'Protest Nation': What's Driving the Demonstrations on the Streets of South Africa?

27 Feb 2014

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A new global study that examined protests in 87 countries, including South Africa (SA), found that the highest number of protests takes place in the developed world and the main grievance of protesters is economic injustice. In recent years, SA too has experienced a wave of protests. Is SA part of this global surge in protests or is there something else driving the phenomenon in our country? Trevor Ngwane, a doctoral student and Soweto activist who has done important research on the issue, argues that there’s been an increase in protests under the Zuma administration.

Trevor Ngwane is a researcher in social change and a doctoral student working in informal settlement committees. He is also the political education and researcher officer of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. He is interviewed by Fazila Farouk of SACSIS.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

South Africa has a long history of protest going way back to the old anti-Apartheid marches that predated our democracy. Back then few of us would have guessed that our fellow countrymen would still be engaged in protest action, 20 years after achieving democracy. In fact, South Africans are protesting so much that our country has been dubbed the protest capital of the world.

In recent years especially, there’s been a wave of protest action. Many of these protests originate in poor communities. One tragic development is that as protests have increased, so too has police brutality. Protesters often come up against heavily armed police leading to tragic outcomes. Just in the first month of January 2014, police were responsible for the deaths of at least eight protesters, the media reported.

Why are people protesting? Are their protests simply about frustration regarding the lack of services that they receive or is there something more fundamental that they are protesting about? Is there something more fundamental about our democracy that needs to be addressed?

Is this recent wave of protest part of a wider global trend in protests and civil disobedience which we’ve seen a growth of throughout the world?

A new global study that examined protests between 2006 and 2013 in 87 countries, including South Africa, found that the highest number of protests takes place in the developed world and the main grievance of protesters is economic injustice.

Researchers in South Africa have also conducted research on protests in this country. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg have tracked protests specifically from the period 2004 to 2013 and we’re going to be talking to one of them today, Trevor Ngwane.

Trevor is going to help us make sense of the protests in South Africa.

Trevor is a researcher in social change and a doctoral student working in informal settlement committees. He’s also the political education and researcher officer of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

Welcome to SACSIS Trevor.


FAZILA FAROUK:  Trevor I wanted to start off our conversation this morning by contextualising what’s happening in South Africa within the broader global context. As I noted in my introduction, there’s been an increase in global protests and I want to read something from a report that I read about these international protests. The report states, “Following the onset of the global financial and economic crisis there is a major increase in protests beginning 2010 with the adoption of austerity measures in all world regions.” Is South Africa part of this global wave? What’s driving the protests here in South Africa?

TREVOR NGWANE:  Yes Fazila, I think South Africa is very much part of the global social and economic order.

And in fact what has happened since we got our independence we’ve become even more integrated into the global financial and economic circuits, which means that the problems of the global capitalist economy hit us very hard. And you are correct to say that in 2008 there was an economic meltdown throughout the world. But that meltdown found a (Europe), a USA world already struggling with economic problems.

So, for example, already in France in 2005 there were protests you know by young people, by workers as austerity measures started to bite -- also in Greece, we saw the England riots, Spain. And it’s all about the burdens of the capitalist crisis being transferred onto the shoulders of the working poor, of the working class and people are finding, you know, reasons to fight back, to rebel.

FAZILA FAROUK: In South Africa, why are people protesting? What’s their most common grievance?

TREVOR NGWANE: At the moment you know if you look at the media, the government, even academics, the protests in South Africa are labelled service delivery protests, which suggest that they are about the provision of basic services, water, electricity, housing, roads.

This is very true, but our study also shows that over and above that people are worried about unemployment, are worried about their crime, you know, domestic violence and more importantly, are worried about the quality of democracy in post-apartheid society. So, when we list the issues around which people are protesting - number one will be service delivery, number two will be housing, number three water and sanitation, number four is representation, which means that people are unhappy with the way their public representatives are putting forward their case. Councillors, mayors, provincial officials -- indeed up to the president. So this is a problem, a kind of democracy deficit.

I would say that democracy should be more than just formal in the sense of the vote or electing someone to speak on your behalf. It should have substance in the sense that you should be able to see an improvement in your economic wellbeing. So I think there is a mismatch between that. So, people are voting every five years, but they find that their economic situation is not improving. You vote, but you still remain living in a shack. You vote, you still remain unemployed. So, people who are feeling that maybe their vote - the formal democracy - is not delivering you know in terms of improving their lives.

FAZILA FAROUK: On of the more unfortunate things we’ve seen is a trend in the growth of police brutality. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

TREVOR NGWANE: Ja, there is certainly an increase in police brutality in the manner in which police are dealing with protesters.

There is an intolerance on the part of…government officials. For example, you’ll hear a minister, even recently the president himself suggesting that people who protest are unruly elements and trying to undermine the authenticity or genuineness of their grievances. So over the past 10 or so years 43 people have been shot dead by police during protests.

