Johannesburg - Political violence ahead of the local government elections is set to reach its highest levels since the end of apartheid, but it would still not be as bad as in 1976, two analysts have predicted.
Jakkie Cilliers and Ciara Aucoin from African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies said in a paper entitled Economics, governance and instability in South Africa that the current environment was "potentially very worrisome in the run-up to the August 2016 elections and beyond".
Anti-government grievances are manifesting in different ways, they wrote in the paper, which is set to be released next week.
"Declining public confidence, coupled with growing economic uncertainty and the security sector's dismal track record in responding, could culminate in the highest levels of political violence since the end of apartheid," they said.
They said that political actors, including traditional leaders and opposition parties, played a role in fuelling the protests, such as the EFF's support of the Fees Must Fall protests earlier this year, as well as leader Julius Malema's "inciting statements".
Unemployment and a lack of opportunity were at the root of these protests, but the movement was also "increasingly motivated by dissatisfaction with the ruling elite and governance performance".
Declining satisfaction with police
A lot of the analysis of the protests has looked at whether police or protesters started the ensuing violence. ISS Public Violence Monitor Data showed that 55% of the total incidents reported in the media since January 2013 were violent, although this could also be attributed to the fact that the media were more likely to report on violence.
"Between 2011 and 2015, satisfaction with the police declined from 64.7% to 57.75%," they said.
"Looking at the claims against the SAPS between 2008 and 2015, an average of 80% of annual claims fell into the categories of 'assault', 'police actions', and 'shooting incidents'," they said.
They said "independent watchdog organisations often question the independence (and competence) of the police", which had an increasingly military-style approach to its work.
The leadership of law enforcement institutions was also in turmoil and torn between the police's "constitutional mandate and the political imperative to deliver appropriate findings that could stay prosecutions aligned to the president and his faction".
They said South Africa's security institutions were suffering from "constantly shifting policy direction, poor management and political compromise", which meant these were unable to secure public property like schools and universities against destruction.
That was also why the private security sector in South Africa was amongst the biggest in the world, they said, and "used by households and businesses that can afford them".
The analysts said South Africa's growth prospects were "mediocre for several years into the future", due to political infighting that had distracted the ANC government from its previous pro-growth path, policy uncertainty and lacklustre implementation.
The electricity crisis compounded the problem.
"The results of the August 2016 local government elections will, in turn, give a good inkling of what to expect when the ANC, in December 2017, elects a new president and enters the period leading up to the 2019 general elections, as violent competition across many communities potentially ushers in an era of unpredictable coalition politics," they wrote.
Previous peaceful elections were due to confidence in the Independent Electoral Commission and the democratic system, as well as transparent process during elections.
"But declining public support for the ANC, growing anti-government demonstration movements and the inadequacies of the state's security apparatus, as well as the political and economic climate, set the scene for interesting years ahead," they wrote. These scenarios are examined in two separate papers by the authors.
Despite this, they said, South Africa "does not face anything comparable to the violent events that unfolded during the Soweto protests of 1976 and their aftermath, although recent trends are alarming".
Need for 'drastic reform'
Violent crime, and labour and service delivery protests had increased since 2012, as has the frequency and intensity of student protests and, more recently, protests demanding the resignation of President Jacob Zuma.
"Political assassinations and factional violence within the ANC were also on an upward trend, as the ruling party struggles to cope with a host of challenges ranging from corruption, allegations of state capture, leadership and ethical issues, as well as the weakening of its key ally, Cosatu," they wrote.
"These developments occur against the backdrop of economic stagnation and extreme levels of inequality that follow from chronic structural unemployment."
Inequality and a weakening economy would further fuel divides and violence.
"Without drastic reform to the current economic and political and security systems, more than half of the population will remain unemployed, uneducated, poor and thus vulnerable to political manipulation and coercion, while witness to the extent to which violence has become an acceptable currency of communication with the government and among communities."
Their analysis suggests South Africa might be approaching a political turning point, depending on the outcome of the public power struggle between the two factions of the ANC. This was because there were mounting demands on government, but its response was inadequate, they said.
"When government is absent, distracted or incompetent, other agencies and actors move in to fill the associated voice, and new political dynamics emerge," they said.
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