Forgotten fed up and fighting for a better life

People who live in Gauteng or who listen to traffic reports for the province would have been aware that in May there was an explosion of service delivery protests especially in the south of Johannesburg. They raised demands for job creation economic development and service delivery (most commonly housing).

Their potency and violence which lasted several days and spread to neighbouring areas were disconcerting for the authorities.

Unpacking the data confirms service delivery protests in May hit a record monthly high with 40% more than a previous (May) 2012 record.

The data also provide another worrying finding: while a significant 38% of May’s protests took place in Gauteng protest activity was also pronounced in other provinces notably the North West and KwaZulu-Natal at 18% and 16% of the May service delivery protests respectively.

As a result 2017’s tally of major service delivery protests is already breaching the relatively high range of the past five years. By the end of May the percentage was just shy of 70% of 2016’s entire 12-month tally.

What the data also bear out is the violence in the majority of May’s protests with many buildings set alight councillors and mayors held hostage schooling and work halted passing vehicles stoned and looting during most of them.

Criticism was levelled at policing which was perceived as being deployed to protect transport arteries rather than the disrupted lives of communities affected by the protests.

It is worrying that more than three out of four (78%) service delivery protests in 2017 could be characterised as violent — a figure surpassed in May with 87% of service delivery protests taking on a violent component.

So are we on the verge of an Arab Spring (or rather a Highveld winter revolution)? A number of analysts have leapt to comparisons with the Arab Spring suggesting the protesters are expressing a desire to overturn governance structures.

Certainly recent Gauteng protests had themes that resonate with the Arab Spring with protests taking root in communities with a high degree of unemployment and marginalisation from the economic order concentrated in a densified urban environment.

It has also been suggested that social media (including an app called Grassroot) is being used to organise gatherings. Clearly this is most feasible in more tech-savvy urban environments – 51% of May’s service delivery protests took place in metros (compared with 48% of service delivery protests in 2017 so far).

The extent of this mobilisation is not yet clear but social media appears to have been an element in organising the Gauteng protests suggesting the Arab Spring phenomenon "the revolution will be tweeted" and possibly explaining why protests spread so quickly from one community to another.

But do May’s service delivery protests suggest the seeds of national insurrection?

There was no clear demand for a new political order in any of the protests.

Service delivery protests remain very much that — protests around a key aspect of service delivery (water electricity housing and so forth) concentrated in the affected community rather than in a central public space.

While service delivery protests are frequently underpinned by a degree of anarchy it is important to note that the local government elections were well supported less than a year ago.

With strong electoral turnout communities appear to have retained at least some faith in the political system.

Service delivery protests are therefore probably used as an additional and perhaps reinforcing but not alternative voice to the ballot.

The surge in protests in Johannesburg and Tshwane was attributed by some including the South African Communist Party in Gauteng to discontent with DA-EFF coalitions and a "delivery template" that was alleged to have been imposed on the metros with scant regard for the needs of the working class and poor.

But undermining this party-political argument was a service delivery protest in the impoverished Makause informal settlement in the ANC-run Gauteng metro Ekurhuleni.

In addition the responsibility for service delivery backlogs in Gauteng (as Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba was quick to point out) falls at the door of the previous ANC administrations. Housing — a major grievance — was the responsibility of the city and Gauteng’s provincial government which is run by the ANC.

Furthermore electricity is delivered directly to Soweto mainly by state utility Eskom.

While many of these co-operative governance nuances may not be well understood by protesting community members there is little evidence that political parties were a central concern of the protests.

Rather it was the conditions of sustained hardship that drove people onto the streets.

So how best can Gauteng’s recent protests be understood and characterised?

Perhaps it is useful to look at the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit supporters in the UK Donald Trump supporters in the US and Marine Le Pen admirers (to a lesser degree) in France.

A common thread in such rising popularism is a large group of citizens who feel they have fallen outside of established economic and political power systems (what Trump called "the swamp") but are empowered enough to galvanise into vocal groups.

These groups engage actively on social media albeit with 
their arguments often fuelled by fake news.

Trump Farage and Le Pen have given these groups a voice for change often articulating alarmist and xenophobic 
explanations for their economic plight and demanding increased protectionism and restrictions on migration.

Such marginalised citizens could be described as "insider-outsiders". Arguably this characterisation could be applied to some of the recent Gauteng protesters (but not all and certainly not across SA).

These protesters are able to access technology and information on protest logistics and usually receive a package of municipal services.

Elements within the group show scant regard for authority (witness the Eldorado Park looting) and the protesters’ widespread unhappiness is underpinned by the struggle to attain attractive employment or job opportunities.

It is not insignificant that May’s service delivery protests have been followed by dismal economic data putting the country in a technical recession with faltering business confidence failing to present any opportunity for optimism.

With these considerations while May’s service delivery protests will hopefully subside and while the complex socio-economic dynamics of Gauteng’s protests cannot be generalised it is unlikely the demands for economic development and job creation will recede.

For municipalities beset with rising price demands and increased pressure from growing indigent rolls such demands may seem ambitious.


Without national economic growth levels of service delivery protests may not yet have peaked.