich I thought of another Sunday Times piece about the inside politics of the textile and hotel workers union, UNITE-HERE. This fight has all the intrigue of the best gangster movie you’ve never seen.

The break-up of the union being proposed by a group of leaders led by Ed Wilhelm is, according to them, about democracy and the will of a union that doesn’t want to go along with Bruce Raynor’s plan to break up the once separate UNITE and HERE. This is really just the beginning of a whole series of fights between national-level unions, locals, and merged segments of previously separate unions. Just one part of the whole deal is speculation about what kind of moves the SEIU might make to get members from warring factions of UNITE-HERE. It’s basically a factionalist war with no obvious kingmaker, though Andy Stern at SEIU at least has some pretensions of taking on such a role. Usually you would think that such important institutions would have good governance structures to prevent this kind of massive infighting; democracy would ultimately crown the king. But you would be wrong. Democracy is clearly just the Wilhelm camp’s prop in their fight, at least the way the public battle is going. As opposed to emphasizing the primacy of institutional democracy as an arbiter in this fight, the Times piece seems to portray Raynor as a bit of a wounded hero struggling against the statist Wilhelm-led forces:

The fight is led by two hyperarticulate heavyweights, both Ivy League graduates, each using his decades of experience in battling corporations to clobber the other.

We’ll see where this all ends up, and if the Times‘ equivalency on the issue is borne out.

The bottom line is that not only is this union fight coming in the midst of an economic crisis, but, as Rich argues, it’s a crisis with a bit of a unique populist dimension. Obama, Rich says, is not only trying to right an economic system gone awry, but also a corrupt political system that propped up such financial malfeasance:

Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican.

We have to remember that the ugly McCain-Palin campaign unleashed its own sort of populist anger, one with a distinct racial tinge. So now we have anger at Wall Street bosses, anger at Capitol Hill cronies, and a bunch of union statists  — no matter which you look at it, at some level every side in this UNITE-HERE debate just seems out to save their positions and those of their friends — who are supposed to represent the working man.

One the one hand, this fight could be good for the unions. Long-simmering tension gets fought out and resolved into a more competitive union organizing atmosphere rather than careerists getting comfy while losing valuable members. Still, the possibility of the current dysfunction ravaging any power the major unions have left in advance of crucial fights on the Employee Free Choice Act and to change the nature of the National Labor Relations Board appears distinct. Most importantly, these fights drain energy from difficult organizing battles — the actual work of unions.

So with the buying power of the proletariat going down (shout out to Bob Dylan aka Will.I.Am) and unions potentially out for the count, where is this populist anger going to go? Wall Street? Politicians? Immigrants? Other racial minorities? I don’t mean to cry wolf here, but the bottom line is that these fights make for great political intrigue, but also a depressing leadership deficit on things that actually matter. I hope to have more on this as the public battles heat up, but I think it’s important to start by getting at what is at stake here.

Things may look different from the inside. If you’ve got anything to say, comment or message me. It seems like some are already going the anonymous comment route, which is FINE with me when it comes to this issue.