What makes a protest turn into deadly violence?

Time of article published Jul 20, 2011

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THIS is how it starts. A council holds a sports day but the prize money disappears. Residents march and hand over a petition about corruption and service delivery. The premier promises to meet them, but at the appointed time, sends an MEC instead.

The angry crowd stones the MEC, police arrive, violence flares, buildings are burnt, people die and the council is suspended.

It’s just another day of protests in an impoverished community.

That’s how Professor Karl von Holdt describes a typical protest that ends in violence.

Von Holdt and fellow researchers from the Wits University Society Work and Development Institute (Swop) teamed up with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation to look at violent collective protests and xenophobic violence.

Von Holdt is also a commissioner on the National Planning Commission.

The result is a report released yesterday called “The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship, collective violence and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa”.

The organisations spent time in seven communities, but concealed the identities of all but one to maintain confidentiality.

In particular, they wanted to explore the differences and links between the protests which ended in violence, and the xenophobic attacks.

Von Holdt said they found protest movements fighting both for material improvements – like jobs and water – and the right to be heard, often after years of peaceful protests were ignored.

The researchers found complex webs of political divisions in councils, communities angry about municipal leaders seen as “just fighting for tenders”, and an underclass with little access to jobs or services but with a wealth of frustration.

They found that collective protests were largely directed against the government, with protesters demanding services, jobs and respect. Xenophobic attacks were directed against both competitors – like foreigners running spaza shops – and the government.

Xenophobic attacks and community protests had different levels of violence and targets, but both involved grievances about government action or inaction, and could involve the same organisations and methods. Collective protests often included xenophobic attacks on foreign-owned businesses.

“These are all the forces that are most difficult to grapple with in our society,” commented Von Holdt.

One piece of bad news in the report was the role of the police in collective violence. The report calls this “a peculiar combination of absence and unnecessary and provocative violence”.

When police were supposed to be there to help, they were not. When they were there, they often provoked violence.

One of the report’s main recommendations was the need to reform policing. Another was the need for municipalities to deal with the corruption and lack of delivery that often sparks the protests.

The light in the gloom was the Bokfontein community, formed about six years ago after two evictions.

In this community, researchers found people who were initially in conflict with each other, grappling with problems of violence and xenophobia, but who managed to pull themselves out of it.

Researcher Malose Langa described how Bokfontein used the key tools of organisational workshops (to sort out their divisions) and the government’s community work programme (to alleviate poverty and provide basic jobs).

Bokfontein was thus able to build a foundation for economic development, develop a collective approach to problem-solving, and empower themselves. The community changed its name to Ditshaba Dimaketse (the nations are surprised).

“When people toyi-toyi they destroy properties. It will take us back to zero,” Langa quoted them as saying. “We don’t wait for the municipality to do things for us. We do things ourselves.”

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