Social unrest: What have we learnt from protests around the world?

LAST month unclear circumstances surrounding the police killing of a London resident Mark Duggan ignited violent protests that spun off into widespread looting and arson attacks stretching to several other urban centres in the UK (including Birmingham Manchester Bristol and Liverpool).



Unrest a couple of months ago in China’s Xintang district — where a significant portion of the world’s jeans are made by an army of migrant workers — was sparked by the poor treatment of a pregnant hawker by the police and as in the UK it seems perceived injustice towards one member of a group can stoke discontent among other members .



With South African service delivery protests still aflame — the latest being yesterday when Thembelihle residents fired live ammunition at police during a protest in the township near Lenasia south of Johannesburg — what can be learnt from recent international protests?



Although widely blamed on the foiled "bling" aspirations of English youths (or "hoodies") who are unable to find jobs or to get support in youth and community centres many of which have been shut due to recent budget cuts many analysts have been left scratching their heads when trying to explain the exact nature and causes of the outbreak of violence.



One alarming example quoted in The Guardian was of a 13-year-old from Manchester who was convicted for taking part in a riot: "When it was clear he wouldn’t be going to prison the 13-year-old … plucked up the courage to ask the judge the question that really mattered. ‘When will I get my phone back?’ In an interview outside court his mother when asked how she would punish him said: ‘I’ll take his Xbox off him. That hurts more than anything in the world.’"

The most puzzling part of the riots/looting /protests — political viewpoints tend to lend themselves to different descriptions; those more to the left emphasise the protest element while those more to the right emphasise the criminal — is how and why such ferocious violence can spread so quickly when fuelled by such a poorly articulated set of grievances.



British Prime Minister David Cameron blames "moral decline" for the outbreak while his predecessor Tony Blair has argued that social alienation lies at its core.



For South Africans inarticulate but profound anger seen in service delivery protests (sometimes so named but without clear sets of demands) is not unfamiliar and debates surrounding moral decline aside social alienation does seem to be a common theme even to the point where anger has no clear target or basis.



Even more baffling has been the recent violence afflicting Berlin where faceless arson attacks had targeted luxury vehicles initially spreading more recently to all makes of cars. Are these simply the acts of arsonists or are they violent statements about inequality and social immobility (with Berlin afflicted by relatively higher rates of unemployment than other cities)? Is Europe’s social core crumbling against a backdrop of economic instability and decline?



If part of a wider trend France would be the precursor after its outbreak of protests in 2005 again sparked by police action which led to the death of two youths. While the French experience was primarily confined to inner-city ghettos of immigrants with a clear ethnic bent and looting was not a feature as in the recent English riots the theme of marginalised and disaffected youth is clear. Many participating in riots at the time bemoaned the fact that they were unable to secure job interviews simply because of the postal codes of their residences or the Arabic lilt of their names.



And of course this year’s European protests follow in the wake of the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East and North Africa and while these uprisings have been and remain underpinned by clear political and human rights demands for regime change the actors often shared the youthful under/unemployed profile.


The issue of unemployment resonates with South African protests — we have found consistent and significantly higher levels of unemployment in wards where the service delivery protests occur.

Giving further texture to the English debate where looting of flat-screen TVs and sports shoes may seem frivolous when compared to the more fundamental demands of the Arab Spring The Guardian newspaper has compiled and analysed data on those accused in English courts of the recent violence and has found overwhelming evidence of deprivation relative to the rest of the country’s population: 41% of suspects live in one of the top 10% of most deprived English neighbourhoods while 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live saw a drop in income between 2007 and last year.



It also seems no coincidence that according to a 2007 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund on the wellbeing of children and adolescents in the 21 most economically advanced nations: "Children growing up in the UK were found to suffer greater deprivation worse relationships with their parents and exposed to more risks from alcohol drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world." The US was second last in the same study.



While the global recession’s toll on families who have lost houses and jobs is well known and tragic perhaps the insidious damage to the youthful component of society is yet to become clear. Perhaps for marginalised English youth looting was seen as the only way of realising material aspirations?



While most would agree that punishing outright criminality in the recent riots is appropriate blaming the riots as Cameron has on poor morality or bad parenting is naive and simplistic.



There seems little recognition of the increasing marginalisation of significant portions of British youth in the inner cities or indeed the distance between Cameron and such groups.



The editor of the respected New York Times asks pointedly: "Would he find similar blame — this time in the culture of the well- housed and well-off — for Britain’s recent tabloid phone-hacking scandals or the egregious abuse of expense accounts by members of parliament?"



As to solutions throwing people in prison will do little to alleviate the issue.



The key must certainly be including those groups that have been edged out of mainstream British society.



As respected British social commentator Polly Toynbee lamented in The Guardian recently : "All social remedies are slow difficult and expensive with no quick fixes taking a wall of money … but that's cheaper than crime and chaos".

Where does this leave SA? While youth bodies may disappoint many due to an apparent lack of mature leadership it would be foolish to dismiss the legitimate concerns that they raise regarding the unemployment rate among the youth and the disappointed expectations of this group.



It would also be unwise to dismiss the motives of all service delivery protests or all participants as ones of criminality.



If SA is to learn anything from the violent protests this year it is in the correlations of messages around the need to include somehow the youth especially the most marginalised into mainstream society and economic activity.