A massive rebellion of the poor

On March 19, Minister of Police Nathi Mthetwa informed Parliament of the number of "crowd management incidents" that occurred during the three years from April 1 2009. Table 1 compares the new data with similar statistics for the preceding five years.

In 2010-2011 there was a record number of crowd-management incidents (unrest and peaceful) and the final data for 2011-2012 are likely to show an even higher figure. Already, the number of gatherings involving unrest was higher in 2011-2012 than any previous year. During the past three years, 2009 to 2012, there has been an average of 2.9 unrest incidents a day. This is an increase of 40% over the average of 2.1 unrest incidents a day recorded for 2004-2009.

The statistics show that what has been called the "rebellion of the poor" has intensified over the past three years. In 2010, the minister of police said "the Incident Regulation Information System classifies incidents either as crowd management (peaceful), during which the incident is managed in cooperation with the convenor and the police only monitor the gathering, or as crowd management (unrest), during which the police need to intervene to make arrests or need to use force when there is a risk to safety or possible damage to property".

"Gatherings" may be sporting activities, for example, but the majority are related to protests of some kind. During 2007-2008 to 2009-2010, "the most common reason for conducting crowd management (peaceful) gatherings was labour-related demands for increases in salary or wages". For the same period, the most common reason for "crowd management (unrest) was related to service delivery issues". The minister's new statement does not include similar information for 2010-2012.

According to the minister's 2010 statement, the average number of participants in gatherings defined as "crowd management (peaceful)" was 500 for 2007-2008 and 4 000 for 2008-2009, and the average number in those defined as "crowd management (unrest)" was 3 000 for 2007-2008 and 4 000 for 2008-2009. In the new statement, the minister declined to put a figure on the number of participants.


For the first time, the minister was asked to state the number of arrests that had occurred with crowd management (unrest) gatherings. These were given as 4 883 (2009-2010), 4 680 (2010-2011), 2967 (April 1 2011 to March 5 2012). These figures give the average number of arrests per unrest gathering as, respectively, 4.8 (2009-2010), 4.8 (2010-2011) and 2.7 (2011-2012).

Table 2 is based on a breakdown of crowd-management incidents in each province as provided in the 2010 and 2012 ministerial statements. These figures — and the data in general — do not necessarily give a precise indication of the number of incidents. There can be administrative weaknesses and human error. Nevertheless, they probably provide reasonably reliable approximations. Gauteng had the largest number of peaceful incidents and the largest number of unrest incidents, but it also has the largest population, so it is not surprising.

Table 2 also compares numbers of incidents with size of population, as estimated by Statistics South Africa for 2011. We need to add the rider that figures are for numbers of gatherings and these can vary in size. Yet, when we take population into account, North West and the Northern Cape come out on top. Because it is likely that most of the peaceful incidents are related to labour protests and many are sporting events, the unrest incidents are probably more pertinent as a gauge of the scale of service-delivery protests in particular and the rebellion of the poor in general.

It is notable that the three poorer provinces, which are also the most rural — Limpopo, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal — have a lower propensity towards unrest incidents than other provinces. The implication, reflected in other studies, is that the rebellion cannot be explained in terms of poverty as such. It is mainly a movement within urban areas, but within those areas most participants and leaders can be regarded as poor and a high proportion come from informal settlements, where services are especially weak.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the latest police statistics is that service-delivery protests continue unabated. Government attempts to improve service delivery have not been sufficient to assuage the frustration and anger of poor people in South Africa. From press reports and our own research, it is clear that although service-delivery demands provide the principal focus for unrest incidents, many other issues are being raised, notably a lack of jobs.

As many commentators and activists now accept, service-delivery protests are part of a broader "rebellion of the poor". This rebellion is massive. I have not yet found any other country where there is a similar level of ongoing urban unrest.

South Africa can reasonably be described as the "protest capital of the world". It also has the highest levels of inequality and unemployment of any major country and it is not unreasonable to assume that the rebellion is, to a large degree, a consequence of these phenomena.

There is no basis for assuming that the rebellion will subside unless the government is far more effective in channelling resources to the poor.

Peter Alexander is the South African research chair in social change and professor of sociology in the faculty of humanities at the University of Johannesburg

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