South Africa’s protest culture in numbers
Crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) in September 2013 showed that between April 2012 and March 2013, police responded to 12,399 incidents of public unrest. ‘Public unrest’ in these instances was described as, but not limited to, marches, demonstrations and rallies not sanctioned by police or municipal authorities. Of the 12,399 incidents recorded, 10,517 were regarded as ‘peaceful’, meaning that 1,882 of the recorded incidents were defined as violent ‘public-order policing incidents’; in 2009, statistics put that figure at 1,014. This represents an increase of 85% when comparing 2008/2009’s figures to those of 2012/2013. When divided by all 365 days of the calendar year, this means that police responded to 5 reports of violent public unrest and disturbances to public order every single day in South Africa. Although the number of reported incidents of this nature has grown in the face of widening inequality, persistently high unemployment figures, tensions between workers and employers, and lackluster economic growth (all factors that should worry any government as valid threats to long-term public order and crime levels), it is the phenomenon of ‘service delivery protests’ that has caught the attention of all sectors of society in the country.
South Africa has a long history of civil disobedience and mass action mobilisation being used by its most disadvantaged citizens to bring attention to their plight or message. Nonetheless, the increase of such action and particularly the ever-increasing threat of such events turning deadly is surely a cause for concern. The independent trend monitoring group, Municipal IQ, released a report compiled using information obtained from official police records; these records show that there were 107 protests specifically categorised as motivated by service delivery grievances between the years of 2004 and 2008. However, between March 2009 and August 2013, there were 584 such protests recorded. This represents a more than 500% increase in these incidents between the two time periods. Furthermore, this sharp increase has also highlighted the SAPS’s seeming inability to manage outbreaks of physical violence and damage to property, as an ever-increasing number of citizens have been killed by direct or indirect police action during said protests. As political tensions increase ahead of scheduled general elections in the first half of 2014, so does a growing sense of dissatisfaction among sectors of the population most reliant on basic government services, such as the provision of electricity, water, housing, sanitation and other public infrastructure. In essence, this represents a growing tension between the people and their government, and local officials in particular, ahead of polls. This could impact on the security situation across parts of the country more heavily than any tensions between political parties and their supporters.
In recent weeks, the nature of police engagement with citizens in a number of service delivery protests has been characterised by a high number of injuries and deaths. Although urbanised areas of Gauteng province have been particularly affected by protest action, it should be noted that service delivery demonstrations can and have taken place in a large number of areas across the country both recently and in the past. After several continuous days of protest action between 12 January and 21 January 2014 four people were confirmed dead; the protest involved residents of the outlying Mothotlung and Damonsville settlements, outside of the town of Brits in the North West province, blockading roads with stones and burning tyres. All four deaths were either a result of police firing rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse crowds, or police action in attempts to arrest protesters for public violence. The above-mentioned protests were motivated by a chronic lack of water supply in the suburbs, caused by failing or damaged infrastructure. In addition to these deaths, at least one other person was killed and 15 others arrested on 30 January at the Durban Deep informal settlement, west of Johannesburg, during a protest; two people were killed when residents of the Relela informal settlement in Tzaneen, Limpopo province, marched on 28 January to the local satellite police station to protest against high crime levels and police inefficiency in the area. Including the above-mentioned deaths, it is estimated at least nine people have been killed during clashes with police at various demonstrations around the country. With service delivery protests and concomitant police action during these typically violent and chaotic protests becoming a daily phenomenon, precedence shows that this number is likely to increase in the coming months.
On 13 April, 2011 over 4,000 residents of the town of Ficksburg, in the Free State province, convened to hold a protest over a wide range of issues related to growing dissatisfaction with the provision of public services in the area. Tensions quickly reached boiling point; as police rushed to disperse crowds and arrest protesters they saw as instigators of violence, an unarmed protester named Andries Tatane was shot twice in the chest at close range as he resisted arrest when faced by several police officers. His death sparked outrage and questions over the SAPS’s Standing Order 262 from 2004 – which demands that police use minimum force, and prohibits the use of sharp ammunition for crowd management operations – having been violated numerous times during protests in recent years. The death of Tatane has been the catalyst for the questioning of police training and resultant behavior during service delivery protests which have the propensity to turn violent with very little or no notice. Unfortunately as the most recent incidents indicate, very few or inadequate measures have been taken to realistically affect changes in the methods which police choose to approach ‘public-order policing incidents’.
Millions of South African citizens are registered to vote in the country’s upcoming elections in 2014; millions of these individuals also live below the UN poverty index of $1.25 a day, many of whom also reside in the areas hardest hit by poor service delivery and the resultant protests. Not only is an escalation in political campaigning centred around these issues very likely, but an escalation in citizens’ robust disapproval where these services are lacking is also a given. Another factor is the growing hostility towards police action in response to protests; some demonstrations begin as service delivery orientated, and quickly turn into criticisms and anger at deaths caused by police action. Indeed, in a bid to prevent such incidents, police have become more likely to reduce the number of protests applied for in highly populated areas such as Cape Town and Johannesburg’s city centres in a bid to prevent the potential outbreak of violence. Unfortunately, this will not prove as effective in the lower-income areas surrounding these and other cities. In these areas, the vast majority of demonstrations focused solely on service delivery grievances and less on political party campaigning.
A solution to this issue is not simple nor can it be undertaken with significant success in the period remaining before elections. Either the delivery of public goods and services will have to improve rapidly in areas where it barely existed before, or police officers across South Africa’s most economically vulnerable areas will have to undergo intensive training to significantly review current methods of crowd control while at the same time policing those protests that are likely to occur in coming weeks. Essentially, this is what will characterise the 2014 general elections when they are remembered in the years following 2014.