SA confronts democracy and rising
Community protests, such as the ones experienced in Soweto this week against electricity blackouts, have increasingly become “disorderly” in a bid to disrupt the social order and draw attention to grievances.
According to new research released this week by the SA Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, everyday labour protests have remained overwhelmingly peaceful.
It shows that disorderly, or what police call “violent”, community protests outnumbered orderly ones for the first time in 2012 and continued to do so in 2013.
The estimates were culled from 17 years of police records on 156 230 “crowd incidents” – most of which were not protests.
The report comes up with an overall estimate of 67 775 protests from 1997 to 2013. That is on average 11 per day, although it varies wildely from year to year.
Of the total number of protests recorded, only 22.1% (14 797) were “community protests”. That is between two and three on average a day.
These are more or less what would be called “service-delivery protests”, but the team argues that the popular term is reductive.
“Over the whole period, 68% of community protests were orderly,” said Carin Runciman, lead author of the report and senior researcher at the SA Research Chair in Social Change.
“From 2012, it is the first time that there were more disorderly than orderly ones,” she told City Press.
The “disorderly” protests include those that “disrupt the normal social order, like barricades”.
“It could give the appearance of violence, but really it is just disrupting the flow of traffic,” said Runciman.
These make up most of the spike in nonpeaceful protests (see graph), as opposed to ones where people are hurt or property is damaged.
“Most protest activities in the world aim to be disruptive; you aim to disrupt the social order to draw attention to whatever your demand is. Disruptive protest is to some extent normal,” she said.
Runciman said the big surprise was discovering how much of the protests recorded by police were labour related. They come to 46% of the incidents the researchers have categorised as protests. That’s 30 825, or on average five per day.
The “vast majority”, 86%, of these were orderly, said Runciman.
This is not the number of strikes, as each day of a protest is counted as a separate protest.
“The scale of the labour protests is interesting ... There is always this low-level labour activity that is occurring that most of us are unaware of,” said Runciman.
“If we just go on media reports, we are sort of conditioned to see protests as mostly community protests.”
The report shows that the overall level of protests is not increasing. When you factor in population growth, the evidence shows a slight decline in protest activity over the past 17 years.
On a per capita basis, the year with the most protests was 1998 (12 per 100 000 people), with 2006 and 2012 matched for second place (11 per 100 000).
Another strange finding is that the Northern Cape has, since 2005, become home to far more protests per capita than any other province.
The Northern Cape’s seeming explosion of protest activity has no obvious explanation.
“We are actually still trying to figure that out,” said Runciman.