On the 23rd of October 2015 the fees finally fell after a massive, coordinated protest action against increasing tuition fees by South African University students – one example of civil unrest among many this year. In 2014, there
were 218 protests across the country – 1 every 40 hours – double as much as in 2007 and the highest number since democratisation. The trend suggests that this year is set to surpass that amount, and the next will see even more public unrest. Some say we already have the highest rate of protesting in the world.
Is it true? Have we reached a precarious pinnacle of protestation? Have we become The ProtestNation?
In researching this article, I encountered, on more than one occasion, the insistence that South Africa is in fact the country with the highest amounts of protests in the world, earning itself the title of protest capital of the world. However, hard evidence or comparative research seems to in short supply in all of these claims, necessitating some primary research of my own. Manually collating evidence of various kinds of protest action across numerous countries over a reasonably longitudinal period of time for the purpose of comparative analysis would be as time consuming and onerous a task as writing this sentence. Thankfully the internet provides access to troves of treasured information derived from time consuming and onerous tasks that others have already done, such as the Global Database for Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) which has for the last 36 years been cataloging and codifying various events, including protests, across the globe.
Even a cursory glance* at the data available from GDELT immediately disproves the notion that SA has the most protests per year of any country. Russia, China and India (our BRICS brethren) all have higher amounts of public protests than South Africa, with the later as many as five times more over the last 10 years. However, India also has a population of 1.25 billion compared to South Africa’s relatively tiny 53 million; the same population discrepancy goes for Russia and China – the more populace countries generally have more protests. To account for this discrepancy in population sizes, the amount of protests in each country were divided by the size of the population of the country generating the number of protests per capita. This number makes provision for the theory that the more populace a country, the more separate incidents of protesting is likely. Comparing protests per capita, SA finally outweighs the likes of India, Russia and China in its prevalence of protesting, however, South Africa is only the 11th highest per capita protester in the world. In fact France, Australia and the UK all have more protests per person than SA, and it is the Swiss who prove to be the most publicly vocal about their grievances – almost 15 times more so than SA. The truth is that although we have a very protest prone populace, we are not yet the worst in the world.
*Note that only data on the 50 biggest economies in the world (of which SA is 33rd) were researched due to time constraints.
Numerous protests are not necessarily indicative of broken, backwater or declining societies either; high-income, developed countries are actually much more likely to protest than developing countries. Protests are a means of publicly voicing grievances and concerns and should be commonplace in ,and in fact seem to be indicative of, healthy, democratic, and civic minded societies. A protest by concerned students for accessible and affordable tertiary education is not only commendable, but also inspiring. A major problem however arises when protests become less about the demand for directed resolution on specific issues, and more about a underlying prevalence of disenchantment, disenfranchisement and disillusionment aimed at the government and democratic values as a whole, as indicated by the violence and destruction that accompanies many South
African protests. In 2007 the likelihood of a protest turning violent was 40
%; in 2014 it reached a worrisome 80%. Protesters no longer seem interested in amicable solutions to pressing societal problems, having seemingly lost faith in such likelihoods, but rather seem bent on physically expressing deep seated angers towards a system that only accommodates in a piece-meal fashion.
In conclusion, it is clear that the number of protests per year is steadily rising, but for the time being we are not yet the most prone to protestation in the world, neither nominally nor per capita, although we are still high up on the list for a developing country of our size. But then again regular protests seem to be characteristic of countries that consider themselves socially developed, indicating a civic responsibility and the freedom to voice dissenting opinions, and should not necessarily be considered a blight. However, and this is an important caveat, protests that have a tendency to turn violent (as 80% of SA protest currently do) can undermine the positives of protest and can be considered indicate of more insidious, underlying societal problems.
Protests are not necessarily a bad thing, but if the current government does not address the underlying issues that drive people to violent protests in SA then it might soon realise that violent protestation precedes government termination.