/ 13 February 2014

Violent protests entrenched in SA’s culture

ANC supporters cut short a DA march to Luthuli House by engaging in intimidatory behaviour.
ANC supporters cut short a DA march to Luthuli House by engaging in intimidatory behaviour.

Over the past month South Africa has been shaken by violent protest. In Relela, in Sebokeng, in Mothutlung, in Roodepoort and elsewhere, there have been flaming barricades, buildings have been destroyed, and people have been killed.

This past week, press reports quoted Gauteng acting police commissioner Lieutenant General Lesetja Mothiba as saying that there had been 122 violent protest marches in Gauteng over the past three months. The Independent Electoral Commission has expressed its concern about the high level of violent protest ahead of the general elections in May.

Many of those killed in protest incidents were shot by the police. Hence much public criticism has focused on the shortcomings – or deliberate brutality – of public- order policing. During one protest, however, a person was shot and killed, not by the police, but by an opposing group of demonstrators. On February 5, a member of a rival group, many of whom were wearing ANC T-shirts, opened fire on protestors in Sebokeng, resulting in the death of 26-year-old Lerata Rabolila and the injury of another man.

This event may appear exceptional, but it is not completely unprecedented. In November 2013, for instance, two boys were injured by gunfire during a confrontation when ANC supporters tried to disrupt a meeting of the Economic Freedom Fighters in an informal settlement south of Randfontein. Lethal violence also continues to characterise political conflict in KwaZulu-Natal.

The day after the Sebokeng killing, Gauteng community safety MEC Faith Mazibuko called on police to investigate the incident, saying that responsibility was likely to lie in the "invisible hand" of a suspected "third force".

President Jacob Zuma also addressed the issue of protest violence and killings by police in an interview with Independent Newspapers last week. After expressing concern about "trigger-happy police", Zuma is reported to have "warned against isolating the police for criticism", saying that communities who "carry pangas, and burn tyres" share in the blame of escalating violence. The underlying problem, Zuma implied, is the "culture and the legacy of apartheid violence".

Zuma may be correct to identify the problem as originating in the time of apartheid. Though it started as a peaceful protest on June 16, the student uprising of 1976 was the first time in which widespread insurrectionary violence emerged in South Africa's townships.

Yet it was chiefly in the 1980s that a violent culture entrenched itself as part of resistance to apartheid in South Africa. The techniques of violent resistance to authority that became widespread at that time were encouraged by the ANC and its allies as part of the strategy of making the country "ungovernable".

Many of these practices remain part of our culture of protest, and remain embedded within the political culture of the ANC in many areas.

As documented in the 2011 report The Smoke That Calls, disgruntled members of the ANC and allied formations often play a leading role in current protests. It is frequently marginalised groups in the local political elite who mobilise "subaltern" groups on the basis of popular grievances. "Service delivery" protests, therefore, continue to be one of the primary terrains on which these violent repertoires of protest manifest themselves. But it is not only disgruntled groups among local political elites that are implicated in violence. Soon-to-be-published research by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry indicates that in many areas political intimidation is generally carried out with the approval of dominant political role-players.

The research shows that the intimidation and the manipulation of voters has adapted to the terrain of democratic South Africa, pushing the boundaries of what political parties can get away with.

In this realm, it is not burning barricades that are a key tool: it is the disruption of opposition meetings and campaign activities. Prominent in many of these incidents is the toyi-toyi "march-dance", which emerged as part of the repertoire of community resistance to the apartheid state in the 1980s. The toyi-toyi retains a revered status as a legitimate form of community self-expression.

In many cases a group of people "merely singing and dancing", as one policeman put it, are involved in intimidatory behaviour: mock charges, verbal threats or threatening gestures, invading opposition meetings, or attempting to drive them out of the area.

The various practices that characterise such local-level community violence, whether in the context of protests or acts of political intimidation, are therefore not merely embedded in many communities but also within the culture of the ANC itself. Though the endorsement of violence often appears to come from local political cultures, it is not restricted to this level.

The Democratic Alliance's intention to march on the ANC's headquarters, Luthuli House, was met by threats. The ANC Youth League said that the May 2012 attack on DA marchers by Cosatu supporters would be "nothing compared to what our members can do" to those participating in the envisaged march. The march itself, on Wednesday this week, was truncated because of the thousands of youth league members and Umkhonto weSizwe "veterans" who took to the streets around Luthuli House to block it. This was certainly intimidatory behaviour.

The ANC therefore needs to address the fact that violence and intimidation continue to be part of its own political culture. Besides taking responsibility for its own actions, it ought to set a better example and take wider responsibility, because of the huge influence it has in defining the rules of engagement in competition between political parties.

David Bruce is an independent researcher. This article draws on work conducted for a forthcoming Community Agency for Social Enquiry study on intimidation and other factors affecting political participation in the 2014 election. The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. The views are those of the author.