South Africa

The Civic Protest Barometer, Episode Four: Who takes part in public protests?

By Niki Moore 20 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.

Television or newspaper pictures of public violence and protests usually show groups of excited young people, mugging for the camera as they throw stones or swing burning tyres. And it is unfortunately true that there are usually large groups of young people, unemployed and unemployable, in all townships and informal settlements, that have nothing to do. It’s extremely easy to whip these groups up into protest and violence. Sociological studies have shown that violence is extremely empowering to frustrated and aimless individuals – it gives them a sense of mastery over something, even if it is just a burning bus. Add to this the satisfaction of helping yourself to the goods in a looted store, and voila – a rent-a-mob is available on every street corner.

But it is not these aimless young people who are the cause of violent protests: protests have to have an organiser or an agitator. It is a truism that there is no such thing as a completely spontaneous protest. Any protest has to coalesce around an individual or a group of individuals. Someone has to tell people what to do and where to go. A small angry group might gather together spontaneously, but it takes an individual to direct this anger into protest. It is the motive and the agenda of this individual or group that will determine what kind of protest one is going to have.

The most benign motivator is the genuine community activist. These are people who have grown up in a community, understand the hopes and aspirations of their community, and are hurt and angry at the fact that expectations are not being met. These are the ones who will begin with the legitimate marches, who will obey the rules, and who will get nowhere. These are also the outspoken ones who are usually targeted for intimidation or harassment by the local council or the police. They might have large followings in their communities, and are usually the spokespeople for grievances. The protests that they oversee are usually the genuine service delivery protests – the type that have been sparked by an event: water cut-offs for days; the death of an infant from dirty water; an electrocution from an illegal electricity connection. In these protests, you would usually see a demographic spread across age and gender. This is the community, on the march.

There is also the not-so-benign community activist, and there are many of those as well. These are the people who will lead the protest when the government tries to undo the entitlement of the recent past, tries to persuade people to start paying for services, or to obey the law. When pre-paid meters are installed, or illegal electricity connections are disconnected, or illegal shacks are demolished after notice has been served, these agitators will lead the protests. It is very likely that these protests will turn violent. These are dangerous protests, because they break the law to protect the lawbreakers. These are also morally murky protests, because on the one hand the poor have been promised the right to demand the things promised to them in the Constitution, but on the other hand providing everything for free is unsustainable. There are fine lines here between social justice and harsh fiscal reality.

Then there are the people who will stir up trouble to further their own agenda. This is, unfortunately, more prevalent than it might appear. Their motive might be to discredit a political rival, protect their business interests, or show some strong-arm tactics as a bargaining chip. There are community leaders who actually blackmail government in the form of a protection racket: they demand money or privileges in exchange for peace and quiet. If the payment is not forthcoming, they will whip up a mob to loot and burn. The incidence of manipulated protest is directly connected to the political dynamics of an area. It is particularly prevalent in areas ruled by political warlords.

In the Western Cape, the ANCYL declared in a public statement in 2012 that they would make the city ungovernable. Since then, a number of violent protests have largely been aimed at destruction of property and disruption of city activities. In many cases, such as the recent protests at the N2 Gateway housing project, there does not appear to be any motive apart from preventing the city from delivering houses. This has become true in many informal settlements and townships in Cape Town: the ANC appears to have hampered delivery because they do not want the DA to take credit for good governance. But the Cape Town protests are not purely about civic groups like Ses’kona and the ANC ungovernability campaign, there is a large part being played by the dysfunction within the party itself. Political rivals will whip up protests as a show of force. Also, the steady stream of immigrants from the Eastern Cape has created a cut-throat competition for services: an earlier group will fight off a later group of claimants, destroying infrastructure in the process.

Recently, in places like for instance Lenasia and Khayelitsha, what may look like service delivery protests are actually turf wars between two groups vying for services, usually housing or jobs. Public violence can also be a form of community vigilantism. Residents from a suburb or formal housing project may set out to confront a group of protesters from a neighbouring informal settlement – the have-a-littles versus the have-nothings. The overriding motive seems to be to prevent protesters from damaging private property, but unfortunately it often has the opposite effect.

Opposition parties (with the possible exception of the EFF) are seldom involved in violent public protest. They start off with sedate and disciplined marches – they are still trying to exercise democracy as it is set out in law. They are unlikely to turn to violence in the short term, but as the pressure ratchets up towards the local government elections, this might change.

Investigation into case studies of violent protests show that at the moment it is usually ANC supporters or alliance partners who are the most likely to take part in violent public protests. While many of the protests might be about service delivery they are also about party politics, getting publicity, intra-party faction fights, squabbles over jobs and tenders, political strong-arming, attempts to discredit a rival, or dissatisfaction with political positions (most especially around election candidates lists). With the EFF becoming part of a fairly toxic mix, violence is only going to increase as EFF supporters invade land and protest in order to gain more publicity.

Even though we have a culture of robust democracy, there is absolutely no reason for marches and protests to be violent. The fact that they are, and that the violence is increasing and becoming more indiscriminate, shows a complete failure of governance. South Africa has extremely progressive laws that protect citizen’s rights at every level – the right to protest is carved into our Constitution. So why do mobs need to take to the streets?

The answer lies in the lack of accountability by public officials. If, for instance, a community felt aggrieved by a lack of, say, water, they could direct a complaint through their ward committee and their councillor. Problem one is that councillors do not feel beholden to their wards. Ward committees are created simply to tick the box and furnish a stipend to party supporters. Usually they don’t function.

So the community organises a march and hands over a memorandum. The Municipal Systems Act is very clear about the process: there is a strict timeframe and a clear set of instructions. Citizens are allowed to hold their councillors and local government to account (the Municipal Systems Act is very specific on this): however, if their efforts are ignored (as they invariably are), then the citizens have to go to court. This is often too expensive and too intimidating for the average person. And even when people scrape up the funds and win a court case, usually the official concerned simply ignores the ruling.

Ironically, the citizen pays for the court action out of his own pocket, while the offending council official has the deep pockets of the taxpayer-funded council behind him. Even when the court orders the council official to pay the costs of the action personally, such as happened in North West last year, the official just ignores the injunction and pays from municipal funds. If contempt of court became a fire-able offence, many seats in municipal chambers would be empty. It is an unfortunate truth that, in local government, the good guys come last.

There is, really, absolutely no political will to do anything about corrupt or incompetent officials. A municipality might be placed under administration and might perform better for a few months, but when the administrator has gone (after earning a massive salary while the officials he is replacing continue to earn their daily crust), things just return to ‘normal’. Even if, by some miracle, an official is dismissed, he or she will be eased sideways into another job where he or she can continue playing political games.

This is a long way of saying that protests happen because the democratic system is broken. The people who wrote our Acts envisaged honest, competent public officials who would obey the law. They predicted active communities who would work for the common good. They included checks and balances that they fondly expected would be observed. I don’t think anyone envisaged the rampant self-interest and corruption that did, in fact, occur. It cannot be overstated how crucial the role of corruption is in violent public protest.

Every day so far this year there has been at least one, if not more, violent public protests. There is an urgent need to develop a strategy around this that does not depend solely on policing. There is nothing wrong with our laws, they are simply not being obeyed or implemented, and that, unfortunately, is the failure of political accountability. DM

Photo: Rioters throw stones during a protest at the Phomolong informal settlement, outside Pretoria, March 23, 2010. Reuters/Stringer

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