Our protest culture is far from dead
The elections won’t be the end of protests as long as fat cat politicians show residents the middle finger, says Max du Preez.
The last time South Africa experienced this level of daily public protest was when the UDF and Cosatu’s ungovernability campaigns and rolling mass action of the late 1980s aimed at bringing the apartheid government to its knees.
The nearly 3 000 protest actions in the last 90 days – more than 30 a day– involving more than a million people surely can’t be motivated by a general desire to end ANC rule. Surely they know that they could do that more effectively by voting on May 7?
The people who protested violently in the months before the 2009 election voted overwhelmingly for the ANC. Most of today’s protesters will probably do the same.
So how should we understand the daily protests that have become more and more violent and destructive?
The deputy president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, said last week the protests were not against the ANC, but were a message that the provision of services in the former townships and informal settlements should be improved.
The graffiti and protest placards with rude messages to President Jacob Zuma seem to suggest a lot of the anger aimed at him and his cronies. (But isn’t Cyril one of them? No? Yes?)
The deputy secretary-general of the ANC, Jessie Duarte, said in a radio interview last week that some of the protests were the result of power struggles between ANC branches and leaders of the SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco), itself an ANC structure. Zuma himself confirmed this when he told an Eastern Cape audience: “We must develop sound rules of engagement between Sanco and ANC members at branch level. The tension in branches of the ANC and Sanco is uncalled for and immature.”
Duarte also blamed the Economic Freedom Fighters for stoking the violence. This claim was backed up by the photograph of an EFF-branded vehicle offloading tyres in a burning township published at the weekend.
An ANC member from one of the affected communities said on Facebook last week that he was told that the EFF encouraged confrontations with the police. When the police then act – over-react, most of the time – the EFF exploits the anger of the communities. That may or may not be true.
Other analysts have said criminal elements and boredom among the unemployed youth also contributed to the violent protests.
But while we’re looking for explanations, let’s not lose sight of the most important one: people are bitterly angry at living in squalor and being ignored by corrupt local authorities and indifferent provincial and national governments. Perhaps there are opportunistic elements in the protests, but if it were not for the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and betrayal, those with other motives would not have been able to manipulate people.
My sense is that the protests will calm down after the May 7 elections. But it won’t be the end of protests as long as fat cat politicians show residents the middle finger.
The protest culture is far from dead.
Which brings me to the big question: why have the police handled the protests so badly? Nine protesters were killed over the past few weeks and the police couldn’t stop rioters from burning state assets worth millions of rand.
I have two explanations. The first is that the police’s crime intelligence unit was compromised by Zuma’s efforts to stay out of court on corruption charges and roped in to do “intelligence” on his own enemies instead of finding out what was brewing on the ground.
The second is that the police is woefully unprepared to deal with riotous crowds. Why? Consider this: former police commissioner Jackie Selebi cut the public policing unit of the SAPS in half in 2006 and very little specialist training in crowd control took place since then.
The present commissioner, Riah Phiyega, is probably sincere, but completely out of her depth, overwhelmed and not trusted by the old hands in the service.
I honestly think the policemen and women facing the angry crowds think they’re doing the right thing, exactly what government was expecting of them, when they respond with extreme violence to rioters. Some just panic and don’t know what to do.
But they’re also in a no-win situation. The politicians that neglect the communities don’t face the protesters, the police do. They become the face of local, provincial and national government. In an honest moment Gauteng police commissioner Lesetja Mothiba said last week the police are seen as the enemy because government wasn’t doing their job properly serving the communities.
In this crisis, the fingers point at Number One and the way he allowed his party and government to disintegrate. No wonder he chose to spend his weekend at Nkandla instead of honouring his commitments at trouble spots.
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.