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Desperate and divided, SA is gatvol

Increasingly, South Africans from all walks of life are mobilising for change. Many resort to public protest in the hope of galvanising the government to improve its performance and do something about unacceptable levels of unemployment and poverty.

Are South Africans reaching the end of their tether? Most of the protests relate to bread-and-butter issues and inadequate government.

For instance, half of the 2 322 incidents of protest and industrial strikes recorded between January 2013 and December 2014 by the Institute for Security Studies’ public violence monitor related to poor services (25%) or labour matters (23%). Another 11% of gatherings related to protests against crime or bad policing. Mob justice or vigilantism constituted 161 incidents (7%) of public violence reported.

Last month, the severity of vigilante action was illustrated by events in Parys, Free State, where four farmers were charged with the murders of two men suspected of having been involved in farm attacks.

Similarly, in September last year, residents of Etwatwa, near Benoni in Gauteng, killed three teenagers suspected of criminal activities.

These cases demonstrate South Africans’ high levels of frustration with rising crime and what they perceive as the police’s inability to keep them safe.

The extent of public violence is arguably also linked to broader factors, such as high levels of unemployment and inequality, the weakening rand and a protracted drought, which has brought many rural communities to their knees.

Afrobarometer: majority distrust Zuma 
Confidence in politicians – notably President Jacob Zuma, MPs and local government leaders – has also been declining. The 2015 Afrobarometer survey released at the end of November on South Africans’ confidence in the president shows that two-thirds of adults polled distrust him.

More significantly, half of those who consider themselves ANC supporters also mistrust the president. The survey found that public approval of his performance decreased dramatically from 64% in 2011 to only 36% in 2015.

The president’s shock dismissal of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene not only spooked the markets and crippled the country’s economy, but also provoked further dissatisfaction with the president, as evidenced by the #ZumaMustFall campaign.

The Afrobarometer survey found the approval ratings of councillors have dropped by 10% since 2011. And only 39% of South Africans approve of their elected local government leaders and 42% approve of MPs.

Afrobarometer’s poll on perceptions of the government’s performance showed that 80% of people feel the government is performing “fairly badly” or “very badly” in fighting government corruption, narrowing income gaps (78%), reducing crime (77%), creating jobs (77%) and keeping prices down (76%).

This year’s local government election results will reveal whether or not increasing frustration will affect voting patterns. For many, protests are a way to express dissatisfaction with their elected party without voting differently.

Although the ANC achieved 62% in the 2014 national elections, this comprised only 35% of the voting-age population who cast their votes for the party, down from 58.3% in 1994.

Two out of three voting-age adults either did not vote, or voted for an opposition party, and only one out of three voted for the ANC. If the 2014 national elections are anything to go by, more people may start articulating their disapproval by voting for political parties other than the ANC.

Increased levels of electoral violence expected
But, for many people, voting is not seen as an effective way to improve government service delivery, and public protest is viewed as the only way to try to effect positive changes.

One expects political parties, in their local government election campaigns this year, to explain how they will create jobs, improve services and cut crime at a local level.

The Afrobarometer shows that 71% of respondents believe that unemployment is the largest problem the government should address. A quarter of respondents believe that housing and crime (both 27%) are the most pressing issues, followed by education (22%), poverty (19%) and corruption (17%).

Arguably, many local power elites are not focused on improving conditions of the people they are supposed to serve, as shown by the state of disarray of most local government finances. Some local politicians may try to distract voters from their own governance failures. One way to achieve this is to blame marginalised groups, such as foreigners, for local problems, which may then erupt into violence, such as xenophobic attacks and vigilantism.

Given that many local-level politicians see government primarily as a means of self-enrichment, rather than serving people in their area, it is expected that competition will be fierce and levels of electoral violence will be higher than that experienced in the 2014 elections.

Hence, it is important that political party leaders are seen to take a strong position against any forms of prejudicial or hate speech. If not, suspicion and divisions will flourish and we can expect to see further rises in violent public protests, xenophobic attacks and vigilantism.

Lizette Lancaster is the manager of the crime and justice information hub of the governance, crime and justice division of the Institute for Security Studies.

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