by Piet Coetzer, Stef Terblanche

Escalating protests

Rising revolutionary climate building in South Africa

Rising revolutionary climate building in South Africa
Service delivery protests.jpg

The incidence of protests in South Africa continues to grow. In line with global trends it is creating a dangerous revolutionary climate. On the back of mounting protest statistics, at least one popular international website describes the country as the “protest capital of the world”. 

Two weeks ago we reported how veteran activist Mercia Andrews called the Western Cape farm unrest “a historic rebellion, not a strike”. We also last week reported on the likelihood of escalating labour unrest in 2013. 

In the meantime, the violent social unrest in Sasolburg became the focus of attention in an ongoing narrative of unrest at local government level. Statistics show that service delivery protests, literally every second day, have already involved more than two million South Africans annually since 2008. 

Statistics from the financial and currency markets tell the story: analysts and investors here and abroad are concerned about the country’s prospects. At the time of writing, the jobs of 20 000 mineworkers were still in the balance due to potential mine closures. And the labour unrest on Western Cape farms was threatening to flare up again. 

Last week the unrest at the Zamdela township at Sasolburg in the Free State, like Marikana last year, highlighted the seriousness of socio-economic protests in South Africa. As, with the wave of wildcat strikes last year, the interaction between the protesting residents and the local councillors, national government and police seems to indicate widespread collapse of systems and structures as well as growing distrust. 

While residents of the Metsimaholo local municipality, which include Sasolburg, protested about a possible merger with neighbouring Ngwathe local municipality, analysis reveals deeper-seated underlying problems.

A profile of the township, prepared by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), reveals that despite solid levels of municipal service delivery the overall socio-economic picture is dire. Among others the profile reveals that: 

  • In this municipality, which is 84% rural and only 16% urbanised, the poverty rate is 42% 
  • The unemployment rate is 43% with only 30 000 out of 84 000 working-age people employed
  • Monthly earnings, including social grants, for 55% of the population, are less than R400.

At the same time, however, only 18% of the population live in informal dwellings, 88% of households have a flush toilet and electricity and 73% have piped water inside their houses. Basic service delivery is clearly not the problem here.

And it is a picture repeated throughout the country. “These indicators are not out of line with those of scores of small towns around South Africa where service delivery indicators look fairly good,” says Georgina Alexander of the SAIRR in a statement. Indicating to what extent this situation contributes to a revolutionary climate in the country, however, she adds, “failures in education and labour-market access are blocking socio-economic advancement for large numbers of people resident in these communities. The risk therefore is that most small towns in the country are vulnerable to this level of protest and violence.”

Urbanisation and Service Delivery

On South Africa’s urban landscape, where two-thirds of its population now resides, service delivery remains the main driver of often violent protests. It has triggered more than 3 000 protests in the past four years according to official police data. 

Research agency Municipal IQ recorded 410 “major service delivery protests” from 2009 to 2012. Service Delivery Protest Barometer (SDPB) of the University of the Western Cape and the Multi-level Government Initiative (MLGI) recorded some 720 protests over the same period. 

The large variance between these sets of statistics is attributed to different research and monitoring criteria and methods. However, the fact of a dramatic increase in the past four years is undisputed

The SDPB’s research has also found that approximately 80% of the protests have become violent. The momentum gathering from protest is also illustrated by a dramatic increase during the first eight months of 2012 to 226 incidents. 

In an article published in August last year, the author and Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Njabulo Ndebele, argues that “widespread ‘service delivery protests’ may soon take on an organisational character that will start off as discrete formations and then coalesce into a full-blown movement”. 

To this picture can be added the increase in often violent labour protests and lately a pattern of copycat protests in the country’s overcrowded prisons.

Small wonder that an article on the popular international website Wikipedia dubbed South Africa "the protest capital of the world”. The site reports that since 2008 more than two million people have participated in protests every year.

Common factors

A number of common factors are present in all illegal strikes, protests and unrest across the country. These include:

  • Unemployed youths form a large component of protesters, often leading the protests or joining workers in their strikes
  • Protesters and strikers seem  largely to live in impoverished informal settlements
  • Most wildcat strikes, protests and unrest are triggered by socio-economic pressures
  • Most strikes and protests have turned violent with destruction of property and looting, signalling high levels of social frustration and moral decay
  • Established formal channels, forums and institutions are mostly bypassed when negotiating demands with authorities and employers.

Global context

While there are unique local characteristics and triggers, the South African protests are by no means unique in a global context. They form part of what has become a global trend in the face of mounting socio-economic pressures and collapsing systems and structures.

Such protests have been witnessed in a number of North African and Middle Eastern Arab countries and various European countries including Greece, France, Belgium, Ireland, Georgia, Romania, Sweden, Denmark and the UK. The US, Argentine, Brazil, India, China, Cameroon and Mozambique among many more have also not been spared. 

Escalating poverty, high unemployment among, especially, young people, increasing  inequality between rich and poor, rejection of outdated political and economic systems, dubious business practices, high food and fuel prices and other wide-ranging socio-economic pressures are at play across the globe.

A respite in the near future looks unlikely as economic growth estimates continue to be revised downward as a result of both local and international factors, the latest estimate for 2013 being a paltry 2.2%. That means high poverty levels cannot be reduced, nor can enough jobs be created. 

Recent research found that four out of five poor urban households in Southern Africa experience chronic food shortages. Echoing the global picture, South Africa’s deputy minister for economic development Hlengiwe Mkhize, said in a recent interview that South Africa will likely miss its target of creating five-million jobs by 2020 “if we don't systematically look at priority sectors”.

South Africa might already be in the grip of its own Arab Spring, which calls for urgent and far-reaching action. Spin alone will not do the trick. 

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