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.

In my ongoing quest to find and tell stories from Alexandra in Johannesburg come an article and related video about how street hawkers are being affected by the recent opening of a landmark shopping mall in the struggling, but vibrant township.

Informal sellers of produce, cigarettes, matches, and other assorted goods in Alexandra each have their own regular customers.

Still, it didn’t take long for Olivia Makalela to break into the market when she set up her stand five years ago.

She sang , danced and shouted slogans to attract attention to her stand in a courtyard next to the bustling 2nd Avenue, on the edge of the historic township.

But business has fallen in the past two weeks. Makalela blames the new Pick n Pay across the street, the anchor store of the recently opened Pan Africa Mall.

The issue is likely not going away. The youth wing of the Alexandra Chamber of Commerce is calling for a boycott of the mall for not totally unrelated reasons. An interesting case in how progress for some can — and often does — leave others behind.

Two (related) ways that township life reflects the day’s headlines = two of my recent video reports for The Times:

Expectations for a Zuma presidency in Alex

Continuing horror of last year’s xenophobic attacks

I’m midway through a report following around different political parties campaigning in the Johannesburg area. My general impression is that people in the townships are frustrated with the pace of change here. At the same time, many still feel tied to the ANC and its legacy in the anti-Apartheid struggle.

In Alexandra, people were almost uniformly furious about the lack of progress being made in alleviating their absurdly horrible housing conditions. They complained about cronyism regarding the handing out of RDP houses, the inadequacy of RDP houses, and general lack of attention paid to the struggling township. Shacks are literally on top of shacks, while dirty sewage, heaps of garbage, and unclean port-o-potty toilets line many of the streets. People openly admit, however, the ANC is the only party they will vote for if they vote at all.

In Klipspruit, a predominantly colored section of Soweto, most people were unhappy with the progress of the ANC and professed a support for the range of opposition parties: DA and COPE, as well as a smaller party with a colored candidate standing for president: the Independent Democrats and former ANC member Patricia de Lille. Klipspruit aside, Soweto, which is a predominantly black township (can’t we just call it a city instead of sticking to these Apartheid-era anachronisms), will almost certainly turn out overwhelmingly in favor of the ANC.

This election does not look to be shaping up as representative of  a sea change in perceptions of the ANC. Still, I think “All we are saying is give the ANC a chance,” doesn’t resonate like it used to. Instead of representing a clear move from past affiliations, this election points to new alliances of the near future. ANC President Jacob Zuma is considered by many a blank slate in terms of policies and who he might appoint in his cabinet. Similarly unknown are the prospects for opposition politics. Will the DA and COPE join together in an alliance? Would such an alliance include smaller parties?