Engage citizens to stem rise in violent protests

Several months ago the South African Local Government Association lobbied for insurance to protect the property of municipal councillors. Those unsympathetic to unpopular councillors might have argued that as representatives they should have done a better job of engaging with the communities that elected them to mitigate against the risk of damage to their property while the cynical might have read the move as a way to secure an additional fringe benefit for local government’s less successful representatives.



But the burning of councillor Mthumeleni Nditha’s house on the East Rand last week puts keener focus on the issue of violent protests. Ekurhuleni residents demanding housing torched Nditha’s home while he was taking his daughter to school. Nditha was protected from attack by other residents when he returned. The municipality has bolstered security arrangements for councillors in Langaville Tsakane KwaThema and Duduza.



And it is not just councillors at risk; municipal officials in the troubled Northern Cape town of Olifantshoek have also been victims of intimidation and arson. These are not isolated incidents; councillors across the country have had homes cars and family members threatened.



This year has already eclipsed the total number of major service delivery protests recorded last year with almost four out of every five of this year’s protests being violent. Violence is recorded where public property is damaged (including the burning of tyres and barricading of roads) when arson or attempted arson or vandalism occurs; private property is threatened (including the stoning of passing cars and threats to councillors’ homes); residents (including schoolchildren and work-goers) are threatened ; death injury or arrests occur; shops are looted; and foreigners are threatened. These outcomes are familiar to anyone following the worrying phenomenon and seem bizarre to outsiders when community assets such as libraries are destroyed.



The violence is also accelerating. Between 2004 and last year 69% of protests were violent — an alarming figure but not as high as this year’s.



There are two explanations for the violence — one is an opportunistic criminal element typical of the more anarchic protests in which "protestors" do not articulate clear demands. But this explanation is evident only in a relatively small number of protests. Most protests at the outset anyway have a clear basis.



More typically protesters such as those in the Free State towns of Reddersburg and Edenburg attempt to engage with councils receive no response and eventually resort to protests.



All too often protests are sparked or made worse where senior officials or politicians fail to attend scheduled meetings. Communities want to be heard.



An emerging problem is when communities feel they have been heard and promises have been made but there is no delivery. C ommunities also want to see action. Failing this councillors are on the receiving end of their frustration and disappointment.



The violence is not supported by all and the entire community becomes victim to the strategy especially those trying to go to school or work and those owning shops especially foreigners.



It eats into the very fabric of these typically already impoverished communities (often in informal settlements) and makes the areas no-go zones for anyone who can avoid them further marginalising these communities.



For community organisations the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling that organisers of protests can be held liable for damages makes constructive controlled protest all the more important with the South African National Civics Organisation potentially facing a claim for organising a destructive protest in the Democratic Alliance-held Ashton.



Policing is only part of the solution. Communities need to take charge of the way in which they engage local government taking us full circle back to councillors. Laying out development plans to communities demanding service delivery needs to be carefully considered and urgently implemented so that communities are not in the dark and susceptible to rumours. Councillors need to be central to these plans and ward committees need to be functioning somehow involving the most marginalised community members who have the least to risk when taking to the street to protest. The task is not easy but is imperative.