Hard to get a handle on protest anomalies

Service delivery protests in South Africa tend to evoke a wide range of opinions. Some are conspiratorial while others show irritation or sympathy and with at least one protest recorded most weeks of the year since 2009 it is unsurprising that most South Africans take a position on what has clearly become a fixed feature of the political landscape.

But how well do we understand protests and what drives them? Looking at our data collated from monitoring hot spots the one clear trend is that it is very difficult to extrapolate definitive and consistent trends between years. If one considers that most protests take place in only one or two wards of a municipality of which there are thousands across South Africa perhaps it is unrealistic to try to draw anything other than broad conclusions. Consider for instance how the micro-level nature of most protests differ from those in Brazil where recent protest activity gripped entire cities and grievances were articulated on social media.

So while it is evident from the hot spots that protests have a high likelihood of recurring it is not clear exactly when this will be and how far protest activity might spread in a particular municipality. Drivers can vary considerably — from accountability of councillors to the quality of a service relative to its pricing — as can responses which can be managed by anyone from a local official to the president.

The widely differing nature of service delivery protests (measured where communities state an explicit grievance that is the responsibility or perceived responsibility of local government) gives rise to a number of commonly held beliefs that do not always bear out in any particular year. This year the common and intuitive wisdom of a "winter of discontent" — with markedly more protests expected in winter than in summer — has not held as neatly true as one might expect.

While the seasonal trend holds broadly true for all but one year since 2009 — when protests accelerated — the variation between summer and winter varies. The one exception was 2010 when the Soccer World Cup was hosted with increased security and patriotism possibly behind a mitigation of protest activity that winter. So far this year a typical July peak was not evident although there were more protests in June and last month than in previous (nonwinter) months.

While many protests last month did relate to trying seasonal conditions — waterlogged homes in Du Noon access to electricity in Soweto hostels and so forth — it is worth questioning whether "summer" needs especially for potable water might not be worthy of similar levels of dissatisfaction. The key difference lies in where winter and summer protests are likely to take place. Consider for instance the Du Noon protests which took place after a cold front left shacks waterlogged in a dense urban context.

The consequences of fires and flooding in informal settlements can spread quickly affecting many families in areas that are typically well mobilised and covered by the media especially when major arterial roads are blockaded possibly increasing the likelihood of protests. In summer by contrast many protests for basic services take place in more remote rural areas without the same media attention. Hence despite the media images of "typical" protests it might surprise that despite their trying living conditions residents of informal areas have staged only 36% of protests since 2004.

What is worrying is that protests are more likely to be violent in the stereotypical winter context suggesting a desperation and escalation of crisis that is not evident in summer. Indeed it is less likely that communities would take to the streets in cold wet weather if their needs were not acute and often crisis-driven. This theory suggests that one of the most obvious ways to mitigate the intensity and duration of protests is disaster management work especially geared for informal settlements as well as healthcare and social welfare support.

There are always exceptions and anomalies which may only partially relate to service delivery needs. This year for the first time the Eastern Cape has surpassed Gauteng and the Western Cape as the most protest-afflicted province. While service delivery conditions in many communities in that province may merit protest activity why this year? And why without any special seasonal feature? Political tensions certainly are able to undercut any consistent and clear logic to this endlessly dynamic phenomenon.