The year of the protest

South Africa has seen more protests in 2016 than any other year, says University of Johannesburg (UJ) sociology professor Peter Alexander, who holds the South African Research Chair in Social Change. “The general trend has been upward since 2004.”

The country has seen labour protests, pre-election protests, service delivery protests, land protests, anti-racism protests, #FeesMustFall protests, #ZumaMustFall protests, #HlaudiMustFall protests and #PravinMustStay protests.  

But while protests are increasing, finding reliable data on the topic is a challenge, says Malose Langa, a senior research associate at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).   

The academics and analysts that finweek spoke to say the annual Incident Registration Information System (Iris) data, supplied by the South African Police Service (Saps) after a Promotion of Access to Information request, is the most reliable, but it is not without its problems.  

They insist that this data needs to be decoded, and some have compared it to other data sets, which they argue have led to some interesting findings.  

“The data needs to be reconfigured,” says Alexander. “It needs to be looked at in more helpful ways.”   

According to the Saps annual report for the 2015/16 financial year, there were 14?693 crowd-related incidents recorded in Iris and 14 740 in the 2014/15 financial year. Of the 2015/16 incidents, 24% are classified by the police as “unrest incidents”.  

But academics and analysts point out that this figure includes all incidents where the police had to stage a form of intervention, so this could include a community erecting barricades or burning tyres, which are not quite violent protests.  

According to the annual report, the police have dedicated detectives tasked with focusing on public violence-related incidents and dedicated crime intelligence gatherers had been assigned to work closely with the public order policing units in the various provinces. 

Peaceful versus violent 

A research project titled Counting Police-Recorded Protests, published earlier this year out of the South African Research Chair in Social Change, housed by the Social Change Unit at UJ, looks at long-term trends in police data.  

According to the report, out of the total of 67 750 of police-recorded protests from 1997 to 2013, 80% were categorised as orderly, 10% as disruptive and 10% as violent. 

Langa says the media tends to focus on protests that have turned violent and not report protests that were peaceful. “This creates the wrong perception that protests are violent.” 

UJ’s Jane Duncan, who holds the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, recently published a book called Protest Nation: The Right To Protest in South Africa, which covers five years of research (2008-2013) in 11 municipalities, where the data for all protests and gatherings was logged.  

According to her, many gatherings that are recorded at a municipal level don’t get recorded in any other way because they are peaceful protests. Since they are not recorded properly, there is a “drastic understatement” of the number of peaceful protests. 

“This has important public policing implications,” says Duncan. “Especially when the police are busy arguing for more resources.” 

Lizette Lancaster, manager of the crime and justice information hub at the Institute for Security Studies, says it takes a very long time for a protest to become violent. 

“Most protestors follow the process,” she explains. “They only start mobilising when they feel their grievances have not been heard.” 

She adds that if communities’ grievances had been addressed appropriately before they had mobilised, the protests may never have taken place. 

According to Duncan, some communities do take to the streets without making their intention to protest known to authorities, as they often feel a sense of “profound distrust” of local government. Their view is that it is inappropriate to inform the municipality that they are going to protest against it.  

The rise in violent protests

Peaceful protests may make up the overwhelming majority, but Lancaster says a growing percentage of protests is turning violent. “The question is why? When police intervene it leads to heightened frustration.”  

Langa adds: “Police are called in to bring law and order but often they do the opposite of that. Often police don’t come to facilitate a peaceful protest, they come to disperse people using rubber bullets, water canons and stun grenades, then things get out of control. It’s a worrying trend.”   

Alexander agrees, explaining that often activists are shot in the upper body with rubber bullets, which is not policy. Increasingly, activists are being arrested and not charged, often over a weekend.  

He explains that these are forms of punishment and intimidation, adding that interdicts are being used to give the police the “green light” to intervene in protests, as they often take place on private land.  

Responding to questions from finweek, Saps says the approach to policing any crowd is based on what it terms the “democratic balance”.  

“Consideration is given to the rights of protesters of protesting peacefully and the rights of non-protesters,” it explains. The police says it uses force as prescribed in legislation supported by national instructions and this is reviewed internally and by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). The national instructions of 2014 relate to the Regulation of Gatherings Act. 

According to Lancaster, since then-police commissioner Jackie Selebi disbanded the public order policing units, the police’s ability to deal with protests has taken a knock. “A lot of expertise was lost.”   

She states that the way the police acted was not proportional to the threat during the #FeesMustFall protests. According to her, it seems as if Saps is resorting to tactics last seen under apartheid, where intelligence operations and the courts are being used to keep protest leaders off the streets.  

But according to Saps, “Intelligence-led policing is one of the many approaches available to public order policing, which allows for early interventions, which favour the preventative approach. The ‘pro-vention approach’ is much more favoured as it allows for early intervention and finding negotiated settlements to the dispute.” 

Saps also states that interdicts “are obtained by the academic institutions and not the police – interdicts do not provide the police blanket authority to act differently to our prescripts. Acting on the court order still requires a complaint statement and further request from the institutions before we intervene. 

“However, it must be noted that the SA Police Service does not need an invitation to act when confronted with criminality,” it says.  

Duncan identifies a shift from para-military to intelligence policing as a “post-Marikana” development. “What do the police have against those student leaders? The fact that one is a leader does not make one guilty. 

“It’s a strategy to intimidate students,” she adds.  

Langa says another ploy of the police is to insist that there is a “third force” at play. He adds that this “delegitimises” what is a “legitimate” protest. According to him, harassment from and abuse by police is unacceptable and given our history as a country is a “worrying trend”.  

“We had students living in fear, going into hiding,” he says. “We need to ask whether our police are well equipped to manage protests. Looking at the desperation of the state, we need to ask how we arrived at this point.”  

Lancaster adds: “It’s very disappointing. A lot of analysis needs to be done; we need to come up with appropriate policies.” 

This article formed part of the cover story that originally appeared in in the 15 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.


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