Poverty must be tackled as root of municipal protests

Reading last weekend’s newspapers one would be forgiven for suspecting that South Africa had slid into anarchy. Last week alone there were at least five major municipal service delivery protests — in Bronkhorstspruit Hebron Sebokeng Uitenhage and Sir Lowry’s Pass excluding registration intimidation in Bekkersdal. But it would be an overstatement to imply that all of South Africa is aflame with protest activity on the scale seen in Brazil last year when entire cities appeared to take to the street.

So why the dramatic figure bandied about that there have been 32 protests a day over the past three months? It appears that the South African Police Service (SAPS) data has been misquoted. It measures "crowd-related incidents" — a catchall for any incident of any size relating to a SAPS presence at any gathering meeting or protest — and not necessarily service delivery protests.

During 2012-13 the SAPS recorded 12399 "crowd-related incidents" (an average of 34 incidents a day): divided into 10517 peaceful incidents and 1882 unrest-related incidents.

By contrast Municipal IQ’s Service Delivery Hotspots Monitor recorded 155 service delivery protests last year 173 in 2012 and 182 in 2011.

Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor collates major protests staged by community members against a municipality as recorded by the media. Such protests raise issues that are the responsibility or perceived responsibility of local government. Where protests are sustained over several days or weeks these are recorded as a single entry.

By contrast a "crowd-related incident" could include any gathering or meeting to which the SAPS decides to send its members and might include any number of political social or community meetings. A number of such meetings might have nothing to do with local government service delivery and may well not be negative or protest-related such as a political rally in a stadium.

Conflating "crowd-related incidents" with service delivery protest produce inflated numbers that do little to unravel the root causes and issues that desperately need to be addressed. Sober analysis is called for if the needs of communities are to be tackled in a constructive and focused fashion.

A consistent demand for basic service delivery underpins most service delivery responses and it is imperative that pockets of poverty and inequality are tackled rather than protests dismissed as a politically motivated phenomenon. Closer scrutiny of individual protests tends to show up that community grievances are more often than not valid; whether these are hijacked by political interests and factionalism as well as criminal or xenophobic opportunism is a further but additional layer to protest activity and should not detract from the typically very real failure that sparked a protest initially.

To allege third-force involvement (such as allegations of sabotage in Madibeng) unfortunately absolves councils of scrutiny of their failure which requires systemic redress. Without remedial action protests will inevitably resurface.

Another growing theme in protests that is obscured by sensational data and the "politically motivated" label is a lack of accountability by political leaders. This tends to surge when communities face a no-show such as those in Bronkhorstspruit (where an expected meeting with Tshwane mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa did not materialise) Bekkersdal (where African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa failed to address the community) or Sebokeng (where ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete did not conduct a door-to-door campaign as was expected).

Late arrivals (such as that by housing MEC Dan Bovu at Princess informal settlement in Johannesburg) can also aggravate volatile situations.

Many ponder the comments of Bekkersdal residents who refuse to express their frustration at the ballot box but this is symptomatic of a community that feels itself to be on the outside of democratic governance systems to the point where they believe there is no value in engaging with formal structures. Conspiracy theories undermine the typically very real concerns of communities and should be handled carefully be politicians when appraising the merits of a protest.

What strategic response is appropriate to subdue the present spate of service delivery protests? Politicians should not dismiss protesters’ grievances as opportunistic even if it is suspected that they are.

While there appears to be evidence that the Economic Freedom Fighters may have been supporting protests (by dispensing old tyres for barricades and offering to pay for the legal fees of those arrested) in our view there has never been compelling evidence that a third force is orchestrating protests across the country and such theories undermine the validity of grievances. Local community organisations that organise protests when they can be identified vary tremendously from region to region and they have certainly never expressed a desire to be represented on a national platform.

Further political leaders need to intervene sooner rather than later while not appearing to be capitulating to violence. Negotiations in Bronkhorstspruit to resolve an essentially technical issue around electricity could have been conducted before the millions of rand of damage were wrought by protesters on the community. At the same time it is important that government leaders are not seen to respond in a knee-jerk way to violent protests or this will create the incentive for communities to escalate violence to ensure immediate intervention.

It is also imperative that in the run-up to the elections provincial and local government provide channels for constructive engagement to raise grievances in a way that enhances democratic and governance processes without compromising the very communities in which protests take place. Ward councillors should be guided on how to advise communities on ways in which to organise marches legally and should be supported by the relevant policing authority where protest activity is planned.

With respect to the criminal justice system evidence that party factionalism may be fuelling violence is of grave concern and if ignored may be a highly problematic new trend in service delivery protests and the possible role of political parties — criminal action should be taken against individuals where protest action is detrimental to the interests of members of the communities (for instance where fuel is provided for barricades that destroy roads and infrastructure).

It is imperative for intelligence sources to be exploited fully in the run-up to elections and that policing supports the interests of communities by following best practice in public order policing protocol. The downward spiral in police relations with communities should be arrested with police demonstrating that their mandate is to promote the interests of all members of communities.

In conclusion while it is wrong to overstate the present wave of violent protests there is also undoubtedly an upsurge that cannot be ignored. What is worrying from a political perspective is that on the eve of the 20th anniversary of democracy so many South Africans appear to express frustration on the streets rather than at the ballot box. It is incumbent on all involved in local government to ensure that the image of a caring government is restored and protest action is not considered to be the only avenue of expression open to communities.