Riots: “Police under siege”

By Paul Pereira


This week’s burning down of a library in Bronkhorstspruit by protesters angry with the delivery of basic services is but the latest in an escalating panorama of violent public protests. It comes as Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa warns that his forces are “under siege”, while others suggest that the police themselves are part of the public order problem.

Despite being in a full democracy for 20 years, South Africans have not given up their public protest habits of the “Peoples War”. That strategy of ungovernability, launched by the ANC and its internal allies in 1984, was hugely successful in bringing white minority rule to its knees in a ruthless assault on all manner of authority in particularly black townships.

In sustained attack by youthful comrades (“Young Lions”) on everything from school teachers to rent collectors to police, along with political rivals, more than 24 000 people lost their lives in a decade, and apartheid rule was finished. But the habits of such intensity don’t easily disappear, especially where ordinary people imagine that violence brings result, as often it does.

This plays out today in service delivery protests across SA. But, as has been noted by both the SA Institute of Race Relations and the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, protests are often found in places where at least some attempts at service upgrading and local development have taken place.

Here, in a “theory of relative deprivation”, the fact of some progress in living conditions acts to increase expectations and frustration at the pace of these things, with people venting their anger in the streets. It is a classic case of revolution in a time of reform, of protests being ignited less by the failure of service delivery than by the very fact of it.

There is a lot of this new ungovernability about, although agreed statistics are difficult to come by because different observers use different ways of counting. The University of the Western Cape’s barometer of service delivery protests, along with monitoring group Municipal IQ, would count many concurrent occurrences in a single place as one incident, while the SAPS would count every sub-incident as separate.

So the UWC and Municipal IQ researchers find hundreds of public order incidents where the police count thousands, but the overall picture is much the same: numbers have been high in recent years, the proportion of violent incidents has risen markedly, and winter months bring most discontent.

In its 2014 World Report, Human Rights Watch blames police for over-reacting to violent protests, saying that “Every time there are protests in SA, the police are heavy-handed and use excessive force”. Yet SAPS data show that last year alone saw 12 396 protests, of which 1 882 were violent. That year saw, according to the SAIRR, four deaths at the hands of the police, on top of the 21 deaths the institute counts from 2000 to 2012. This year has already seen eight.

But this isn’t reason to be sanguine, warns an SAIRR Deputy CEO Frans Cronje worried about police indiscipline: “Every day they risk getting it badly wrong and having another Marikana – or worse – with severely negative effects on stability and perceptions of where South Africa is headed”.

– First published in The Citizen, 6 February 2014.