The year of the protest

2016 was marked by dozens of protests, with ac­cu­sa­tions of po­lice bru­tal­ity once again com­ing to the fore. What do re­searchers and the po­lice them­selves have to say about this?

Finweek English Edition - - COVER STORY PROTESTS - By Lloyd Gedye

southEFF sup­port­ers protest in the Pre­to­ria CBD dur­ing a march against state cap­ture on 2 Novem­ber.

Africa has seen more protests in 2016 than any other year, says Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg (UJ) so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Peter Alexan­der, who holds the South African Re­search Chair in So­cial Change. “The gen­eral trend has been up­ward since 2004.”

The coun­try has seen labour protests, pre-elec­tion protests, ser­vice de­liv­ery protests, land protests, anti-racism protests, #FeesMustFall protests, #Zu­maMustFall protests, #HlaudiMustFall protests and #Prav­inMustS­tay protests.

But while protests are in­creas­ing, find­ing re­li­able data on the topic is a chal­lenge, says Malose Langa, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Cen­tre for the Study of Vi­o­lence and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (CSVR).

The aca­demics and an­a­lysts that fin­week spoke to say the an­nual In­ci­dent Reg­is­tra­tion In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem (Iris) data, sup­plied by the South African Po­lice Ser­vice (Saps) af­ter a Pro­mo­tion of Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion re­quest, is the most re­li­able, but it is not with­out its prob­lems.

They in­sist that this data needs to be de­coded, and some have com­pared it to other data sets, which they ar­gue have led to some in­ter­est­ing find­ings.

“The data needs to be re­con­fig­ured,” says Alexan­der. “It needs to be looked at in more help­ful ways.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Saps an­nual re­port for the 2015/16 fi­nan­cial year, there were 14 693 crowd-re­lated in­ci­dents recorded in Iris and 14 740 in the 2014/15 fi­nan­cial year. Of the 2015/16 in­ci­dents, 24% are clas­si­fied by the po­lice as “un­rest in­ci­dents”.

But aca­demics and an­a­lysts point out that this fig­ure in­cludes all in­ci­dents where the po­lice had to stage a form of in­ter­ven­tion, so this could in­clude a com­mu­nity erect­ing bar­ri­cades or burn­ing tyres, which are not quite vi­o­lent protests.

Ac­cord­ing to the an­nual re­port, the po­lice have ded­i­cated de­tec­tives tasked with fo­cus­ing on pub­lic vi­o­lence-re­lated in­ci­dents and ded­i­cated crime in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ers had been as­signed to work closely with the pub­lic or­der polic­ing units in the var­i­ous prov­inces.

Peace­ful ver­sus vi­o­lent

A re­search project ti­tled Count­ing Po­liceRecorded Protests, pub­lished ear­lier this year out of the South African Re­search Chair in So­cial Change, housed by the So­cial Change Unit at UJ, looks at longterm trends in po­lice data.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, out of the to­tal of 67 750 of po­lice-recorded protests from 1997 to 2013, 80% were cat­e­gorised as or­derly, 10% as dis­rup­tive and 10% as vi­o­lent.

Langa says the me­dia tends to fo­cus on protests that have turned vi­o­lent and not re­port protests that were peace­ful. “This cre­ates the wrong per­cep­tion that protests are vi­o­lent.”

UJ’s Jane Dun­can, who holds the High­way Africa Chair of Me­dia and In­for­ma­tion So­ci­ety, re­cently pub­lished a book called Protest Na­tion: The Right To Protest in South Africa, which cov­ers five years of re­search (2008-2013) in 11 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, where the data for all protests and gath­er­ings was logged.

Ac­cord­ing to her, many gath­er­ings that are recorded at a mu­nic­i­pal level don’t get recorded in any other way be­cause they are peace­ful protests. Since they are not recorded prop­erly, there is a “dras­tic un­der­state­ment” of the num­ber of peace­ful protests.

“This has im­por­tant pub­lic polic­ing im­pli­ca­tions,” says Dun­can. “Es­pe­cially when the po­lice are busy ar­gu­ing for more re­sources.”

Lizette Lan­caster, man­ager of the crime and jus­tice in­for­ma­tion hub at the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies, says it takes a very long time for a protest to be­come vi­o­lent.

“Most pro­tes­tors fol­low the process,” she ex­plains. “They only start mo­bil­is­ing when they feel their griev­ances have not

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