Divisions at the local level of the ANC are among the chief factors fuelling service delivery protests.
Divisions at the local level of the ANC are among the chief factors fuelling service delivery protests, according to a new report on violent demonstrations.
The police, using heavy-handed action such as random tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets into crowds, often bystanders, were also fingered as a cause of violence.
The report, “The smoke that calls”, was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the Society, Work and Development Institute (Swop) at Wits University and is a collection of eight case studies of community protests and xenophobic violence.
Perhaps one of the report’s key findings was the internal machinations that shaped the “dual nature” of community protests, which involved the internal squabbles of ANC office bearers being merged with the legitimate struggles of the marginalised.
“The ANC in all those communities studied was divided and it was the divisions within the ANC that were fuelling protest,” said Karl von Holdt, a director of Swop. Once power had been reconfigured in the local ANC structure the local elites disappeared, deserting the “concerned group” and leaving a vacuum in which people were left with no channel through which to raise ongoing grievances. “These patterns repeat in quite a few of the case studies, so for us it is quite a major finding,” he said.
The report defines violence broadly, encompassing an explicit intent to damage and harm property and including arson, vandalism and looting.
There was also an interplay between community protests and xenophobic violence, with community protests often morphing into xenophobic attacks.
One of the researchers, Sepetla Molapo, said some of the xenophobic attacks were a result of young men, organised by the taxi industry and local shop owners, who hid among protesters but whose aim was specifically to attack foreign business people because they were seen as a threat.
The report said that, unlike with service delivery protests, it was more difficult to ascertain the key organisers of xenophobic attacks, probably because of the “opprobrium and illegality of their actions”.
“Informal groups and networks appear to play a larger role, although formal organisations are also actors. Secondly, while xenophobic attacks exist as adjuncts to many community protests cases where xenophobic violence is the primary form of collective action are primarily in informal settlements, often with newly built RDP housing sections alongside older shack sections.”
Molapo said that until the broader issues of equality, youth unemployment and belonging were addressed there would always be a possibility of xenophobic attacks.
“It’s not just a question of dealing with material inequalities, it’s also a question of dealing with symbolic issues, like belonging — and identity,” he said.
‘Rebellion of the poor’
Peter Alexander, director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg, said many of the protests had been insurrectionary and the movement as a whole could be characterised as a “rebellion of the poor”.
“The phenomenon has been under-researched and, to the extent that the new CSVR/Swop report provides new data and new ideas, it should be welcomed,” he said.
But he criticised the report as “robbing us of analytical tools necessary to make informed political judgments” and of obscuring more than it revealed because it included both the 2008 xenophobic killings and service delivery protests.
“While the 2008 unrest was a massacre of powerless poor people, the service delivery rebellion is a protest against powerful institutions and individuals whose failings have intensified the suffering of the poor.
“In 2008 more than 70 people were killed. To the best of my knowledge, throughout the whole of the rebellion, stretching back to 2004, the protesters have not killed a single person,” he said.
A significant part of the study focused on the nature of violence in community protests, but there was also a chapter seeking to understand mitigating factors. In Bokfontein in the North West an organisational workshop (OW) and a community work programme (CWP) were highlighted as barriers to violent protest.
“The CWP addressed poverty and the exclusion of people but also resolved issues of collective trauma. What was important was the combination of those two dimensions, pointing towards a need to address collective trauma and rebuild communities,” Von Holdt said. “There are people who advocate that to overcome this [potential for violence] income generation would be sufficient, while others say internal trauma counselling is needed. Bokfontein showed that both were required.”
Piers Pigou, South African project director of the International Crisis Group and a previous project manager at the CSVR, said the report was a significant contribution, but did not explore fully why violence was prevalent in some areas and not in others.
“The Bokfontein case study is important, citing the OW and CWP as primary reasons why violence was prevented, but can that finding be extrapolated more generally? And what other generic factors deter the employment of violence? There was also the finding that foreigners were selling goods at lower prices, but The Star recently conducted a pricing comparison between several foreign owned spaza shops in Gauteng and locally owned ones and found that there was virtually no difference. The politics of perception, untruths and urban myths must be engaged and challenged, and I have concerns that the report may have inadvertently reinforced perceptions that this is a universal truth.”
Pigou said he was concerned that the CSVR had not linked this study with a significant body of its own previous research on these topics. “This would have enabled a more robust comparative analysis that would, in turn, have strengthened the report’s findings and recommendations.”
Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice reporting, supported by CAF Southern Africa
Brutal police action ‘provokes’ confrontation
Police action during service delivery protests escalated confrontation, according to “The smoke that calls” report conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Society, Work and Development (Swop) Institute at Wits University.
According to the report there were allegations of police torture and brutality and the imposition of apartheid-style curfews.
The report referred to recent violence in Ermelo and the highly publicised death of community leader Andries Tatane “at the hands of the police” in Ficksburg.
“The police are, therefore, critically important protagonists in collective violence, both when they are absent from scenes of mass violence and when they themselves engage in collective violence against protesting communities,” the report said.
But the police spokesperson, McIntosh Polela, said the issues raised by the report showed that “one cannot over-emphasise the importance of regular retraining and that is the issue the SAPS is looking at to try to solve the problems”.
“Incidents of assault and torture by our members cannot be condoned or tolerated. This is not part of our policy and our members are clear about how they should conduct themselves,” he said.
In the report one protester said battling with the police was “as war, like the anti-apartheid liberation struggle”.
“Yes, this was war. We were ready to die for the cause — and you see now people only use stones to fight police — But if this brutality continues, people will start using guns. You [the police ministry] have militarised the police now - what option are you giving for us?”
Polela said the comparison with the apartheid police was unfortunate: “The current SAPS works for the communities not against them.”
Although Polela would not be drawn on the details, he said the police were looking at tangible steps to address calls for the reinstatement of the public order policing unit, which was trained to deal specifically with public violence.
Current events bear out the report’s findings. In March the M&G reported on a cellphone video clip showing the SAPS’s tactical response team torturing a man in the Wesselton township in Ermelo. This followed a number of media reports on police brutality after the service delivery protests erupted in February in the Mpumalanga township. A month later SABC news showed a video of police assaulting Tatane, who died after he was shot in the chest.
Last month the director of the police’s Independent Complaints Directorate, Francois Beukman, admitted at a media briefing that there had been cases of police brutality during the service delivery protests of the past two years. But it had been difficult to deal with the cases because police were reluctant to implicate their colleagues, he said.
One of the report’s recommendations was that nongovernmental organisations should develop rapid response teams, which could be deployed when there was likely to be violence between police and communities and record incidents and take affidavits from victims of police violence.
“These [affidavits] could be used, on the one hand, to publicise such incidents and, on the other, to support legal action against the police,” the report said—Aphiwe Deklerk