So what, if anything, is known about the local protests? A useful starting point is one of the few examples of a thorough research project, undertaken by researchers at the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). This research into protests in Piet Retief, Balfour, Thokoza and Diepsloot between June and August 2009 confirms that there are three interwoven features in all the protests studied:
- High levels of poverty and unemployment (in the context of a middle-income country with stark inequality);
- Inadequate basic services including water, sanitation, electricity, street lighting, paved roads and insufficient or inadequate housing;
- In all instances, protests only occurred following repeated unsuccessful attempts by community members to engage with authorities over problematic issues – this in part might also explain why the protests have been escalating since 2004.
In addition, in the cases of Balfour and Thokoza, the authors found that a brutal police response to the protests contributed to the violence.
The findings of the UJ research have been largely confirmed by another more recent study of violent protest by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) entitled ‘The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship, collective violence and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa’. This study, too, found that a combination of socio-economic exclusion and problems with formal political processes to be at the root of especially violent protests. Indeed, the title of the study (which is a direct quote from one of the research respondents), refers to a widely held perception among residents of informal settlements that the only way to successfully raise problems over their lived realities and to capture the attention of politicians is to burn things – thereby ‘calling’ out to political leaders.
Interestingly, a recent analysis of the protests at Marikana that led to the deaths of 34 protesters on 16 August 2012, found that “the workers engaged violence to overcome fragmentation and challenge an order of inequality which characterises the new South Africa.” Thus, unregulated and unlawful ‘wildcat’ strikes such as those which occurred in Marikana in August 2012, can be viewed as having largely the same underlying determinants as other local protests.
Unpacking the underlying determinants
The rise of protests, including so-called service delivery protests and wildcat strikes, is a consequence of two primary aspects of South Africa’s far from complete transition from apartheid: the limits of the economic model and the “truncated form of local democracy.” Regarding the first determinant, while poverty per se has slightly decreased between 1993 and 2012 (mainly through social grants and the extension of basic services to poor households), there are two worrying socio-economic indicators for the same period: inequality has increased and the racialised nature of poverty has hardly shifted since 1994.
In terms of levels of inequality between the rich and the poor, according to a 2012 World Bank report on inequality in South Africa, “with an income Gini of around 0.70 in 2008 and consumption Gini of 0.63 in 2009, South Africa stands as one of the most unequal countries in the world. The top decile of the population accounts for 58 percent of the country’s income, while the bottom decile accounts for 0.5 percent and the bottom half less than 8 percent.” In terms of the continuing stark discrepancies in the racialised spread, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), in 1996 the annual per capita income of ‘black African’ South Africans was R5,710 and this increased to R21,075 in 2010, but for white South Africans, the annual per capita income increased from R42,181 in 1996 to R149,002 in 2010. The average annual per capita income for South Africans in 2010 was R36,170. Using the expanded definition of unemployment in South Africa, in 2011 42.4 percent of ‘black Africans’ were unemployed, while only 8.2 percent of white South Africans were unemployed. The unemployment rate for South Africa (using the expanded definition) in 2011 was 36.5 percent. These factors contribute towards a profound socio-economic exclusion of the majority of South Africans from the benefits of South Africa’s economy.
The second aspect of South Africa’s post-apartheid landscape that shapes current struggles by poor communities and workers is the lack of genuine democracy in terms of formal politics, leading to a perverse form of political marginalisation. This democratic deficit is particularly evident at the local government level, which “constitutes a significant political constraint for social movements and other marginalised groups.”
There are several reasons for this local deficit, including the following: the party list system – the only system at national and provincial level – renders leaders more accountable to political parties than to the citizenry; local ward committees are often dominated by political parties and seldom represent the interests of communities; municipalities are overly technocratic and non-participatory, preferring a top-down approach to ‘consultation’ with local communities, often taking the form more of a public relations exercise than participatory democracy. Further, while elite interests are certainly accommodated within municipal development planning, poor communities and especially residents of informal settlements are typically shut out from meaningful participation in such processes. For the latter, direct action and social movement mobilisation are increasingly more relevant forms of democratic expression than formal political involvement.