SA experienced an unprecedented level of protests in the period 2014-2016. The most notable being those driven by the “fees must fall” movement, says the writer. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) Archives
SA experienced an unprecedented level of protests in the period 2014-2016. The most notable being those driven by the “fees must fall” movement, says the writer. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

SA needs to share its experiences of managing protests with its neighbours

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 22, 2020

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Reneva Fourie

The situations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique are of concern to many South Africans. The South African authorities have been visible in supporting both governments.

This is understandable for three reasons. The first is that we are connected through blood, biologically, with strong genetic and cultural ties between many South Africans and many Zimbabweans and likewise Mozambicans.

The second reason is that we are connected through revolutionary blood, due to the historic bonds between the liberation movements of all three countries in the fight against colonialism and apartheid. And third, instability in our neighbouring countries makes South Africa vulnerable economically, socially, and politically.

Despite the official engagements between South Africa and our neighbouring countries, there have been stories of them violating the human rights of their citizens.

It is most unfortunate that, in some instances, people are now living in fear as their former liberators are mutating into their oppressors. This should not have been the case, had South Africa shared its rich experiences in managing protests.

The apartheid government failed to learn, to its detriment, that repression only served to fuel radicalism. The post-apartheid, democratic government learned that listening to and addressing the concerns raised by its citizens, better stems dissent.

There have been many opportunities for the current South African authorities to learn how to manage protests. Protests are a daily part of South African life.

The country, however, experienced an unprecedented level of protests in the period 2014-2016. The most notable being those driven by the “fees must fall” movement, which soon progressed to “Zuma must fall”.

While it may be that in some instances there were dubious motives by some of the protesters, many people were protesting out of genuine frustration due to the endemic practises of the elite enriching themselves at the expense of the poor, and the ongoing service delivery failures by our liberation movements that seemingly abandoned the objectives and values of the liberation Struggle.

Weakening and dividing the ANC, which sought to play a critical role in fostering national unity, resulted in the rapid erosion of cohesion in society, with the escalation of racial tension and crime and drug abuse spiralling out of control.

The quality of governance deteriorated as corruption became embedded in many a municipality. If there were any outside intentions to unseat the ANC from power, it nearly succeeded.

The ANC suffered a significant electoral blow in the 2016 local government elections, including the loss of metros that were key role-players in the economy and seats of internationalism, such as Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay, as well as the expected Cape Town. Protests intensified post the local government elections, with continued calls that “Zuma must fall” in 2017 now escalating to “the ANC must fall”.

The ANC was, however, able to regain popularity by 2019. While the performance in the 2019 general election was poorer than previously, it was still able to gain a significant majority and it did so because of the way that it managed the protests, among others.

First, and importantly, was that it steered away from state brutality. Arson, infrastructural damage and sometimes physical threats provoked the South African Police Service to the extreme, but they remained largely calm and contained.

This was important because protesters are children, relatives, and friends; and when the state harms loved-ones who are participating in protests that on the surface appear to be about legitimate matters, it can be assured the state will be disliked.

South Africa’s image is still severely damaged by the way it failed to manage the Marikana protests. Perhaps learning from that experience, the South African Police Service made a supreme effort to manage protests without brutal repression.

Second, in addition to government setting up platforms of engagement, the ANC conducted regular meetings with protest leaders, particularly student leaders during the “fees must fall” uprisings and genuinely sought to address the concerns raised, while encouraging them to follow structured, institutionally-based approaches to resolving conflict and tension.

When protests escalated beyond students however, tremendous leadership was displayed by members of the ANC that were located in its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African National Civic Organisation, as well as the alliance’s veterans and stalwarts.

These members, together with progressive leaders from a variety of sectors in society including academia, religion, law, business and non-governmental organisations, sided with the protesters rather than protecting the wrongdoings within the state.

In December 2017, the ANC chose a new leadership and it took tangible steps towards addressing the concerns raised by its alliance partners, sector leaders and society as a whole.

President Jacob Zuma was asked to step down while corruption allegations made against him were investigated. He did so. Heads of the public service and boards that were associated with corruption were removed and replaced with credible people.

Leaders went to local areas and listened to members in branches as well as to communities and committed to doing better. President Cyril Ramaphosa also conducted a series of summits to address the most critical challenges of the country, and promoted a collective approach based on social compacts between government, organised labour and business and civil society, towards its resolution.

While there are still many challenges within the ANC and within the South African government, which makes the country vulnerable, severe civil unrest and regime-change in South Africa was averted.

It would be hypocritical if the South African authorities now chose to turn a blind eye to the substantive governance challenges of its neighbours.

It would be even more hypocritical if South Africa promoted a securocrat approach outside, when domestically, it chose dialogue.

Repression and the violation of human rights, regardless of the extent of provocation, cannot be a solution.

The only way to stem an uprising is to patiently interact with the leaders of those expressing discontent, and to ensure the interests of the majority are addressed while the law is being upheld. It is important that the right to protest be respected.

Furthermore, governance must be rooted in the people. Leaders must display absolute integrity and values of selflessness and people-centeredness.

Oversight institutions must be allowed to exercise their mandate unfettered; and those found guilty of corruption and maladministration must be punished.

If the governments of Zimbabwe and Mozambique tangibly demonstrate that they care for their people, they need never worry about their people’s loyalty.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and currently resides in Damascus, Syria

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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