One of them is Andries Tatane who got shot in Ficksburg in 2011. During that year, seven protesters were shot dead. What is really worrying - in fact, nine in 2011 - what is worrying now, this year 2014, it’s hardly a month - two months and already seven protesters have been shot dead. So, I think we’re seeing an increasing trend towards using the iron fist against protesters.

FAZILA FAROUK: And why do you think that there’s this increased repression of protests?

TREVOR NGWANE: I think that basically, the protesters are questioning the quality of the democracy, they’re questioning the government’s economic policies, but I think that the government is not willing to change. So, without any kind of tangible reform, you know, in the offing, the tendency is to respond with repression. I think that’s the problem.

FAZILA FAROUK: Yet when we read about these protests, which are increasingly getting reported in newspapers, what we’re reading about is service delivery protests. I mean there isn’t any deeper analysis or trying to get to grips with the economic issues people are protesting about. Can you comment on that?

TREVOR NGWANE: Protesters, working people actually their views are often not taken seriously. You know they are viewed from above, from the top, from the outside. There’s no serious desire to get into the minds and ways of the lives of the people.

Remember, you know, the former Minister of Housing, Tokyo Sexwale, he spent, you know, four hours sleeping in Diepsloot and then he came out and said, “I now know how people live,” which to me you know, was quite you know, symbolic of the attitude you know, because I know Tokyo, he grew up in Soweto in Mzimhlophe. He knows very well how people live. Suddenly he doesn’t know.

So, I think that there is a tendency to actually deal with ordinary people, especially when they are fighting back, as some kind of mindless mob. It kind of feeds into a frenzy, which you know the big bourgeoisie want to spread among ordinary work…middle class people, the upper-middle class that in fact the working class is their enemy.

And the idea that when people demand their rights, when people want a living wage, when people want better housing somehow that is bad for the economy and will jeopardise, you know, the living standards of the middle class.

FAZILA FAROUK:  And how are protests being organised? Are these sporadic incidents or is there a programme of education and an interaction with people that kind of gets them to mobilise, you know?

TREVOR NGWANE: In terms of the agency and organisation what is interesting is that many of the protests are not organised by political parties, as some have suggested you know a kind of conspiracy theory.

They are about 40% organised by what we call community-based organisations and then about 20% are organised by you know the so-called new social movements. You remember organisations like the TAC, Treatment Action Campaign, but they have a less role in organising protests than happened say at the turn of the century, you know the year 2000.

So, I would say that most protests are the community itself and then when you look at how it was organized -- people come together as the whole community and they actually do not want any political party or organisation you know to claim ownership of the protests. They say, “We are the community.”

And then they’ll set up mostly something called a concerned resident committee or a crisis committee. Sometimes it’s just called a task team and then it will be around a specific issue. Maybe the burning issue is electricity you know.

And then what will happen is that, for example, in Kagiso they had quite a worked out system. They had three community structures. One called “The Commanders” you know, like the executive, which was in charge of the whole protest. Another called “The Intelligentsia”. These were people dealing with lawyers, with the legal issues, getting contacts with journalists, writing press statements and also working out strategy. And then a third group called “The Commandos”, which is like you know the action combat squads, people who set up barricades.

And then when the people meet for example in Bekkersdal, they called their big meeting, general meeting, the people’s parliament. So there’s a lot of democracy and organisation going on, you know, behind the protests.

Some people misunderstand because they are far from the protests.

For example, I saw that the union NUMSA had a resolution -- you know NUMSA wants to support these protests now since its pulling out of the alliance, but their resolution says the protests are leaderless. So, I don’t think they’re saying that out of spite. It’s because they’re kind of distant from the protests. They are not able to see the local dynamics and internal organisation, which is taking place.

FAZILA FAROUK: Have you noted through your research any increase in protest action that can be linked to the fact that this is an election year in South Africa?

TREVOR NGWANE: Okay, our research, because we’ve done this over 10 years, does not show a clear link between protest and elections. But obviously there is a link. It’s just maybe, it’s too complex for us yet to decipher and explain.

For example, people think that just before elections, there’ll be more protests in order to press the people’s demands you know as political parties campaign and make promises. But in 2009, what happened is that towards the election, the national election, there wasn’t an increase. The increase only came afterwards, after President Zuma had taken power. So, we think maybe that people felt that our man is now in power, we must now push our demands on him.

But in 2011 during the local government elections there was a more even increase before, during and after the election. But after the election, most of the protests seem to be related to the fact that the ANC had promised communities that they could nominate candidates to be councillors, but then these candidates were imposed. So it was dissatisfaction with the people who became councillors.

So, it’s a complex issue. There’s no clear relationship.

FAZILA FAROUK: But are you saying though that there’ve been more protests under the Zuma administration than under the Mbeki administration?

TREVOR NGWANE: Ja, in general, I would say so. Ja because the…highest number of protests recorded were in 2012. Ja, that’s bang in the middle of Zuma’s term. And since then there’s been a slight decrease but at a rate much higher than most other years before.

FAZILA FAROUK: Trevor Ngwane thank you so much for joining us at SACSIS.


FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at sacsis.org.za.

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