Why protesters turn to violence

Published May 31, 2016


Durban - Desperate and marginalised communities which engage in protest action often become violent when provoked by militant, heavy-handed police.

This was one of the findings of a recent study presented at the sixth internal Community Psychology Conference in Durban at the weekend.

The study, conducted by Professor Mohamed Seedat, Josephine Cornell, Ayanda Simelane and Shahnaaz Suffla, was carried out between 2015 and 2016.

Seedat, the head of the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at Unisa and the director of the Unisa Medical Research Council violence, injuries and peace research unit, said the ongoing study was prompted by the high number of community protests - particularly in metropolitan areas - involving high levels of violence.

He said protesters were filled with rage, destroying property, blocking roads or disrupting services.

He said interviews conducted in communities showed that residents felt “immense desperation”.

“They are stressed and feel like their backs are against the wall. They also feel that their concerns are disregarded and attempts to obtain a response amount to nothing.” He said their study showed that protesters did not begin their demonstrations with the intent to commit violence or destructive acts.

“They protest to illicit a response from the government. But they encounter a militarised police force, instead of responsive leadership that encourages dialogue.

Seedat said the police’s presence therefore often provoked the protesters who reacted by resorting to the violence.Seedat also said that mainstream media and middle-class South Africans were quick to question whether it was appropriate for communities to protest to get the government to respond to their problems.

“There appears to be a big divide in terms of the way protests are understood by those that live in these communities and those who are more affluent who do not understand the problems associated with poverty, isolation and the low opportunities for employment.”

He said more affluent communities criticised the violence during protests but failed to consider the other kind of abuse perpetrated against poor people who were excluded from services or access to their basic rights.

Lizette Lancaster, the manager of the crime hub at the Institute for Security Studies, said while she had not read the study, the institutes’s research had come to similar conclusions that the police were one of the main triggers associated with violent protests.

However, Lancaster said there were other triggers including the lack of police intervention which led to violence during anti-crime protests.

“There are the underlying causes and then there are the triggers. The police are one of the triggers. But it depends on what type of strike it is and under what circumstances it was organised.”

Lancaster said other factors that might play a role in violent protests were that local police station level officers and metro police were not trained to deal with the protests and that communities viewed police as the face of an “unresponsive and unaccountable government”.

The Police Ministry announced earlier this year that the Institute for Security Studies and other crime and violence researchers would be part of a panel that would review public order policing.

The 15-month review will look into what is lacking in public order policing methods and what the best international practices for crowd control are.

A review was recommended by the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana massacre.

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The Mercury

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