Crowded out: The media’s coverage of protests focuses on violent and destructive incidents
When South Africa takes to the streets it is because of wages rather than service delivery – and it is almost always peaceful, the largest ever study of protests has found. But in 2012 the picture suddenly changed.
For the previous 15 years at least, people had been taking their grievances to the streets in a fashion that caused no more disruption than transient traffic congestion as they congregated or marched. Then, as popular disaffection apparently spiked, the number of disorderly protests featuring either violence of some sort or disruptions such as roads barricaded with burning tyres overtook orderly demonstrations for the first time.
In 2013, even as the number of protests decreased, disorder continued to be more common than order.
The largest ever study of crowd incidents in South Africa, to be released next week, supports what we thought we knew – and what informs policy: protests are common and in recent years they have grown more unruly.
“We have witnessed a heightening of mass protests in the last 12 months or so,” President Jacob Zuma told his party at the end of May. “As the ANC, we cannot avoid reflecting on this matter and as to what the reasons are for these protests.”
Zuma’s belief is that the destruction of public property during protests is the work of “small bands of anarchists and agent provocateurs”. That perception has influenced everything from the intelligence approach on protests to the divvying up of police budgets, with much diverted to public order policing.
In the 16 years up to 2013, including the 2012 protest spike, 46% of all protests in the country were related to labour issues and another 10% to crime concerns. Both these categories of protest were disproportionately orderly, with police never seeing fit to intervene.
Community protests, which encompasses all service delivery protests not specifically about either education or transport, made up less than a quarter of all demonstrations at roughly 22%. Since 2004 the number of labour and community protests have increased slightly. Once population growth is taken into consideration the overall trend in demonstrations since 1997 is, in effect, flat.
“Contrary to expectation, South Africa is not a country with, in general, rapidly increasing levels of protest action,” write the authors of Counting Police-Recorded Protests, a study due to be released by the University of Johannesburg’s social change research unit.
The study draws on data from the South African Police Service (SAPS) by the South African History Archive under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, with detailed information on 156 230 crowd incidents.
Researchers led by Carin Runciman and Peter Alexander drew samples for inspection and compared results with other counts, including the several databases created from media reports on protests, which have until recently provided the only overall view of demonstrations.
The researchers found media reports were weighted towards protests that caused disruption, and significantly undercounted labour protests that can happen privately at workplaces. For community protests there was a sharp difference between the number of orderly protests and those reflected in newspapers.
“In consequence, it is likely that the public, including politicians, get a false impression of community protests, assuming that most are disorderly, when in fact they are not,” the authors wrote. “The media give a false impression of community protests by under-reporting orderly protests.”
There were also surprises in geographic distribution of protests. On a per-capita basis most demonstrations over the entire period took place in the Northern Cape and the North West, whereas KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo had the least.
A preliminary analysis of the same data by the same authors drew a furious denunciation from the SAPS as a “deliberate misinterpretation of facts” and a “manipulation” of data seeking to show that police should not be involved in the management of protests.
The researchers said police were misusing their statistics and conflating protest numbers to justify a massive increase in the public order policing budget, to buy more water cannons, among other spending priorities. The police took “strong exception” to what they read as an accusation that they were lying to Parliament to secure increases in funding.
In the latest study the researchers again insist there is a difference between “crowd incidents”, which can include sporting matches or large celebrations, and protests. The police’s count of incidents in which they intervene is not particularly helpful either, the researchers say, because an intervention can include clearing a road of rubble after protesters disperse peacefully.
The researchers say disruption, most commonly blocking roads without violence or destruction of property, must be treated carefully. This form of disruption may cross a legal boundary, but does so without contravening moral sensibilities opposed to harm and destruction.
“Disruption can be seen as part of a tradition of civil disobedience that includes the British suffragettes, Mohandas Gandhi’s participation in the struggle for Indian independence, the US Civil Rights Movement, and the ANC’s Defiance Campaign.”
Using that lens – classifying protests as either peaceful, disruptive or violent – South Africa averages just over 11 protests a day, of which one is disruptive and another is violent.