Protesters willing to die for their causes

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For the second time this week, protesters from Siqalo informal settlement burnt tyres and closed a section of Vanguard Drive overnight. File photo: Cindy Waxa

Johannesburg - Service delivery protests are on the rise – and sending in the police or making empty promises are only making it worse.

Studies by the University of Johannesburg’s Social Change Research Unit show there have been 2 020 of these protests between 2011 and November last year, and that the trend has been rising from as early as 2004.

And rising with the protests are the number of protesters killed by the police.

In the past 10 years, 43 protesters died because of police action.

Seven of those deaths happened just last month: four protesters were killed in Mothutlung in Brits, North West, two in Relela Village in Tzaneen, Limpopo, and one in Roodepoort.

The University of Johannesburg team looked specifically at community protests – not political protests like Wednesday’s DA march or labour strikes like at Marikana – and based their quantitative data on a variety of media sources.

They divided service delivery protests into three categories: peaceful, disruptive and violent.

Protests often characterised as violent because of burning tyres and barricades were only considered disruptive. It’s when people are injured or property is damaged that the protest is deemed to be violent.

Researcher Trevor Ngwane said communities had often exhausted peaceful methods before turning to disruptive or violent protesting.

“When people start hitting the streets, they should have a banner saying ‘All protocols observed’, because they’ve gone through all the channels,” he said. “People feel that the only way to be heard, to get attention, is to burn tyres.”

Interviews with protesting communities around the country revealed that the burning of libraries and clinics arose from a need to be heard.

Ward councillors were attacked because they were “the arm of government most visible and accessible to people”.

“When the exploited want something, they are prepared to lose something to get it,” said Ngwane. “These are desperate people crying out, appealing to be heard.”

And the way forward is for the government to listen sympathetically, said Professor Peter Alexander.

“They need to avoid making promises that will not be fulfilled,” he said, adding that protests needed to be seen in the context of 20 disappointed years of broken promises.

Surprisingly, the researchers found no clear relationships between the number of protests and an election.

In 2009, for example, national elections were held in April, but protests didn’t peak until winter.

Alternatively, repression through a police force also won’t quell protest numbers.

“It will just intensify feelings of bitterness and alienation,” said Alexander.

Dr Carin Runciman said the team’s interviews showed that these clashes with police had caused a growing fear, “almost on both sides”.

“The protesters are scared, but also pushed to such a point that they say ‘There will be a Marikana here’. They don’t want it to happen, but such is their desperation that they’re willing to die to get the services they need.”

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