Communities can make a difference with protest action

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille was quoted last week as arguing that service delivery protests "rarely change anything because making a noise doesn’t change a government". Zille made clear her agenda to persuade in this case the disgruntled residents of Sterkspruit to vote for an opposition party as a form of censure of the ruling party but is she correct that protests are futile?

It is interesting to consider that the Sterkspruit community’s primary concern is about demarcation (wanting new municipal boundaries) and it is about demarcation issues (premised on assumptions of better service delivery) that some of the most violent protests — including Khutsong more than five years ago and more recently Zamdela (Sasolburg) — have taken place.

In the case of Khutsong communities were incorporated as they had demanded into Gauteng and in the case of Zamdela it would be a very foolish demarcation decision that did not take into account the vehement opposition to a proposed incorporation into Ngwathe (Parys).

So communities can make a difference with protest action.

Perhaps the more important issue is should policy decisions be swayed by violent protest action?

Arguably the violent protests in Khutsong were a watershed event a portent of the increasingly violent protests to come as communities increasingly impatient for change tried more vociferously to ensure that political attention was paid to local problems. A direct service delivery case that followed Khutsong was Balfour which gave rise to a presidential visit (finding the mayor out of his office at home mid-afternoon) and precipitated a rash of provincial interventions in Mpumalanga. But in other cases the Northern Cape case of Olifantshoek springs to mind. As in the case of Khutsong communities undermined a year of schooling — the provision of which has nothing to do with local government — to no clear end.

What certainly is true is that protest activity is a gamble — it may result in accelerated and elevated intervention and attention or it may not and comes at considerable cost to the community. Valuable public infrastructure is often destroyed and in dysfunctional municipalities the opportunity cost is likely to be very high with a long list of priorities preceding the replacement of a library grader or community centre (tragically the frequent targets of protests).

Violent protests also tear communities apart. Xenophobia can surface overlaid with criminality and the looting of local spaza shops. In the wake of Zamdela’s protests residents complained that they were unable to buy basic goods with retail outlets destroyed or (understandably) closed.

So to bring about change is the only option voting out the ruling party? While Zille and the DA are hoping for a new generation of South Africans who will vote on the basis of (purportedly) improved delivery options by the DA rather than historical political allegiances especially in large urban areas it is unlikely that this will take place for many years throughout the country.

Well-functioning local government of course should be able to focus rather on councillor accountability regardless of political affiliation and what councillors offer their constituencies. Part of this accountability will always see protest activity where councillors have failed especially in poorer more marginalised communities where alternatives to protest action — such as litigation media complaints or advocacy — are not well understood or available.

But despite the need to recognise the legitimacy of protest action as a democratic necessity in South Africa the increasingly violent nature of protests has become a real concern — violence was evident in more than 75% of protests recorded by Municipal IQ last year.

In President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address he recognised the need to balance rights calling "on our people to exercise their rights to protest in a peaceful and orderly manner. It is unacceptable when people’s rights are violated by perpetrators of violent actions such as actions that lead to injury and death of persons damage to property and the destruction of valuable public infrastructure."

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe stressed the importance of protecting infrastructure: "Lately we have observed incidents of violent and disruptive conducts which interfere with the rights of other citizens and have caused damage to public facilities. We have to ensure that (South Africa’s) infrastructure which is critical for economic growth is not targeted by vandals during these protests and demonstrations."

Human rights activists have raised concern that condemnation of protest activity will give rise to a shift towards a more rigorous "crowd control" approach by police with the abhorrent images of Andries Tatane’s death as well as the confused policing of Zamdela’s recent protests in Sasolburg not to mention Marikana still fresh in the public mind.

While Radebe has undertaken to expedite the prosecution of offences committed during protests what balance is there in protecting the rights of communities to protest? The Regulations of Gatherings Act provides guidance and is widely understood by community activist groups but is largely being ignored by communities and authorities alike with councillors failing as a link between communities and authorities.

From a community perspective it is apparent that there is clear alienation and marginalisation from both councillors and the police. Councillors are if anything a target rather than a mediator of protests — our research has found councillors had been targeted or the cause of grievances in one-third of protests since January last year.

So how should this relationship be repaired? As a starting point it is imperative that communities be encouraged to stage legal and organised protests.

Local governments need to ensure that communities have easy access to responsive and reasonable officials to ensure that the law is followed especially when protests have already taken place.

If it was easier to register the intention to stage a legal protest through the act communication between all parties would be better and it is likely that the risk of violence would be reduced.

Fundamental to the act being implemented policing needs to move from antagonistic showdowns to facilitating organised processes and supporting marshals. If conveners are identified and work with marshals this relationship need not be an antagonistic one; it simply requires preparation communication and good faith.

Communities will if recent trends in protest activity are anything to go by continue to protest and are entitled to do so but the nature of these protests needs to be channelled into more orderly constructive exercises to protect affected communities as well as protesters’ rights. This requires a restoration of the "golden triangle" in which the right to protest is recognised exercised responsibly and facilitated in good faith by local government and the police.

While voting in a new order is always a solution it is only a periodic one.

Sustained engagement by communities with local government as envisaged by the constitution including through peaceful protest activity is required for local government to work.