South Africa

South Africa

The Civic Protest Barometer, Episode Three: What causes residents to revolt?

The Civic Protest Barometer, Episode Three: What causes residents to revolt?

For those who watch these kinds of things, the Civic Protest Barometer, issued last month by the Multi-level Government Initiative at the Community Law Centre of the University of the Western Cape, held few surprises. According to this report, public protests in South Africa have reached an all-time high, and have become increasingly violent. Anyone who reads the newspapers (or has had their morning commute interrupted) would already know this. But finding a context for these protests does deliver some surprises. NIKI MOORE takes a closer look at this strange animal called Public Protest.

Reporter’s disclaimer: For this article I drew on research from a number of sources, such as the MLGI, the Institute for Security Studies, Municipal IQ, material from public, legal, academic and government documents, news reports, and sources I have interviewed for case studies on municipalities. But any opinions or conclusions that attempt to contextualise public protests are entirely my own and are, by necessity, often generalisations.

One of the reasons why the term ‘service delivery protest’ is misleading is because many public protests are not about service delivery at all. Protesting communities might have an underlying simmering unhappiness with unemployment, poor education, housing, lack of lights and water, poverty and general human misery, but people view services along a vast continuum.

The labour movement likes to insist protests are linked to poverty, and they use this as a basis for their argument for a national minimum wage. They argue that if every employed person in this country earned enough to buy services, protests would stop. But if this was the case, then the poorest regions with the worst record of service delivery – such as North West, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo – should be the hotbeds of unrest. In fact, the opposite is true. The wealthiest and most successful regions, such as Western Cape and Gauteng, are where the most protests take place – in the urban townships and informal settlements. Drill down into the reasons for public protest, and an interesting fact emerges: the level of dissatisfaction has little to do with real living conditions. It has to do with the perception that people are worse off in comparison with their neighbours.

So, a poor rural community with no electricity, water, roads or employment might not have high aspirations as everyone they know is in the same boat. But informal settlements in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are surrounded by leafy suburbs, shopping centres, luxury cars and conspicuous consumption so poor urban residents feel more badly off in relation to what they see around them, and they are more likely to be dissatisfied.

This is important, as it might give government a clue how to go about addressing public protests, and it seems on the surface to support President Jacob Zuma’s assertion that protests are a sign of government success, that people are protesting because they see progress and want to be part of it. But this is only half true. Yes, people see wealth and progress around them and want to be part of it but – and here’s the rub – they are not part of it. And they have abandoned hope of ever being part of it. So protests point, really, to government failure. People in shacks in cities are surrounded by ostentatious wealth, but they are so far from ever attaining it themselves that they have given up hope of even trying. So they turn to violence.

Which leads to a further question: the Western Cape has the best record of service delivery in the country (by their own claim, as well as by external measurements). But Cape Town leads the country in service delivery protests. So what gives?

The Western Cape might have better service, but they also have more agitators. It is a fact that protests require agitators as dissatisfaction needs to coalesce around a leader or organiser. There is no shortage of people in Cape Town who want to stir up protest – most notably Ses ‘Khona, who have publicly vowed to make the province ungovernable, and the African National Congress (ANC) who are trying to cover up their own internal fractures by finding a common enemy in the Democratic Alliance-led government. And the DA-led government has played into their hands with a one-size-fits-all service delivery solution that reinforces their reputation for being autocratic and unsympathetic to the poor people.

The flip side of this dynamic is evident in Mpumalanga, except in this case the agitators and stirrers are part of the ANC alliance and even come from within the ANC itself. Few protests in Mpumalanga are about service, even though its service delivery record is appalling. Most of Mpumalanga’s protests are driven by intra-party rivalry and access to lucrative tenders, not to mention the antagonism between the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC in the province. Mpumalanga, like North West, is so corrupt that it has become a full-time job for most government officials and politicians to protect their turf. Violent protests in these two provinces’ urban centres, therefore, are made up of rent-a-crowd disgruntled citizens (of which there is no shortage), deliberately mobilised as part of a political strategy. The rural peacefulness, apart from the odd protest about water or jobs, can possibly be attributed to low expectations, similar to other depressed provinces such as Limpopo and North West (not to mention the ruling party’s iron grip on rural communities through social grants).

There will also be fewer protests in rural areas where there are strong cultures of traditional leadership. The reason for this is twofold: tribal authorities and tribal courts provide an escape valve for frustrations, while traditional leaders have grown up with their communities and can identify troublemakers at a glance. There is no anonymity in the platteland! This has a powerful effect on protest, and explains also why informal settlements, with their fractured history and unsettled lack of roots, can so easily catch fire.

A special mention of housing protests: there are four times more protests over housing than any other service. But this is not because people are more desperate for shelter, it is because a house, unlike other basic essential services such as water and electricity, can be turned into income. A free RDP house can be rented out while the owner puts his name down for another one. Housing, therefore, is a hot commodity, it is more sought-after than any other service.

The other side of the housing coin is where protests are actively designed to prevent the provision of houses. This is how it works: a group of people would invade a piece of land and carve out erfs for themselves. Anyone coming in after that will be rented a small slice of land to build a shack, thereby creating ‘shacklords’ who earn a tidy income from up to 10 tenant families on one plot. In time these ‘shacklords’ will start agitating for services. By ‘providing services’ they can hike their rents. There is never any intention of paying service income to the municipality, and usually the local councilor takes his or her cut. The last thing these ‘shacklords’ want is a housing scheme. So they will resist government efforts to build formal housing.

Another type of protest is over employment. These are taking place because communities know about an infrastructure project in their area – roads, wastewater, housing, etc. They will agitate because they know that the tender was given fraudulently, and that they will not be employed on this project, even if it happens at all.

According to the Barometer, protests have also become more violent. Whereas in 2007 around half the protests turned violent, in 2014 more than 80% resulted in intimidation, looting, burning and damage to property. There is no mystery to this. Protests have followed a predictable pattern: residents know that it is their Constitutional right to march, so they do so. This usually comes to nothing. They march a few times more, and then, one day, anger boils over and they become violent. Things burn, the police are called, the TV cameras turn up. The march is now all over the news, and the local government – finally – listens to what the people have to say.

Violence works, say communities, it is the only thing the government listens to.

And so, if violence is heard, then severe violence will be more definitely heard. The violence of protests is a direct result of a lack of response from local government. This has now created the culture of going directly to violent protest instead of going through the run-up phase of petitions and marches.

With 2016 local government elections not so far away, the number and intensity of public protests is bound to increase. Added to the mix is the likelihood of protests over candidates’ lists and party positions. The flawed election process within the ANC causes politically motivated protests around elections – both of party officials and candidates – and within opposition parties built using the ANC template.

Within the ANC, candidates and officials are nominated and elected by branches. On paper, this is supposed to be democratic. In reality, though, it is a recipe for corruption. A position in politics is a way to wealth. Therefore, starting from branch level, crooked candidates will buy votes, either with bribes or with promises of jobs and tenders. As they rise higher in the hierarchy, through regional and then provincial positions, they need to pay off more and more people. Along the way they will beat off their rivals with any means possible, whether through stirring up protests, dirty tricks, misinformation, intimidation, or murder. An adroit manipulator can eventually reach a position where they are so welded into place by this chain of patronage that they are immoveable. Repeated community protests calling for the removal of this person will be useless.

As 2016 approaches, protests are going to become more widespread and more violent. There will be more reason to protest, and more people willing to be part of a protest. We are in for a bumpy ride. DM

Photo: A man gestures to the police (not in picture) during violent service delivery protests in Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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