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A countrywide surge in violent protests as elections loom has claimed nine lives, allegedly at the hands of police, in five weeks.
This death toll equals the number of people killed during protests last year, according to statistics from the South African Institute of Race Relations.
There are at least five protests a day, says the Institute for Security Studies.
This week, a number of protests erupted. The East London city hall was petrol-bombed in one flare-up, and in another a man was shot dead in Sebokeng, south-east of Johannesburg.
On Thursday, in the Western Cape there were protests in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village – where roads were closed and journalists injured and robbed – and in Kuyasa in Khayelitsha.
These protests come days after President Jacob Zuma called on the public to act within the law and police to exercise restraint.
While no one has been killed during Western Cape protests this year, SA Race Relations Institute figures show there have been four deaths in North West, three in Limpopo and two in Gauteng.
Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi told the Cape Times: “We are concerned, not only from the viewpoint that police might have shot (protesters). Any loss of life at a public protest is unacceptable.”
He said the police respected the right of people to protest, but expected them to do so within the law.
“What we’re seeing of late is criminality, police being attacked,” Mnisi said. He added that police were never instructed to attack people, but to maintain law and order.
Gareth Newham, the Institute for Security Studies’ governance, crime and justice division head, said he had expected to see an increase in protests this year because before the last provincial and national elections in 2009 there had also been an increase.
During electioneering campaigns, politicians addressed residents more often and residents believed holding protests in that period could be a way of getting their attention.
Jane Duncan, a professor in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University researching the role municipalities play in protests, said municipalities were making it increasingly difficult for residents to protest lawfully.
She said a number of municipalities asked residents to first take their grievances to their ward councillors and mayors before granting permission for them to protest.
These residents were often directed to the ward councillors against whom they had complaints.
She said protests were often “an absolute last resort” taken by residents who realised the lawful route to sort out their grievances did not work.
Georgina Alexander, a programme manager and researcher at the SA Institute of Race Relations, said there were complex factors behind the “increasing levels of violence” in service protests.
A possible reason could be because residents wanted to draw attention to their grievances.
“The logic goes that the more violent the protest is, the more coverage there is in the media, and the greater the pressure on elected officials to respond.
“The level of violence could also be due to an increasing frustration felt by these communities,” Alexander said.