Service delivery protests and their patterns

IT IS a relief that the aggregate number of service delivery protests for last year fell off the highs of 2009 and 2010 but will this trend be sustained? Recent trends in service delivery protests send mixed messages.



One of the encouraging features of last year’s protests was a lull around local government elections. The lull suggests that political engagement with communities can channel frustrations and that protest action is often a last resort. In fact protests often follow failed engagements in which memorandums and petitions are ignored or inadequately dealt with.



Even more encouraging than last year’s lull is that protests have not rapidly accelerated since politicians took office a year ago — but they have by no means disappeared. Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor which logs major protests related to service delivery shows that service delivery protests for the year so far account for 8% of protests recorded since 2004; if they continue at the same rate not only will they outstrip last year’s aggregate number but more worrying also 2009’s — thanks to a busy first quarter. March saw a 22-month peak in protests but it is far off those of 2009 and 2010 and growth in the number of protests decelerated last month. It should be noted however that almost all of last month’s protests were squeezed into 10 days.



The problem with analysing protests is that they tend to be lumpy. In trying to discern whether the first quarter’s spike will be sustained for the rest of the year it is interesting to consider the recent past. Both 2009 and last year both saw a rise in the second quarter but both years also had quieter first quarters than this year. The busier first quarter of 2010 by contrast saw a tailing off in the second quarter which makes a trend hard to surmise. It is perhaps more useful to understand the driving forces behind this year’s protests which have a markedly different provincial breakdown from previous years. Many protests this year have had complex motivations with some — including those in the racially tense Western Cape’s Theewaterskloof and politically unsettled Bitou and Nelson Mandela Bay — having political undercurrents that if not catalysing protests may have added to their fury.



Others including those in Mpumalanga have surrounded the delivery of basic services in particular water. The Free State a worrying site given its seminal flare-up in 2004 is again a province typified by service delivery protests.



Conspicuously quiet is Gauteng.



Sustained protest activity in the Free State and Mpumalanga this year put these provinces along with the Eastern Cape and Western Cape ahead of Gauteng as the most protest-ridden provinces — a major achievement for Gauteng in its attempts to mitigate protest activity considering its former dominance as the most protest-afflicted province.



Between 2004 and this year Gauteng accounted for almost one-third of protests on the Hotspots Monitor but this year it has fallen to a mere 11% whereas the Western Cape has risen to 25% from a more modest 17% since 2004.



What then is Gauteng’s apparent secret? While protests such as those in Ratanda and Kya Sands continue to hit headlines most of the metros are acutely aware of protests and the need to respond with the provincial MEC often the first on the scene. There is a balancing act too; politicians cannot appear to be at the mercy of violent protests and while the official line has been to condemn such actions swift political responses appear to have mitigated protest activity.



Of course a rapid response is easier to achieve in metropolitan areas and it is noteworthy that almost two-thirds of this year’s protests have taken place in nonmetro areas; until this year there has been a 50:50 mix between 2004’s and 2011’s aggregate protest breakdown. This profile has policing implications too often with riot units far from the site of protests and local police ill-equipped to deal with large-scale protest activity.



Is this year set for another record?



If protests in Gauteng heat up almost certainly. But if the trends of this year are sustained it is the Western Cape Nelson Mandela Bay the Free State and water-scarce Mpumalanga municipalities that need to be watched.



With winter approaching with its electricity and other service hikes the impatience shown by those who felt e-tolling was an unaccountable service should be heeded. With no time for complacency communities must be heard.