Improving governance is key to ending violent protests in South Africa


While President Jacob Zuma affirmed the right of the people of South Africa to ‘protest in a peaceful and orderly manner’ in his State of the Nation address, he also stated that he had issued instructions to the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster to ensure the speedy investigation and prosecution of violent protests. Glaringly missing from these remarks was an acknowledgement of some of the deep-seated causes of violent public protests such as those experienced in Sasolburg in the Free State earlier in the year. Often the underlying causes of violent public protests are complex and addressing them in a sustainable manner requires an understanding of these causes.

The authors of a report titled ‘The smoke that calls: insurgent citizenship, collective violence and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa’ argued that violent public protests emanated from community frustrations. In this report, young unemployed men confronted by bleak employment opportunities were identified as the main ‘instigators’ of the protests. The broad causes of public violence were identified as marginalisation, lack of community representation and lack of economic and social citizenship. These factors propelled communities to acts of violence as an expression of their frustration.

When individuals do not possess the economic means to survive they are likely to feel alienated. Those who can access economic and social goods are more likely to feel that they ‘belong’ than those who cannot. Poor and unemployed individuals are also more Iikely to live in areas where basic services are inadequate, which further heightens the possibility of confrontation with various levels of state authority in the form of service delivery protests aimed at the state. These disempowered individuals may resort to violent public protests as a means of forcing the state to listen to them. The provision of employment opportunities in South Africa, particularly for the youth, is crucial in lowering the level of frustration in communities and so driving down the incidence of violent public protests.

Data from the most recent census strongly suggests that a considerable segment of the South African population is young and unemployed. The census shows that some 1,32 million youths between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed and 417 000 have given up looking for employment. This illustrates the extent of the unemployment problem in the country. Energising the sluggish South African economy should be foremost in the minds of the country’s leaders. However, in his State of the Nation address the President stated that the gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast for 2013 was expected to average at 2,5%, down from 3,1% in 2012. Further, he indicated that only with a growth rate in excess of 5% would the South African economy be able to create the much-needed jobs.

The National Development Plan (NDP), which received widespread support from a diversity of stakeholders, including parliamentarians from different political formations, has been positioned as being key to the growth of the South African economy and to tackling challenges such as unemployment, poverty and inequality. Successfully implementing the NDP requires, for instance, a cohort of qualified managers and accountants in the public sector, as noted by Minister for Planning in the Presidency Trevor Manuel in his briefing to Parliament on 19 February. It remains to be seen whether the broad ambitions of the NDP will have been achieved by the target year of 2030. However, it is not unreasonable to state that appointing competent individuals to managerial posts, for example in municipalities, should lead to an improvement in the quality of service delivery and consequently lessen frustration in local communities. Arguably, this may restore communities’ trust in the government.

There are several examples of countries across the globe, including South Korea and Singapore, that have managed to reduce poverty and create booming economies through ensuring that qualified, skilled people are employed and promoted in government departments. South Africans can learn from their success. Sociologist Peter Evans in his book Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation argues that well-run state bureaucracies have the ability to quicken the pace of industrial development. The initial analysis of economic performance data from 35 countries found a strong relationship between robust bureaucracies and solid economic performance. At the lower end of the efficiency scale were countries such as Ecuador, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where poor economic performance was linked to disorganised state bureaucracies. For Evans, successful development requires capable, ‘coherent bureaucracies’ characterised by ‘meritocratic recruitment, long-term career rewards, and high morale’.

Manuel and Lindiwe Sisulu, who heads the public service and administration ministry, have agreed that there should be minimum standards for top appointments in government. They also announced that public servants would be banned from conducting private business with government departments and that the Department of Public Service and Administration would be strengthened to investigate fraud and corruption and deal with disciplinary concerns. These plans, if effectively implemented, should play a central role in ensuring that better services are delivered to the people of South Africa. A more coherent state bureaucracy that is not anchored in patronage and corruption is key to the realisation of the vision of the NDP. It remains essential for the leadership of the country to urgently tackle the scourge of corruption, starting at the top echelons of the ruling party and the government; discard the policy of deploying loyal cadres to key posts in government without regard to their integrity or ability to ensure that services are delivered; and commission applied research into youth unemployment.

Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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