Reading the figures in the flames to find the future of protests

It is uncontroversial to state that this year has seen the worst wave of service delivery protests since democracy. Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor recorded a peak of 38 protests to end-July — the highest record of major municipal service delivery protests since 2004. Both the number and nature of the protests prompt the important question: can protests be predicted?



Looking at the data, there are a number of surprising non-predictors of service delivery protests. First , protests do not take place in the poorest municipalities in SA. Nor do protests take place in municipalities, or wards, with the worst service delivery backlogs. It is clearly not absolute deprivation or the very poorest of the poor that are behind the rising wave of protests.



But two important correlations are apparent from the data. The first is the correlation between service delivery protests and the performance of local economies and municipalities — but not in the direction one would expect. The better the performance of the typical municipality and local economy within a province, the greater the level of service delivery protests registered so far this year. So, at an aggregate level at least, protests do not occur in response to the worst service delivery, or at the very least in the worst performing municipalities (ward level delivery may not align with strong overall performance by a municipality, and, of course, there are individual cases where service delivery is truly abysmal by any measure).



So what prompts service delivery protests in what are, then, the better managed municipalities of SA ? Consider, for instance, that the City of Johannesburg — the site of the recent Diepsloot protests — spent, over a multiyear period, an average of more than R4000 per resident — considerably more than a national average of just over R1000 per resident. But is this expenditure enough? The next consideration, which reveals a striking correlation, is the rate of population growth and protests. There is clearly a link between the growth of a municipality, and in cases with double-digit growth presumably due to a large number of people entering a municipality in response to perceived economic opportunities, and service delivery protests.



To better understand this phenomenon, one needs to consider the conditions faced by in- migrants. They are typically received into informal settlements where living conditions are far harsher than they might have anticipated; living cheek by jowl and fiercely contesting squalid living spaces. Compounded by the fact that service delivery protests have taken place in wards with above-average unemployment levels (at 43%), disillusion sets in quickly and is susceptible to flare into protest action, especially given the growing impact of economic recession this year. The story then is one of in-migration and urban squalor and unemployment — potent tinder to the spark of disappointed hope post-elections, and perhaps false hope in the face of promises for rapid service delivery and job creation.



While it may not be possible to predict where the next service delivery protest will take place, given their sporadic and unpredictable outbursts, the data suggest that rapidly growing urban areas with high levels of inequality (implied by higher levels of economic growth, on the one hand, and pockets of deep unemployment, on the other), are particularly at risk.



What is also evident is that the use of service delivery protests as a means of voicing discontent is often subject to contagion — the very first significant experience of service delivery protests post-democracy appeared in a rash of protests in underperforming Free State municipalities. Fortunately this outbreak was abated and therein lies a valuable lesson for social scientists, as well as policy makers — what measures were taken to shore up discontent? Given the potential for contagion and the vast number of underperforming municipalities, a diagnosis, if not immediate remedies, are crucial to start addressing the pressing social malaises of urbanisation and squalor.