Public violence in South Africa: what are the causes, and what does it mean for policing?


Over the past few years, South Africa has experienced an increase in the number of instances of public violence. There has been a disparate reaction to this increase. Political leaders have warned that they will crack down on violent public protests, while the police have raised concerns that these incidents divert resources away from their crime prevention efforts.

The seminar explored public violence, reflecting on how this phenomenon is understood, what the underlying causes are, and what it means for policing in South Africa.

The first speaker was Dr Johan Burger (Download Johan Burger's presentation), ISS Senior Researcher and retired major-general with 36 years of experience as a police officer, including public order policing. The other speakers were Ebrahim Fakir (Download Ebrahim Fakir's speaking notes), Manager of Governance Institutions and Processes at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa; and Professor Peter Alexander (Download Peter Alexander's presentation), Chair of the Social Change Research Unit and professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg.

Burger indicated that violent or unrest-related incidents have more than tripled in six years. However, the number of Public Order Policing (POP) units and trained members has decreased significantly in this period. In 2006, 43 POP units – consisting of a total of 7 227 trained members – were in operation. However, there were only 27 fully functional units, consisting of 4 700 trained, members to respond to the 1 884 public violent incidents that occurred in 2012/13.

He warned that the implications for the police are dire, as they become the face of government for communities angered by the failure of other governmental departments. These protests also lead to policing resources being directed away from other responsibilities such as crime combating operations, and have a negative impact on the morale of many policemen and women.

Alexander presented a summary of the findings of the University of Johannesburg research on 2 020 protests recorded until November 2013. The findings showed that a process of formal ‘claim making’ and peaceful protests often precede disruptive protests. The anger and frustration of communities stem from perceived broken promises and the lack of a meaningful response from government. The research also highlighted that police action sometimes provokes violence.

Fakir brought a different perspective to the discussion by looking at the triggers of community protests in terms of state-civil society relationships. He concluded that the political legitimacy of locally elected leaders is low and declining further, and the credibility of national government decisions is increasingly called into question. He said that the ability of ‘facilitative’ and ‘consultative’ leadership through citizen consent is in peril, explaining that: ‘Increasingly, it appears that government (the system of execution of policy, administration and management) and governance (the relationship between those who are meant to govern and those who are governed) can only be maintained through coercion.’

The seminar was chaired by Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, researcher in the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at the ISS, who used the opportunity to demonstrate the public violence map on the Crime and Justice Hub website and the related social media to participants. The event was attended by approximately 45 participants including academics, researchers, business people, embassy officials and members of the public.

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