Is South Africa the ‘protest capital of the world’?

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Richmond Crest residents blocking roads during a protest over power outages.
Richmond Crest residents blocking roads during a protest over power outages.
Picture: Moeketsi Mamane
  • Of the 910 protests across the country since the beginning of the lockdown, 170 of them took place in KwaZulu-Natal
  • The leading category of protests in KZN revolved around crime and policing (including gender based violence), followed by municipal services (water, electricity and sanitation)
  • Legitimate protests are getting tarnished by thuggish opportunist groups, say researchers

Dubbed “the protest capital of the world”, there have been 910 protests across the country since the beginning of the lockdown. Of these, 170 protests took place in KwaZulu-Natal.

These figures were revealed to Weekend Witness by the Institute for Security Studies this week.

“They [protesters] are able to hold government accountable and also bring to the national agenda their plight through protests. In most cases, government officials respond positively after protests.”
Institute for Security Studies researcher, Godfrey Mulaudzi

Researcher at the institute, Godfrey Mulaudzi, said the findings are from the institute’s protest and public violence monitor.

The leading category of protests in KZN revolved around crime and policing (including gender based violence), followed by municipal services (water, electricity and sanitation). The other category is labour and politically related protests.

Mulaudzi said Covid-19 has “exposed socio-economic weaknesses resulting from poor policy implementation and a failure of political leadership, particularly in ... local government”.

He added that being allowed to protest is a fundamental right and is even more important for the many groups that may not have political or economic power.

READ MORE | Samwu protest expected to bring Pietermaritzburg to a standstill

“They are able to hold government accountable and also bring to the national agenda their plight through protests. In most cases, government officials respond positively after protests,” he said.

Mulaudzi said some of the legitimate protests get tarnished by thuggish opportunist groups. The concern here is that legitimate complaints are tarred as thuggish disorder.

Arson and looting cause billions of rands in damage, something SA can’t afford.

“When they [investors] see illegal protests, it tells these people that SA is not a country worth investing in. They say let’s wait and see what happens or they pull out.”
Professor Bonke Dumisa

Mulaudzi said the right to demonstrate must be balanced with other fundamental rights such as property, life and the security of a person.

He added that it is important for people to hold government accountable and for some groups, this may be the only mechanism available to do so and raise legitimate complaints.

Well known economist, Professor Bonke Dumisa, described public service delivery protests as being “reactionary” and “counter-productive”.

He said illegal protests are aimed at deliberately sabotaging the economy. Whenever there are issues between, for instance, a municipality, trade unions or labour formations and there is protest action about this, it affects taxpayers.

“Let’s say people are investing there [Durban] and have opened up warehouses and there is a protest taking place. Nothing can move in or out. Some of the investors will use common sense and pull out, perhaps even to a safer location. This creates unemployment in that area.”
Professor Bonke Dumisa

Investors consider two things, economic and political certainty. “When they see illegal protests, it tells these people that SA is not a country worth investing in. They say let’s wait and see what happens or they pull out.”

As an example he used an industrial area in Durban. “Let’s say people are investing there and have opened up warehouses and there is a protest taking place. Nothing can move in or out. Some of the investors will use common sense and pull out, perhaps even to a safer location. This creates unemployment in that area,” added Dumisa.

READ MORE | Sacked Ugu municipal workers demand jobs back

However, he also said people have the right to protest. “For example, suppose there is a protest taking place on the side of the road and it’s not an inconvenience to anyone. That is okay. When things get violent then this is outside of the law.”

Fed-up Cinderella Park Residents took to the stree
Fed-up Cinderella Park Residents took to the streets to protest in July after a transformer in the area was taken away by Msunduzi’s electricity team, leaving the area in the dark.
Ratepayers picket in July at the traffic circle at
Ratepayers picket in July at the traffic circle at the bottom of Hesketh Drive against the landfill site and the lack of action from Msunduzi Municipality.

Dumisa added that government must be transparent in what it is doing. If unions are told what is happening and they still create havoc, then government must act harshly.

He said everyone has a role to play to stop illegal protests, including religious leaders.

Illegal protest action is often characterised by the burning of material on the roads.

RECENT PROTESTS THAT MADE HEADLINES

• Traffic was disrupted this week at KwaMnyandu, Umlazi, as Mbizane community members blockaded Moses Mabhida Road with burning tyres, stones and broken bottles. The residents were demanding the construction of the D2344 road, which leads to Mbizane from Moses Mabhida Road. People who use this road to go to work and school were forced to use other routes and some turned back home.

• Hundreds of angry residents from the Quarry Road informal settlement in Reservoir Hills went on the rampage this week stoning and torching vehicles, and looting businesses. They blocked the M19 and Quarry Road with burning tyres, demanding electricity, housing and sanitation.

• In June protests erupted in a number of suburbs in Pietermaritzburg including the Grange, Southgate and Himeville. The residents had been left without electricity for days after the Masons Mill substation exploded. The early morning protests created chaos on the roads leaving frustrated motorists in standstill traffic for hours. The community members were demanding the immediate restoration of power. Residents burnt tyres and debris in anger.

• In July residents blocked roads in Copesville and Haniville and pelted cars, including police vehicles, with stones. They were demanding the removal of ANC ward 29 councillor Spha Madlala.

Dudley Mbambo, the SA National Road Agency Limited’s (Sanral) operations and maintenance manager in the eastern region, said when things such as tyres are burned on the road, the surface gets badly damaged. Sanral then has to use funds earmarked for maintaining infrastructure to fix the damaged road.

He said Sanral has identified areas where these protests tend to flare up periodically and works hand-in-hand with law enforcement agencies to deal with each occurrence before damage occurs.

Weekend Witness approached psychologist Clive Willows to find out why people resort to protests.

“Distress results from unmet expectations which, over time become demands. While unmet expectations may result in frustration, a failure to address these over time escalates the feelings toward anger and rage.”
Psychologist, Clive Willows

He said protest action usually follows other, more refined methods of signalling distress.

“Distress results from unmet expectations which, over time become demands. While unmet expectations may result in frustration, a failure to address these over time escalates the feelings toward anger and rage.”

When a society witnesses an increase in the frequency and the intensity of protest action, it would indicate that, firstly, expectations have been consistently ignored and, secondly, that even illegal behaviour becomes normalised as an accepted way of expressing anger, without repercussions, added Willows.

“With elections pending we can anticipate an increase of unrealistic party promises which, when not fulfilled, will lead to further protests. Without a consistent, containing approach to all violent protests we can anticipate an increase in the intensity of violence and destruction as citizens feel the need to shout louder in order to be heard.”
Psychologist, Clive Willows

“With elections pending we can anticipate an increase of unrealistic party promises which, when not fulfilled, will lead to further protests. Without a consistent, containing approach to all violent protests we can anticipate an increase in the intensity of violence and destruction as citizens feel the need to shout louder in order to be heard,” he said. Those observing the protests, added Willows, will formulate their own opinions as to whether or not the causes and the expressions of protest action are legitimate.

With a deteriorating economic climate, widespread unemployment and poverty, the level of desperation and helplessness is increasing among a growing proportion of the population, he said.

This too increases the likelihood of protest action and without anything left to lose, people are likely to become more indiscriminate in their destructive behaviour, he added.

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