Is protest the only way to achieve change?

Protests, especially involving violence, are becoming the only effective means of political participation in South Africa.

Violent protests in Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and surrounding areas in the south of Johannesburg and in Coligny in North West province have made headlines over the past few weeks. They add to the pot of public unrest that seems to occupy a permanent spot in South Africa’s news.

From January to the end of April 2017, the ISS Public Violence Monitor recorded at least 261 major protests across the country – a 50% increase in the number of incidents over the same period last year. This tally could rise as winter approaches tightens its grip and conditions for the country’s poor get worse.

Housing backlogs and uneven allocation of homes were at the heart of the recent protests in Johannesburg, where roads were barricaded, shops looted and a primary school almost burnt down. In Coligny, four houses were set alight at the end of April in what appeared to be retaliation by community members. This came after two farm employees were granted bail after being charged with the murder of 16-year-old Matlhomola Moshoeu.

While these events seem unrelated, at their core are perceptions that certain groups have unfair and uneven access to economic opportunities and government services. As senior lecturer Dr Musawenkosi Ndlovu points out in his 10 May opinion piece ‘We are all Coligny’: ‘Where you have inequality, daily frustrations and discrimination, you are bound to have violence.’

Most South Africans are poor and are getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of improvement in their lives. Years of empty promises from politicians are starting to change the way many communities choose to engage with the political elite who are meant to represent them.

Ad hoc promises and agreements can contribute to more demands and more violence

Public protests, particularly when coupled with violence, increasingly seem to be the only effective means of political participation. Professor Susan Booysen in her 2007 article ‘With the ballot and the brick’ in the journal Progress in Development Studies, notes that ‘voting helps but protest works.’

After 23 years of democracy, many South Africans have given up on voting. More than half of eligible voters didn’t vote in the 2016 municipal elections. Many communities feel forgotten by the state as they struggle with high levels of unemployment, poverty and access to government services. And the deep inequality between those who benefit from the economy and those who don’t is exacerbating anger. This remains a catalyst for many protests.

The ISS has been monitoring all forms of social protests since 2013 and has recorded the details of 2 715 incidents. This doesn’t represent the actual number of protests as the monitor can only identify those covered in 100 media sources. 

This year’s figures show an average of more than two protests a day, similar to the record-high levels of 2014 when the last national election took place.

Since 2013, the ISS Public Violence Monitor has found that more than half of all protests reported escalated into violence. So far this year, 54% have become violent – which is lower than the approximately two thirds that turned violent in 2016 and 2015.

Many believe violence is the best way to get those with authority to respond to their grievances. But protests rarely start out with violence – instead they escalate into violence as people’s frustrations increase.

Formal ways of registering problems such as writing letters, or trying to meet public representatives or state officials, have usually been tried and have failed before violence erupts. Sometimes protests are not approved by the municipality against which the grievance is directed. 

When a frustrated community gathers without permission to register their grievance, they are met by the police, which is often what sparks violent incidents like stone throwing or damage to property. The resulting chaos provides opportunities for petty criminals to loot shops and steal from hawkers.

Frustration builds too when the police are used by political leaders to convey their political messages. On 9 March in Pretoria the police refused anti-xenophobia protesters the right to hand over their memorandum to the Presidency. The peaceful protesters became agitated when police managers told them they did not have permission to march to the Union Buildings and turned them away at the gates.

But violence can be effective and provoke action from leaders. For example on 14 May Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Gauteng Human Settlements MEC Paul Mashatile and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba visited the protesting communities near Ennerdale. Promises were made of new housing projects and other developments to start in the area as soon as next month.

Protests in Vuwani in Limpopo over municipal demarcation resulted in President Jacob Zuma meeting with the Pro-Makhado Task Team, traditional leaders, churches and other role players on 7 May to try to settle the dispute. The agreement reached implies that services to Vuwani will now rest with Vhembe District Municipality.

Years of empty promises are changing the way people engage with their leaders

While responses to violent action can therefore be positive, these ad hoc promises and agreements made outside recognised and coordinated government processes also contribute to heightened expectations by communities. This in turn can lead to more demands and more violence if these demands are not met.

For as long as most South Africans are trapped in poverty and inequality without tangible prospects for a better life, protests will persist. And as long as the government is seen as unresponsive and uncaring, and lacks comprehensive violence-prevention programmes, the violence will continue.

The government must prioritise job creation and programmes that will result in inclusive economic growth. This requires a strong accountable leadership to fast-track the implementation of recommendations contained in government’s 2012 National Development Plan.

The solution does not lie with populist quick-fixes and the empty rhetoric that currently dominate our political landscape.

Lizette Lancaster, Crime Hub Manager and Lindelani Godfrey Mulaudzi, Research Assistant, Institute for Security Studies

For maps of protest and public violence incidents, click here.

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