You only listen when I'm violent

For desperate communities in South Africa, violence often seems like the only way to have their demands taken seriously.

Violent protest action in South Africa has led to more than a billion rands of damage to state and private infrastructure in recent months. Last week, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said that student protests in the #FeesMustFall campaign led to property damage of over R460 million at universities since October 2015.

Public violence can also result in injury and on occasion, death – as seen in the recent Hammanskraal demonstrations, where two private security employees were killed. According to News24, violence erupted when employees from a private security company, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Tshwane Metro Police arrived to demolish shacks and evict people. The deaths occurred when community members retaliated.

In May, 29 schools and several government buildings were destroyed during violent demonstrations in Vuwani and surrounding areas in Limpopo. The Education Department estimated the damage to the schools to be over R500 million. The protests followed a decision by the Municipal Demarcation Board to incorporate Vuwani and surrounding areas into the new Malamulele municipality.

The roots of violent protest can be traced to South Africa's fractured history

The cost of protest violence is not just financial, but can also have dire social consequences. At the end of May, many matric students in the Vuwani area heard that they would not be able to write mid-year exams because it is not yet deemed safe for schooling to commence. 

Economic activity in the area has also been affected, with local businesses and public transport only operating between Friday and Sunday more than a month after violent protests erupted. 

The inter-ministerial task team led by State Security Minister David Mahlobo has not yielded results as the community continues to resist the demarcation. The matter will now appear before the Constitutional Court after the community lost their High Court case against the Demarcation Board. Given the damage caused during such protests, a key question is why protestors become so violent and destructive? 

A researcher from the Institute for Security Studies held informal interviews with Vuwani community members and leaders including young people and teachers at the end of May. Most interviewees indicated that they would not stop their protest action until the Municipal Demarcation Board reverses its decision to include them in the new municipality. They also demand the release of community members arrested during the violence, and an end to the heavy police presence and what they termed ‘harassment’.

Many community and traditional leaders, including the King of VhaVenda, Thovhele Vho-Mphephu Toni Ramabulana, have condemned the violence but continue to support the protests. On the other hand, many students and unemployed young people in the area openly support the violence and damage to property.

Many people believe that it is because of violent protests that other communities have achieved their objectives. For example, it is believed that the use of violence resulted in the government giving in to demands by the citizens of Malamulele for a new municipality. (This is the same municipality that residents of Vuwani and surrounding areas are now resisting being incorporated into.)

Peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy democracy with active citizenry

Vuwani provides a glimpse of the complex nature of public violence in South Africa. Many people still believe that the best way to resolve conflict or disagreements is through the use of violence. The roots can be traced to South Africa’s fractured history; and the problem continues due to persistent social and economic problems.

There are approaches to reduce the likelihood of protests becoming violent. Most importantly, government officials must welcome and respect peaceful protests and recognise that the right to protest is constitutionally protected and a legitimate form of political participation or expression.

Peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy democracy with active citizenry. Furthermore, grievances should be viewed as legitimate and taken seriously without protestors having to resort to violence, especially by the agency against which they are directed. If this is done, much of the violence can be prevented.

It is often the negative reaction to the idea of protests – peaceful or not – that creates the groundwork for violence. The triggers that catapult a peaceful event into violence are usually found in the actions or inactions of the parties most closely linked to the situation. These include the aggrieved group, its organisers, the targeted institution (such as a municipality) and the law enforcers on the scene.

For many communities, a grievance related to service delivery would not have emerged in the first place had they been consulted in a meaningful way by those tasked with providing the services. This means that the first and most important role player is the main recipient of the grievance, such as a local municipality.

When a community feels a government department has failed to respond or meaningfully engage with their demands, this leads to an increased sense of disempowerment, frustration and ultimately anger. This can exacerbate existing trauma, stress and discontent.

A useful framework for understanding the drivers of violence is the so-called socio-ecological model, which outlines several inter-related risk factors. These include individual traits and experiences, mixed with family, community and societal realities. Among the latter are factors like poverty, inequality, socio-economic isolation and uneven development. These are especially pronounced in the context of collective trauma, extreme marginalisation and pre-existing political divisions.

In some instances, political leaders use community frustrations to mobilise supporters

Recent studies – such as a 2011 report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) – indicate that in some instances, political leaders use community frustrations to mobilise supporters. The study suggests that leaders’ true motivation is often political or economic gain, such as access to positions of power or ‘lucrative council business’.

As was seen in Vuwani and Hammanskraal, the police – and especially the public order policing units – are usually called in to control a rowdy crowd. The police inevitably become the face of a non-responsive government, and the public order policing units with their riot gear spark memories of the apartheid police force at the frontline of state oppression.

In some cases, police respond with disproportionate force, arresting people or intervening too quickly with the use of rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas. As in the case of Hammanskraal, it is not just the SAPS, but also metropolitan police and private security companies that need to be monitored and held accountable. These law enforcement interventions often increase tensions and further erode trust in the police and the government.

The most likely scenario for violence is therefore one where government officials are largely unresponsive and the community is desperate and intensely frustrated. As described above, this can then be exploited by political opportunists, and made worse by reactive and overly aggressive law enforcement agencies.

The specific drivers for violent protests need to be studied in detail. Understanding how violence is triggered and how best to prevent this requires greater cooperation between researchers, civil society and state agencies such as local government and the SAPS. Only then can instances of violence be anticipated, and appropriate interventions developed to reduce and prevent it from occurring.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager: Crime and Justice Information Hub; and Godfrey Mulaudzi, Research Intern, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

For more on this topic, read the author’s recent paper: At the heart of discontent: measuring public violence in South Africa.

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