Support the right to protest in SAs city centres

MARCH has been a busy month for protests; from the usually idyllic Grabouw to the more urbanised settings of Sharpeville Ratanda (Heidelberg) and Kya Sands. With widespread unhappiness about a range of social and economic issues — labour brokers e-tolling unemployment corruption succession debates in the tripartite alliance and of course the quality and pace of service delivery by local government — this looks set to be a protest-afflicted year. But where will these protests take place?



Consider the recent prominence of city-based protests particularly the "Occupy" movements across the world. Here the "common" person has risen up in frustration disillusioned with the social and class systems that have been stripped bare by the subprime crisis and subsequent multibillion-dollar bail-outs of financial institutions.



Perhaps this form of profound but not necessarily revolutionary outrage is more akin to South African protests than the more fundamental regime-change demands of the Arab Spring (although there is a significant youth component to many local protests as with most of those revolutions and the "Occupy" movement was inspired in part by the Arab Spring) despite warnings by the African National Congress’s Matthews Phosa that the Arab Spring may affect us.



It is interesting to consider spatial aspects of protest activity in SA. Since 2004 almost half of protest activity has taken place in metro areas (SA’s eight largest cities) despite the fact that the greatest absolute backlogs in municipal service delivery exist in deep rural areas. However cities are subject to rapidly growing backlogs due to substantial urbanisation. The extent of inequality and therefore relative deprivation is more pronounced in cities than anywhere else. Cities are also logistically easier places to organise protests and are home to a larger number of "agitators".



While the city centres of Johannesburg Cape Town and Durban occasionally host large highly organised and regulated protests more typical service delivery protests take place in SA’s marginalised township areas (such as Kya Sands) with one third of protests registered in informal settlements.



The nature of South African protests though are far from the Tahrir Square-style grassroots uprisings or scenes of the essentially middle class Wall Street and St Paul’s Cathedral "Occupy" protests. Typically SA’s service delivery protests make it on to newspapers’ front pages only when they spill over into violence — burning down councillor’s houses and municipal buildings; looting foreign nationals’ shops; or if they block major infrastructure typically roads such as the N2 in Cape Town the Golden Highway in Johannesburg and more recently in the Hazyview area denying tourists access to the Kruger National Park.

But it is the sporadic spontaneous nature of service delivery protests feeding off the immediate and palpable anger of the poor residents living on the periphery of our municipalities that makes them so effective. The spatial containment of protests to the periphery of cities points to the legacy of apartheid when planners sought to insulate township protest — in much the same deliberate way that civic planner Georges-Eugene Hausmann redesigned Paris in the 19th century using huge boulevards through which soldiers could march to quell discontent.



Hausmann is explored as developing procapitalist planning in a new book Rebel Cities by Marxist geographer David Harvey who also refers to Johannesburg as a place where debt finance has spurred impressive architectural advances for the wealthy. Harvey is understandably critical of American downtown gentrification as well as suburbanisation resulting in the physical division of the haves from the have-nots. This critique rings as true in SA with Harvey noting that the "proletariat" relates as much to insecure immigrants as it does to the traditional Marxist idyll of factory workers.



Harvey and others see access to cities and the right to protest in them as vital to a more equitable society. Indeed the recent e-toll/labour brokers march did not impinge on the rights of others (other than perhaps a few frustrated motorists).



The question then for local government is: should protests be encouraged in central places organised and controlled by marshals and with demands clearly articulated rather than subverted as most are to the periphery of cities where they erupt into violent outbursts?