Analysis

The politics of counting protests

Jane Duncan

Reports on municipal unrest miss the wider picture of peaceful protest in South Africa, writes Jane Duncan.

Property damage does not necessarily amount to violence, in that no one is injured or killed in such protests. (Gallo)

Violent service delivery protests have dominated the news recently. South Africa has an extremely high rate of protests. Unsurprisingly, the media have focused largely on the increasing violence of these protests, but how accurate is this?

What is often not narrated are the great efforts many communities make to have their voices heard before resorting to protests. Further, what the South African Police Service (SAPS) refers to as “unrest-related protests” are increasing because more municipalities are manipulating the Regulation of Gatherings Act, which they administer, to make it more difficult to protest lawfully. In some cases, protests turn violent in response to police violence.

Yet these prior processes are often missed by journalists. A focus on violent protests without sufficient context could reinforce perceptions that violent protests are the expressive form of choice of an increasing number of poor people, which can lead to them being portrayed as inherently prone to criminality.

Property damage does not necessarily amount to violence, in that no one is injured or killed in such protests, yet journalists continue to repeat the chime “violent service delivery protests” even in cases where it is not warranted.

At a recent press conference on the protests, the University of Johannesburg’s South African Research Chair in Social Change distinguished between peaceful, disruptive and violent protests, making the point that though some protests may involve property destruction they do not necessarily involve violence.

Labelling protests as violent service delivery protests, when this description is inaccurate, and portraying them as being out of control, means police may feel justified in using more violent responses to them. A moral panic about protests could inadvertently make the case for more militarised policing responses.

Journalists often turn to “experts” to interpret the protests, but many commentators rely on the media for their analysis. This turns protest analysis into a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Protest barometers used by such commentators tend to rely on media reports to quantify protests.

There are methodological deficiencies here. Many protests remain unreported or, when they are reported, it is often because they have turned violent – and thus “newsworthy”. This skews barometer findings towards the protests that turn violent, and undercounts peaceful protests.

Another source of protest information is the annual data released by the ministry of police, which shows that 6 000 to 10 000 crowd-management incidents take place each year. This data includes both protests and gatherings, but some commentators have been too quick to assume that it refers to protests only, which leads to the number of protests being overstated. It has become commonplace to assert that South Africa has the highest rate of protests in the world, but there is no empirical basis to assert this – no common measure exists across countries.

Recent research into gatherings and protests in 12 municipalities around the country challenges these received notions. These municipalities were asked for their records of notifications sent by organisations intending to hold gatherings and protests in the past five years. The records provided rich raw data about who is protesting, about what, how these trends are changing over time, and municipal responses.

The data confirms a rise in protests. Of the seven municipalities analysed so far (Johannesburg, Lukhanji, Nelson Mandela Bay, Mbombela, Blue Crane, eThekwini and Makana), the number of protests doubled between 2009 and 2012.

The bulk of gatherings about which the municipalities were informed were protests: 1 048 out of 1 673 gatherings. Yet, of these gatherings, only 5% were prohibited. The vast majority were approved, so there were no concerns about the potential for violence, implying they probably took place without incident. Although protests were more likely to be prohibited than gatherings, service delivery protests were no more likely to be prohibited than any other form of protest, meaning they did not raise particular concerns for the municipalities.

Yet other major protest databases estimate the number of disruptive and violent protests to be much higher, and even the SAPS appears to be undercounting the number of protests, especially peaceful ones. The data sets do measure different things: the municipal data measures notifications of an intention to protest, though many protests did go ahead (cancellations are recorded too).

Other databases measure protests that have actually taken place and that municipalities may not have been informed about. The trick is to triangulate the data, which is not being done sufficiently, to the detriment of public understanding. The municipal data shows that journalists and commentators are too quick to assume that protests are only about service delivery. In the Blue Crane municipality, for instance, from 2009 to 2012, the single biggest reasons for protests was crime, especially abuse of women and children.

In 2013, protests about service delivery and unpopular councillors became more apparent. Apart from municipal service delivery, grievances in other areas include industrial and wage disputes (the largest category of protests), crime, corruption, land redistribution, the state of education and health services, and poor representation by officials.

The data also provides information on shifting political trends. The ANC alliance still dominates the protest space, especially in smaller towns, but it is gradually losing its “share”.

A growing diversity of protests appeared from 2011 onwards: this year of the controversial local government elections saw the ANC imposing unpopular candidates and branches rebelling. The data shows that this problem still remains a source of considerable grievance, especially in the Eastern Cape.

The shifts since 2011 show that more residents attempted to find their voices independently of existing organisations and outside the formal channels, suggesting that ward committees are failing to resolve ward grievances.

A case in point is the Lukhanji municipality, which incorporates Queenstown. In 2008, the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) was very active, holding protests on an impressive array of issues. This suggested that the APF was an important voice for a range of grievances; it also took a stand against xenophobia. But this voice disappeared after 2009, when the APF in Queenstown was closed because it was not properly constituted.

After that, the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions dominated the protest space. In 2012, however, independent community protests reappeared. This suggests that some communities decided to act independently of the alliance structures, but because of the APF’s closure there was no alternative organisation to turn to.

In Makana, there is evidence of ANC alliance organisations protesting, but communities there are more likely to protest in their own names, suggesting higher levels of independent organisation there.

In Mbombela and Blue Crane, many of the protests were held by alliance partners until 2011, when there is evidence of different wards taking to the streets to express dissatisfaction with inappropriate councillors. In fact, protesters in the troubled town of Cookhouse complained about the media misrepresenting their struggle as related to service delivery, which allowed the municipality and the ANC to ignore the underlying grievances to do with councillors. Since 2011, Cookhouse has seen more protests. These culminated in a march in 2013, co-convened by a new organisation called the Civil Social Movement, showing that community discontent was coalescing into a more organised form. Yet it is also clear that these protests are not co-ordinated across ­municipalities, remaining localised.

Violent service delivery protests are a growing feature of the political landscape. But there must be balance and proportion in the public debate, backed by empirical research. Many on the political left would like to read a pre-revolutionary environment into the protests, which increases the temptation to talk them up.

Overstating levels of organisation, however, can lead to overconfidence and ultimately poor political strategy, followed by disillusionment.

The security cluster has a vested interest in talking up the protests too – to justify more resources and greater repression. Keen to see the balance of power shift, even well-meaning commentators must be careful not to play into the hands of the state and its increasingly violent police.

Quantifying the protests accurately is not an academic exercise: lives may depend on it.

Professor Jane Duncan works in the school of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University. This article is the first in a two-part series on protests and freedom of assembly, based on research funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, undertaken with the assistance of Andrea Royeppen, Lehlohonolo Majoro and a team led by Derek Luyt.

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