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Public protests, or the “rebellion of the poor”, have become an almost daily reality of post-apartheid SA; about 2 million people have taken to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction in recent years.
In the 2004/5 financial year, an estimated 6 000 protests were recorded around the country, according to the research group, the Municipal Hotspot Monitor.
The number of protests reached an all-time high in 2010/11 and then a further all-time post-apartheid peak in July.
While elsewhere in the world such protests may be reflective of a working, maturing democracy, in SA the violent nature of many of these actions could in fact threaten the country’s democracy because of the underlying tensions and widespread dissatisfaction with service delivery.
The recent stand-off in Marikana, in North West, which claimed 44 lives, has brought home the volatile nature of such protests.
The Marikana killings evoked images of SA’s apartheid past and some sought to draw parallels between this incident and the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
Writing in Amandla Magazine, a bi-monthly publication seeking to promote discussion and debates, Peter Alexander, of the University of Johannesburg, said: “On the surface, the protests have been about the service delivery and against uncaring, self-serving and corrupt leaders of municipalities.
“A key feature has been the mass participation by a new generation of fighters, especially the unemployed but also school [pupils],” observes Alexander.
But are they sporadic outbursts which will peter out, or are the protests indicative of a bigger problem on the horizon?
“They are serious in that they are an indictment of the failure of government, especially – but not only – local government to do its job properly. Although I single out local government, the blame also lies higher up because it is the job of the provincial and national to make sure that local government works properly,” says Mary de Haas, an anthropologist and head of the KwaZulu-Natal Violence Monitor.
KZN political analyst Nkosinathi Mazibuko says the masses were getting impatient with the undelivered promises made by the government.
“These protests have been mushrooming for some time now. They may not be compared to the case studies of Libya or Egypt but the causes may be similar.
“These are poverty and unemployment [protests] caused by socio-economic factors and historical imbalances,” says Mazibuko.
Political analyst Ibrahim Fakir suggests that the likelihood of an “Arab Spring” is somewhat unfounded. He points out that the key driver of the Arab revolution was premised on local people fighting against the illegitimate governments.
“Here, the legitimacy of the government is not in question. Rather, it is the credibility of its operations and what it can effectively do to improve the people’s lives. It is about its ability to function or not. (But) not the right to exist,” says Fakir.
Nkosinkulu Nyembezi, a policy analyst and advocacy programme manager at the Black Sash, says the lack of meaningful public participation in government processes is one reason why people tend to turn to public protests to make their voices heard.
Nyembezi points to the gap between the governed and the government, and attributes it to the nature of SA’s electoral system; it does not link a public representative to a particular community or constituency.
“South Africa’s much-heralded progressive policy framework for democratic, development-oriented, inherently participatory and inclusive government institutions stands in stark contrast to recent, and rather sobering, assessments of the state of our maturing democracy, especially at local government, where lack of service delivery is experienced by the people.
“Also, there are increasing concerns about a lack of feedback to communities once consultative processes have run their course, resulting in community discontent where it appears their views have been ignored or sidelined,” argued Nyembezi.
Of major concern to the government, and to many observers, is the violent nature of these protests.
The tendency by protesters to use violence, either to burn down buildings, or barricade roads, or assault non-protesting people, has become rife. In some cases, protesters argue that the unresponsive authorities take notice of them only if they resort to violence.
“The increasing recourse to violence during protest is worrying and completely unacceptable, and I am talking about protest action generally, including current action by metro police, which is totally out of order.
“The problem is that violence is endemic in our society, from abuse of women and children, violence at school (children have learnt to use violence to solve problems) aggressive and violent behaviour by motorists etc, so many resort to violence when protests occur (although many protests are peaceful),” says De Haas.
Mazibuko attributes the violent nature of these protests to the “socialisation” of the communities to the violent nature of the apartheid system which make them conclude that violence is the solution.
“We need to workshop our members about the constitution as a whole and the rights of others. The issue of mob psychology is symbolic of a sick and violent society in which we are brought up. The damage caused by the previous regime is irreparable.
“Finally, we need to instil organisational discipline into our members and naturally they will value the organisation and also political education must be compulsory to avoid many Malemas (Julius) of this world,” suggests Mazibuko.
De Haas agrees with Mazibuko that the events of the 1980s and early 1990s also contributed to |a culture of violence becoming entrenched.
Commentators also point to the unwillingness of authorities (councillors and mayors) to face and negotiate with protesters.
Instead, they send in law enforcement and that adds fuel to the fire.
De Haas suggested that people should be allowed to protest as long as they are not armed and do not threaten and intimidate others – and if they do engage in violence, or carry weapons, they should be arrested and face charges.
“As with any violence, if people get away with it and are not punished, the message is that crime pays. There is a huge problem with police apparently not being properly trained to handle protest,” says De Haas.
She also points to “unfortunate” cases in which the police themselves make matters worse because of their inappropriate response to a peaceful protest.
“Thuggish conduct from the police themselves is far too common; that is assaulting people. Protests should be properly organised, with clear leadership, and leaders taking responsibility for keeping thugs from sowing disruption.
“Peaceful pickets are generally a safer option than, for example, marches, because very often marches get hijacked by thugs (who, for example use the opportunity to loot) especially if there are insufficient controls (for example, marshalls) in place,” says De Haas.
She also calls for a drastic overhaul of the criminal justice system. This would include transforming the police into a disciplined force which is properly trained to serve the public through, for instance, ensuring the protests proceed peacefully and there are efficient and properly trained crime intelligence and detective services.
“We are currently in a situation approaching anarchy.
“Legislation is not being implemented but the failure to implement legislation applies to transgressions of all types and the fact that the metro police can behave in a lawless manner with impunity points to a more serious problem,” De Haas concludes.
Durban-based Abahlali BaseMjondolo, which has spearheaded many protests, said political leadership has taken a decision to not entertain demands of the communities as they believe poor communities did not matter.
Zodwa Nsindane, of the Abahlali BaseMjondolo Youth League, says: “So there is a limited space of meaningful engagement with those elected to serve.
“This results in these protests which have become the only means of self-expression to many of those whom the state has decided to ignore or become its own enemy.”
She says the protests are always peaceful up until the administrators refuse to meet them and send police to deal with them.
“They only become violent when the state sends police to attack protesters. As soon as the police arrive then most protests become violent because police are often used for political gains,” says Nsindane.