Strong-armed cops 'to blame' for protests turning violent

Strong-armed police officers are to blame for service delivery protests that turn violent, researchers from the University of Johannesburg said on Wednesday.

While in some cases residents resorted to violence to voice their frustrations, the manner in which police responded to some situations resulted in violent clashes between them and residents, the researchers said in a study released on Wednesday.

“The cases in Balfour [Mpumalanga] and Thokoza [Gauteng] suggest that the brutal response by the police contributed to the violence whereas in other areas it was the community. Police exacerbated the problem by violent intervention,” the study revealed.

Residents from Thokoza told researcher Owen Manda that police had randomly opened fire at protesters “without any provocation” during the July protest in which they called for the immediate resignation of Ekurhuleni mayor Ntombi Mekgwe.

Residents said Mekgwe was incompetent and that she had failed to heed to the concerns of the community.

“Local council offices are not far from the hostel and the informal settlement so residents said on their way there [to hand over their memorandum of demands], they were met by police who just opened fire randomly despite residents telling them that it was a peaceful protest,” said Manda.

The research team had, however, not spoken to police about the incident.

The same had happened in Balfour where police had fired rubber bullets randomly at residents, whether they were involved in the protests or not.

“Clashes between the police and the community were first reported after police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse the crowd that had assembled for the meeting on July 19.

“Armoured police vehicles began to patrol the township from the early hours of July 20, after a ward office had been set on fire.

“Furthermore, a youth leader told researchers that from 6am of the same day, rubber bullets were fired at random on groups of four or more people, regardless of whether or not they were involved in the protests,” the study found.

It also found that the violent protests in all these areas had not been fuelled by xenophobic tendencies.

“We feel the xenophobia issue has been exaggerated by politicians to divert attention from the main issue of service delivery.

“We didn’t find any evidence that xenophobia was the prime motivator behind the service delivery protests.
While xenophobic attitudes are widespread, these protests have been primarily directed at issues pertaining to local government service delivery,” said Professor Peter Alexandra, a director at the university’s centre for sociological research.

Pakistani shop owners had attested to this, saying although their shops were looted and vandalised, they did not feel they had been targeted for being outsiders.

“The general feeling was that the protests were a result of bad governance and a lack of accountability rather than xenophobia,” junior researcher Comfort Phokela said.

The study found that residents were frustrated with their ward councillors and other local government representatives they felt were incompetent and unresponsive to their needs.

“Perceived failure at the level of local government is a significant motivating factor behind the protests that are being carried out under the rubric of service delivery and disgruntled residents are likely to continue to take to the streets until their demands for a ‘better life for all’ are met,” it said.

The protests were likely to intensify in the lead up to the 2011 local government elections.—Sapa

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