South Africa’s most dangerous protest phase yet

THERE has been a clear uptick in South African community protest actions, mostly accompanied by incidents of violence – probably signalling the start of another ‘protest phase.’

Striking Transnet workers used front end loaders to destroy a police van and damaged other infrastructure during an illegal strike in Richards Bay recently

There has been a dramatic rise in community protests, generally defined as “service delivery protest”, in South Africa since 2004, peaking by a factor of 188% over the four years between 2011/12 and 2015/16. In June last year it was claimed that on average there were 30 service delivery protest per day.

Over recent weeks, with massive protest marches against the rule of President Jacob Zuma, alleged ‘state capture’ and corruption, and other political and economic related news dominating headlines, there might have been a perception of a lull in service delivery protest.

However, protest of the ‘service delivery-kind’ is back centre stage, with violent protests in the South of Johannesburg – first at Eldorado Park and Freedom Park, and then at Ennerdale – as well in other parts of the country.

In the Durban, informal settlement of Banana City went on a rampage because they claim their requests for housing went unanswered. Classrooms at a primary school were set alight and the school had to be closed.

In Vuwani in Limpopo Province, where schools were burned down last year over a dispute over the demarcation of municipal boundaries, renewed violent protest broke out after President Zuma did not pitch for a meeting with the community.

The port of Richards Bay erupted in chaos when construction workers went on strike, and became violent when protesting workers mowed down infrastructure with bulldozers. Police fired shots at the bulldozers with little effect as a police van was rolled by one of the machines.

Over the last two weeks there were also community protests in Northwest Provinces’ Coligny, triggered by bail granted to two murder accused farmers, and in Lichtenburg; in the Eastern Cape’s East London; in Sol Plaatje Municipality in the Northern Cape; in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal; in Tshwane; in Hoedspruit; and in a few more across areas the country.

It is clear that an umbrella term like ‘service delivery protests’ will no longer do.

Not just service delivery  

An analysis of the reasons cited for the protests – from lack of service delivery, unemployment, lack of housing, high crime rates, tribal-linked demarcation issues, corruption, to legal issues with a racial tension undertone – and their widespread nature, from small rural town to big cities, tells a story of its own.

It is clear that an umbrella term like ‘service delivery protests’ will no longer do.

Add to the ‘formal’ protest the fact that on the 1st of May for the first time President Zuma and some other members of cabinet were not allowed to address a gatherings they were invited to, and other government speakers shouted down in Vuwani, and it is clear that deeper and more complex factors are at play.

It is as if a broad spectrum of the citizenry has lost faith in political leaders, if not in the ‘system’ as a whole.

Some analysts call it the “rebellion of the poor.” The profile of those taking part in the recent #ZumaMustFall marches, however, clearly revealed widespread discontent across class and racial divides.

There are growing signs that South Africa’s middle class – the class, worldwide regarded as the ‘glue’ of society – is under severe strain, as reflected in another article.

Throughout history, stripped to the bone, revolutions have been fuelled by economic dispensations that left the majority destitute and with little hope of improving their lives

Throughout history, stripped to the bone, revolutions have been fuelled by economic dispensations that left the majority destitute and with little hope of improving their lives. Over the last two decades South Africa have seen development plan after development plan come to the table, the latest being the National Development Plan.

However, government and civil society structures at large fell dismally short in terms of proper implementation of those plans.

The net result is that the country is entering its next phase in protest action since 2004, which looks like it is set to be the most dangerous yet to socio-political stability in the country.

Let’s hope the social fabric holds until 2019’s general election, that might deliver a coalition government as the next best thing to a government of national unity, and initiatives like the National Dialogue by leadership foundation succeed to create some semblance of a national consensus about the road ahead.

This article originally appeared in The Intelligence Bulletin, by the IB team.

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