The Reasons Behind Service Delivery Protests in South Africa


29 July 2009: The Reasons Behind Service Delivery Protests in South Africa


Over the past few weeks South Africa experienced a wave of protest action across most provinces. According to ANC spokesperson Jesse Duarte there have been protests in ‘only’ 14 of the 283 municipalities, but other sources put the figure at more than twenty. The strike this week by municipal workers raises fears that dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery may further increase and that this might see a spread in protest action. Many of these protests have also turned violent and there are indications that criminals are exploiting the situation. Incidents of apparent xenophobia were also reported. Groups of foreigners, fearing the kind of attacks that saw 60 foreigners killed in 2008, are again seeking shelter at police stations. In a number of places the police had to use force to stabilise the situation and to restore order. Police action included arrests for looting, public violence and various other crimes.

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Many reasons for these protests are offered. The primary reason, it would appear, is dissatisfaction with the delivery of basic municipal services such as running water, electricity and toilets, especially in informal settlements. Unemployment (officially at around 23%), high levels of poverty, poor infrastructure, and the lack of houses add to the growing dissatisfaction in these and other poor communities. This comes in the wake of political promises during the election period that all or most of these issues will be addressed once the new government is in place. According to some protesters this has been a recurring theme with every elections since 1994. To some extent this claim is supported in an article in 2005 by Prof Nico le Roux from the School of Public Management and Administration at the University of Pretoria, in which he reminds us that the 2004 elections were followed by similar demonstrations in 21 local communities in different parts of the country and for precisely the same reasons. In this regard it is perhaps also worth considering the fact that the South African elections normally takes place in the April/May period, immediately before winter when its harsh realities exacerbate the absence of life’s immediate necessities.


A number of other reasons for or causes of the public protests are also provided. These include allegations of rampant corruption and nepotism within local government structures. Some protesters blame poor service delivery on the deployment of ANC ‘comrades’ to positions for which they are not qualified. The Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, speaking to the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) in East London on Wednesday (22 April), admitted that ‘many of our municipalities are in a state of paralysis and dysfunction’. According to the Minister, local government is perceived to be incompetent, disorganised and ‘riddled with corruption and maladministration’. He indicated that, if what they found in North West Province is indicative of the state of municipalities elsewhere in the country, there might be a need to declare a ‘national state of emergency’ on local government.


It is necessary, at this stage, to consider the nature and implications of these service delivery protests against allegations of third force involvement and concerns over its revolutionary potential. So far, no evidence of a third force could be produced, but it may still be useful to consider the revolutionary potential of widespread public discontent and violent acts of protest. James Davies, an American sociologist, in a 1962 article titled ‘Towards a Theory of Revolution’ theorised about rising expectations and the likelihood of armed conflict. His theory became known as the Davies J-curve, a model that attempts to explain the position where the pace of an individual’s reality is not in keeping with his/her expectations about how much better off he/she should be. Normally the individual's situation is not so bad that it leads either to conflict or to frustration, but when there is a sudden downturn (e.g. in the economy) a major gap is created between expectations and reality, resulting in frustration and discontent. According to Davies’ theory of relative deprivation these frustrated expectations are a cause of social unrest and increases the potential for political unrest. It also helps to overcome the collective action problem, which may breed revolt. ‘Revolt’ is defined as an attempt to fundamentally change an organizational structure in a relatively short period.


Other sociologists such as Ted Gurr agree that the primary cause for revolution is the widespread frustration with the socio-political situation in a particular country. In his book titled Why men rebel, published in 1970, he supports the ‘frustration-aggression’ theory that explains the violence often accompanying the expression of frustration. The more intense and prolonged the frustration, the greater the probability of aggression. He also argues that the intensity and scope of relative deprivation determines the potential for collective violence and concludes that frustration-aggression is the ‘primary source of the human capacity for violence’.


At this stage it would probably be accurate to describe the fairly limited scope of current service delivery protests in South Africa as symptoms only of socio-political instability. However, it would be fair to conclude that if this situation is allowed to continue over a prolonged period it has the potential to spread and develop into a fully-fledged revolt. Therefore, although it is important for the police to maintain order and to enforce the law, the solution to the problem does not lie in policing but much rather in speedy solutions to the socio-economic conditions that prevail in many communities. Urgent interventions in relation to the conditions that bedevil the efficient and effective functioning and service delivery of municipalities are crucial. Finally, politicians – especially those who are fairly certain that they will be appointed to government positions after elections - need to take much more responsibility for the promises they make and the expectations they create.


Dr Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime, Justice and Politics Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)

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