Increasing violence diminishes protesters’ often legitimate grievances

There was about positive news with respect to service delivery protests in SA in the latter half of past year. The Municipal IQ municipal hotspots monitor measured protests as falling behind a record set in 2018 and tumbling in number after May’s general elections. While 2018 recorded 237 major protests staged across municipalities for nonperformance there were 8% fewer protests in 2019 (218).

Past year did not end well for protesters globally with decisive crackdowns taking place against Hong Kong and Indian protesters in particular. A key question is whether this trend will resonate with the SA state’s view of protests. What might prompt and harden the use of force against protesters?

The increasingly violent nature of protests might shift public perception and legitimise a hard-line response to protests. While South Africans have an embedded constitutional right to protest this right has arguably been mitigated by growing levels of violence and criminality (such as looting but also vandalism and arson) where these actions infringe on the rights of others.

Another emerging issue is the concept of “economic sabotage”. Increasingly common talk of economic sabotage in relation to Eskom’s production capacity (prompting load-shedding) has also been applied as an explanation for the inexcusable targeting of freight trucks and more recently the torching of trains and schools.

While a response criminalising such actions is warranted there is a danger that this narrative might feed through to the relationship between the state and its protesting citizens.

It was evident that 2019 was a year not only of protests about the world (most notably in Peru Bolivia Ecuador Chile Lebanon Iraq Egypt France the Netherlands Indonesia India and Hong Kong) but also an uncertain police response. By late 2019 the perhaps inevitable crackdowns emerged in places like Hong Kong but also more interestingly India.

As a democracy India is more similar to SA than to China which makes the clampdown on its citizens’ widespread protests against nationalist legislation pertinent and concerning. Drastic measures included the throttling of the internet and cellphone networks in addition to the enforcement of colonial-era sedition laws curfews and protest restrictions with 25 protesters killed in clashes with the police. This is a staggering figure especially when compared with Hong Kong’s protests against extradition proposals which saw only two protest-linked deaths over a six-month period.

The next series of protests to keep an eye on which have grown in ferocity despite their largely middle-class roots are those in Lebanon with the Lebanese government meeting to decide on its response.

Is the SA state becoming more impatient with protesters? The recent protest in QwaQwa is instructive. While protesters seemed to have reasonable grounds to protest against the lack of water provision which had led to the tragic death of eight-year-old Mosa Mbele when she was fetching water with her brother ensuing violence degenerated into road blockades and looting which in turn resulted in 34 arrests.

The DA in the Free State says it reported the crisis to water affairs & and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane as long ago as 2015 as well as handing over evidence of looted funds intended for water provision to the public protector past year in which case community outrage is wholly warranted.

However the danger of violence and overlapping criminal behaviour is that it diminishes protesters’ often legitimate grievances. With an emerging narrative of economic sabotage and treason do protesters risk being associated with those involved in the shameless looting of trucks (putting truck drivers’ lives at risk) heartless torching of schools and alleged tampering with the country’s already precarious power supply?

It is unlikely that the SA media courts or public at large will ever countenance an antidemocratic crackdown on protests in the country’s hard-fought-for democracy. We are more likely to resemble France which has seen protests become almost institutionalised across most of its large cities with periodic clashes with police.

But the narrative in dealing with illegal protests may change as may the response. To avert this municipalities will need to increase information on and avenues for lawful protest marches. Ironically this is least likely in the very municipalities that are typified by impatience and a breakdown in the relationship between councils and communities placing pressure on the police and — where feasible — provincial governments to intervene and assist in flashpoints.

Failing this protests can escalate quickly become deadly and fray the social fabric that is so delicately held together by our constitution.