The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
A confident table of politicians and police leaders faced the media in parliament on Thursday, 20 September 2012. The annual release of the crime statistics is a big media event and these officials were in a positive mood because they could once again report reductions in most categories of serious crime. This was not too surprising as for the past decade total levels of crime have decreased by 25%. However, the rate of decrease is very slow and slowed down further in the past year. At the current rate at which murder is decreasing it will take South Africa around 36 years before our murder rate reflects the international average of seven murders per 100 000. Given that the government has no clear strategy based on initiatives that are proven to reduce violent crime, it is unlikely that we will see the kind of reductions possible with our available resources.
Both the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, and the National Commissioner of Police, Riah Phiyega, said public violence is an emerging issue that requires police attention. Indeed, indications are that the levels of public violence have massively increased since 2009 as poor communities’ frustration grows and they lose patience with local government failures, corruption and political in-fighting.
According to data gathered by Municipal IQ, an independent local government monitoring agency, there was a 289% increase in the number of violent public protests against municipalities, from 27 such protests in 2008 to 105 in 2009. The number dropped slightly in 2011, but increased again in 2012 to 113 incidents. Figures for the first six months of this year show that there were more protests against local government in this period than in any other year since 2004.
The SAPS has a far more comprehensive system for registering violent public protests than Municipal IQ does. While Municipal IQ relies on media reports, the police have detailed data. At the briefing on crime statistics, the police revealed that they had attended 1 214 incidents of public violence. This is an increase of almost 25% when compared to the previous year and works out to an average of three violent incidents every day across the country. Increases in public violence were recorded in seven of the nine provinces, with substantial increases in the North West (76%), Eastern Cape (60%), Gauteng (38%) and the Western Cape (31%).
The increasing number of violent public protests concerned the minister and the police because they result in the police having to divert resources away from responding to other types of crime. The minister said that from now on the police will be paying more attention to public violence and will seek to lay more charges against those involved. This will result in a number of negative consequences.
Most communities that protest against local government failures have raised their grievances peacefully before resorting to demonstrations. Requests for meetings and letters are often ignored and if there is some response from politicians or government officials, promises are left unfulfilled. By the time a community starts blockading roads, burning tyres and, in more extreme cases, destroying local council property, frustration has built up for some time.
In a report titled The smoke that calls, published in 2011 by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, a compelling analysis of the factors that drive violent community protest was presented. The authors argued, among other things, that the police have a pivotal role in determining whether or not a protest turns violent. For example, the failure of the police to intervene timeously can allow violence to spread. The xenophobic attacks in 2008, in which 69 people were killed and thousands displaced over a period of four days before the military were called in, is a case in point. In some cases, the research found that rather than preventing violence, overzealous and aggressive police action ‘escalated confrontation and tension which rapidly took the form of running street battles between protesters and police officers’. This has very serious implications for police legitimacy.
Particularly after the events at Marikana, there is an increasing risk of the police being seen as antagonists in local struggles as they begin to represent a very visible, forceful state response to what increasingly marginalised communities feel are legitimate grievances. This will increase the social distance between these communities and the local officials that are supposed to serve them. Moreover, it will mean that large numbers of people may lose trust in the police and start to see them as the enemy. Less crime will be reported, less information on criminal suspects will be forthcoming and police safety will become increasingly compromised in certain areas. Based on 2009 figures, it has been estimated that at the time over 2 million people were involved in public protests. This is a large number of people whom the police should not be turning into adversaries.
The problem of violent public protests is one of poor local government service delivery. As long term and as difficult as the solution might be, it is ultimately to appoint skilled people who are able to deliver the basic services promised to and expected by local communities who most depend on government. It is also important to hold poorly performing and corrupt local officials accountable, as this is another reason for many of the failures that result in public protests. If this strategic approach is not forthcoming, the police will be caught in a conflict situation that they have no hope of winning without devastating consequences for both the state and society.
Written by Gareth Newham, Head of the Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria