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?
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