South Africa

The Civic Protest Barometer, Episode Two: So, what is a public protest?

By Niki Moore 17 March 2015

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 feature 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 conclusions that attempt to contextualise public protests are entirely my own and are, by necessity, often generalisations.

Management experts will tell you that you cannot manage something unless you can measure it. But to measure it, you need to know what it is you are measuring.

The biggest problem with the South African version of public violence is that there is no real definition of what it is. Every protest is different. Some of them are pure demonstrations of civic unhappiness with poor service (and complicating things even further is the fact that a community might march on a municipality about housing, when housing is actually a function of national government). Some are politically motivated – and that is worth a category all of its own. Some are instigated by community organisations, some by political factions, some by government itself (in the form of alliance partners such as unions or the South African Communist Party; there’s irony for you).

Is a three-day illegal bus drivers’ strike with intimidation of workers the same as a spontaneous uprising in a squatter camp that blocks off a road and sees protestors stone cars for two hours? Is a march that starts peacefully but erupts into violence the same as a mob setting out to burn down a municipal office?

A starting point, perhaps, is to look at the different types of protest action and their usual outcome. There is, for instance, a huge difference between a march and a protest. A march usually begins with a desired outcome, it is normally peaceful, it is organised by means of open meetings, it requests permission according to the rules, it has a starting point and a finishing point, and usually culminates in the handover of a memorandum to an official. This is the type of citizen activism that is protected by in our Constitution, allowed for in our laws, and encouraged as a means of community participation in government. It is also, unfortunately, usually completely and utterly useless, as not one iota of notice has ever been taken of community grievances delivered peacefully through a memorandum.

The next type of protest therefore, in descending order, is the march that starts peacefully but then degenerates into violence. This is invariably because previous peaceful marches have come to nothing, and the members of the march are now becoming frustrated and angry. They are also marching in the expectation that, once again, it will be a wasted effort. But they are marching because they do not know what else to do. So they start off, wanting to be peaceful, but quite happy to make trouble if the need arises.

And the catalyst for violence here can be one of many things. The march can be thwarted in some way – either the police try to obstruct the marchers or divert them. Perhaps a key organiser does not turn up and then there are a few hundred people all dressed up with nowhere to go. Perhaps the designated official is not there to meet them. Or there are criminally minded individuals who want to cause mayhem in the hope of some looting or vandalism. There might be an agitator in the crowd with his own agenda. Maybe the police take some pre-emptive action by arresting a ringleader, or appearing to act heavy-handedly. (The police mandate in terms of public order policing is to protect property. There is little leeway for police to negotiate or assist the marchers instead of confronting them. There have been instances where a levelheaded policeman – acting on his own initiative – has dissipated tension and avoided violence, instead of just ‘following orders’).

There can also be external catalysts for violence. Who can forget the Democratic Alliance (DA) march in Johannesburg almost exactly a year ago that came close to being attacked by a gang of brick-wielding African National Congress (ANC) supporters? Lenasia has been the scene of residents who have clashed with protesters from the nearby squatter camp in an attempt to divert a protest away from their own properties. Cape Town has seen protests instigated by rival groups within informal communities who want sole access to services.

Perhaps, as we have already so tragically seen this year, the march goes past shops owned by foreign nationals who might already be resented by local shopkeepers for being successful. It is therefore quite easy to direct the anger of the crowd towards these bystanders. Every march, additionally, swirls with wild rumours that can easily inflame a crowd. All it takes is one single threatening act or aggression, by one individual, for the anger to spill over and the mob mentality to ignite.

The next kind of protest is the one that appears to erupt spontaneously as a result of some catalyst within the community. These protests are never as spontaneous as they appear, though. Usually anger and frustration has been brewing for a long time. There will have been many community meetings around issues such as lack of water, sanitation, electricity, schooling, and health services. Formal lines of complaint have most likely been ignored. There will have been plenty of anger expressed on the street, in terms of disgruntled citizens complaining about the hardships they face every day. A generally unhappy, aimless, under-educated and under-employed community is a powder keg waiting for a match. And there are many people eager to strike a light.

Catalysts for violent ‘spontaneous’ protest vary. There can be a community tragedy, such as a sudden and unexplained sickness or death. Water or power cuts will get people on the streets. Perhaps a government office – such as a clinic, home affairs, or social grant payout point – is unexpectedly and mysteriously closed. It can be a perceived act of provocation, such as a municipality installing pre-paid meters, or the Red Ants breaking down illegal shacks. There are also more sinister motives for violent protests. They can be instigated by politicians keen to discredit their rivals, or to cover up corruption. Agent provocateurs can whip up unrest quite easily in disgruntled communities through spreading rumour and lies. Taxi drivers and owners are quite capable of using public protests to cause damage to rival taxi organisations, or even to bus services that threaten their livelihood.

The worst kind of protest – and one that we are now seeing more often – is the protest that resolves right from the beginning to be violent. It makes no attempt to request permission, or follow an orderly route, or resolve an issue, or reach a result. It is a group of people who set out to smash, loot and burn. Very often there is no real reason or definite grievance, just a general vexation at life. Very often these are the protests led by people with ulterior motives.

And while no link can be drawn between the militant rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and many of these protests, it is perhaps notable that these protests have increased along with the rise of the EFF. Regional organisers of the EFF, who are usually polite, well-educated and well-mannered youngsters, will claim that they are only riding on the wave of popular dissatisfaction and are not responsible for it. That may be true. But there are also some cases where the EFF has vowed to encourage civil disobedience, as has the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in the Western Cape.

But whether the EFF and the ANCYL are leading the revolt or following it, there is a definite increase in political aggression, a trend towards lawlessness, and strident militant declarations of revolution that have raised the political temperature.

Our laws state clearly and unequivocally that we are allowed to protest, that there are ways to do so, and that government is compelled to take note of them. But what can a population do when the government that made those laws is so bad at keeping them?

Is this the beginning of our very own ‘Peasant’s Revolt’, as some commentators have warned? At the moment our protests are too small-scale, too sporadic and too complicated in their origin to lead to an ‘Arab Spring’. There is one element that could unite these protests into a general countrywide uprising, and that will be discussed later. But while they increase and proliferate, violent protests can make life for everyone in this country very uncomfortable indeed. DM

Photo: Protesters flee from the police during violent service delivery protests in Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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