South Africa has one of the highest recorded levels of social protest in any country in the world. The reasons behind this are more complex than is often assumed.
The scale and severity of looting and sabotage in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng in July, following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, has brought social protests and civil unrest into popular discourse.
But much of the talk about the July unrest, which cost more than 300 lives and billions of rand in damage to the economy, has neglected the long history of violent protests in the country. The truth is that while discontent from Zuma supporters was the trigger, the roots of social unrest are much deeper.
Furthermore, the available data shows that the number of protests in South Africa has been constant. increasing in the last 20 years. For example, there has been a nearly nine-fold increase in the average number of service delivery protests each year. comparing 2004-08 with 2015-19.
There is also evidence that social protests are increasingly violent and disturbing.
It is important to understand what is behind this trend of growing social unrest, which is making the country precarious, and what could be done to address the underlying causes.
If the government wants to prevent a repeat of the social and economic catastrophe of the July 2021 riots, albeit on a smaller and more localized scale, it should look back to learn some important lessons about why protests occur and how to tackle them.
Seeds of discontent
There are a number of key factors in understanding the reasons behind social protest in South Africa:
First, it is important to recognize that the people and places with the highest levels of social and economic deprivation are not the most likely to protest. For example, protests over “service delivery” – the provision of basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation – are highly concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, eThekwini, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Mangaung. However, rural municipalities actually have much lower levels of service coverage.
Access to basic services has also improved across the country during last two decades. But protests over the deliveries have increased exponentially during the same period. Obviously, there are deeper and more complex reasons behind how and when the ineffective provision of municipal services ends in social conflict.
Second, it is often a sense of injustice (inequality), not just provision levels, which leads to grievances and resentments that provoke social protest. For example, long-standing differences in amenities between neighboring communities send a clear signal that the government is unwilling or unable to meet their needs equitably.
An example of this is the informal settlements that have often been critical points for protest action. Rural migrants come to the city with expectations of a better life, only to end up living in squalor. Until the government can implement a realistic and scalable plan to upgrade informal settlements, this is likely to continue.
Third, government departments tend to become obsessed with meeting numerical targets at the expense of quality of service and what matters most to communities. Recent research suggests that city officials get caught up in a culture of “play it safe” and “compliance” in service delivery and related public investments rather than genuine innovation and transformation.
An infamous example is the delivery of open field baths where municipalities obtain credit and contractors are paid to build them, whether or not there are houses or people living in the vicinity.
The government must stop being “lip service” to the principles of community consultation and local participation, and take this work seriously. The extra time and effort is justified by aligning city plans and investments closer to people’s real priorities. Local participation can also help ensure that investments in public infrastructure are protected and maintained.
Finally, feelings of frustration and anger have been intensified by years of waiting for promises to be kept. International studies suggest that communities are more likely to protest when they can clearly attribute blame and when visible institutions are perceived to possess the means to repair.
Municipal services have a clear line of sight, where communities can easily measure and witness progress in their daily life experience. Mismanagement and corruption they have caused the collapse of many municipalities in recent years. This is especially true in smaller cities and towns, with images of sewage running down the street and there is no water in the pipes. In this way, complaints about the provision of services are a common trigger for social protest. But the complaints often reflect a much larger basket of discontent.
Over the past 18 months, the hardships and suffering faced by the poorest urban communities, in particular, have been compounded by the disproportionate loss of jobs and livelihoods. during the pandemic. The reality of hunger and food insecurity is a moral issue, but also fundamental to social stability.
The recent R350 extension ($ 23) Covid-19 special monthly grant it should help alleviate some of the immediate pressures on the poorest households. But the country also needs a clearer plan on how to tackle the problem of food insecurity.
No quick fix
Metropolitan populations continue to expand. This puts additional pressure on poorer communities that are forced to cope with rapid densification, limited services, informality, and few economic opportunities. Fractured communities and weak and resource-poor government institutions further complicate the task of improving and transforming these neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, wealthy households can buy their way to safer, better planned places with higher quality facilities. They can choose not to participate in public services by paying for private education, health care, and security. This further accentuates socioeconomic gaps.
There is a real danger that current fiscal crisis it will further corrode public services. This will encourage more and more middle-class families to buy private supplies. Unless the government addresses this problem, the widening gulf between working and middle class communities will amplify perceptions of injustice and exacerbate social instability.
Justin visagie, Senior Research Specialist, Council for Research in Human Sciences; Ivan Turok, Distinguished researcher, Council for Research in Human Sciences, and Sharlene swartz, Head of Inclusive Economic Development, Council for Research in Human Sciences