On Protest Hotspots and Analytical Blind Spots

By Jane Duncan · 9 Mar 2010

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Picture: United Nations
Picture: United Nations

Oukasie, Sharpville, Orange Farm, Siyathemba: images of violent protest action against poor service delivery have dominated the news in the past few weeks, signalling growing frustration with the Jacob Zuma administration’s failure to address the implosion of services in parts of South Africa.

But all too often, media coverage does not help us to understand the complex forces that gave rise to such protests. Coverage tends to be episodic, focusing on the moment of protest, which does not explain why a community got to the point where they felt that the only way of communicating their message was to barricade roads, stone the mayor's house or torch a library.

Episodic coverage does not explain why these protests turned violent, while others didn't, and whether the violence could be attributed simply to a criminal element in the crowd, as official spokespeople often allege.

Also, there is little media follow up afterwards, to see whether the protest led to any meaningful changes in the manner and pace of service delivery, as journalists have probably moved onto the next protest 'hotspot' by that stage.

Journalists are not alone in generalizing about protest action. Often, researchers have not helped matters either. While some sketchy statistics are available about the number of gatherings taking place in South Africa year on year, too little is understood about the reliability of this data.

As there are significant gaps in the research, we do not really know how South Africa measures up to other countries as a protest 'hotspot', and whether we do, in fact, have the highest rate of protest action in the world (as has been alleged). Given the centrality of protest in our national politics, it is a sad indictment on the priorities of our research institutions, especially our universities, that we know so little about protest action and its underlying processes.

Statistical information is needed to build up a proper picture of the scale of protest action. But in addition, we also need an ethnography of protest that attempts to understand protests in their fullest possible context. A rich body of social movement theory could be drawn on to analyse protest cycles and predict their likely outcomes.

In the absence of informed analyses, we are unable to measure how stable or unstable we are as a society. We cannot anticipate whether this instability will precipitate revolutionary or reactionary change. As became evident from the xenophobic attacks in 2007, our society remains dangerously blind to its most serious problems.

While media and academic attention has focussed largely on urban struggles, protest action appears to be on the increase in the smaller towns. Grahamstown is a case in point. The town is lucky to be endowed with an excellent community newspaper called 'Grocott's Mail', which has broken the mould of South African community newspapers as traditional purveyors of 'white news'.

Yet, in an editorial in October 2009, the paper had to admit its own gaps in information on the number of protests. It noted that there appeared to be an escalation of protest action in the past year, but that they based this observation on anecdotal experience rather than a professional statistical survey. Yet, the information needed to move beyond the level of anecdote is freely available in the Makana Municipality's offices.

The Municipality's meticulously kept records of applications for gatherings, made by various organizations in terms of the Regulations of Gatherings Act, provide a revealing paper trail of this form of protest action. The number of applications has remained steady since 1998 (the date when records began to be kept), averaging 40 per annum.

But the type of gatherings has shifted gradually. From 1998 to 2002, the overwhelming majority of applications were for fun runs and big walks, cake sales, school and university events, funeral processions, donkey carnivals and cycle tours.

From 2003 onwards, peppered in between the cake sales and fun runs were signs of growing industrial action. The first documented march of township residents took place in 2003, when the Vukani community marched on the Municipality to demand housing.

Then from 2005 onwards, residents marched with ever-increasing frequency, protesting against poor service delivery and crime. Learners marched against the poor state of township schools, the residents of Grahamstown north complained about housing and job creation, the Enthembeni and Transit camp communities marched on service delivery. However, all these marches were relatively small, never exceeding 500 people, and were confined to particular wards.

It was only in 2009 that a conscious effort was made by the Unemployed People's Movement to organize across wards, in recognition of some residents' allegations that ward committees have become places where community grievances go to die rather than being spaces where problems are aired and resolved.

Tellingly, the number of marches held by the ANC’s alliance partners, the SACP and Sanco, as well as by other political organizations, has withered away into non-existence.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the Municipality's records. Firstly, the evidence points to a slow build-up of workplace and civic frustration and, consequently, protest action has increased. The demands made during protest action have become increasingly strident. Existing political organisations are not giving a voice to these frustrations, suggesting their growing irrelevance, and new organisations are stepping into the gap. The level of organisation is growing. Existing mechanisms, such as ward committees, are not addressing grievances effectively.

One of the most enduring grievances is unemployment, and the income deprivation it leads to. The elderly are a rich source of local history on employment patterns. In conversation, a number observed that employment was plentiful twenty years ago.

Grahamstown has extensive kaolin deposits, and people found jobs at the nearby kaolin processing factories. Large bread bakeries also employed many people. The local market also provided employment. A railway line linked Port Alfred to Johannesburg, through Grahamstown and Alicedale.

In a deeply troubling inference about the nature of post-apartheid society, an elderly woman observed, "Life was good then. There were many jobs, and money was plentiful". She recalled that jobs were often permanent, and came with benefits. A younger community member recalled that cash was freely available for buying basic goods.

Then from the 1990's onwards, the local economy underwent classic information society and knowledge economy shifts. Grahamstown de-industrialised. Primary and secondary industries withered. The bakeries, market and kaolin processing plants were closed down, with unprocessed kaolin being exported to other parts of the country for processing. The railway line was gradually phased out.

At the same time, the services sector assumed greater prominence, with the tourism industry. Rhodes University and the schools become key drivers of the local economy.

In the process, the availability and quality of work has declined drastically. Another woman spoke about the fact that not even graduates can find work. Her daughter, a graduate, is only able to find jobs for three months at a time, after which she is tossed back into the Grahamstown's vast reserve army of labour. Presumably, Jacob Zuma would call these job opportunities.

She noted that the tourism industry was not a reliable employer, often offering piecework with poor pay. Another woman pointed out the extreme difficulties in finding employment at the university, as job seekers need to be in the information loop and have access to the newspaper or the internet at the very least, to apply, suggesting that information societies tend to advantage the already-networked.

The elderly woman observed that the liquor and drugs are the fastest growing industries in Grahamstown. 'We are scared for our children. Twenty years ago, no one drank. Now there are five taverns in this street', she said, pointing to the huddle of youths drinking umeshovalale in the yard opposite her house at 11.30 in the morning. She then gestured towards the Grahamstown city centre - boom town for educationalists, artists, the tourism industry, landlords and estate agents - and shook her head in despair. “Grahamstown is going down, down, down.”

In 2007, government policy committed the country ‘(to establishing) South Africa as an advanced Information Society in which information and ICT (information communication technology) tools are key drivers of economic and societal development'.  In Grahamstown and elsewhere, these shifts have entrenched mass structural unemployment, as the labour absorption rate of services, including information services, is generally a fraction of what it is in manufacturing.

Relying on private sector-driven 'job opportunities' is misplaced, as mass unemployment in the town has been largely private sector-driven. If the jobs bloodbath in the town is to be reversed, Grahamstown will need to reindustrialise, and the state will need to drive this.

It is difficult not to conclude that Grahamstown is a pressure cooker waiting to blow, as are other towns on the hinterlands of the information society.

To its credit, there is no evidence in the Municipality's records of gatherings having been prohibited. Yet the fact that protest action is intensifying should be cause for concern, as the underlying causes of the previous actions clearly remain unaddressed. As an Anti-privatisation Forum member in another Eastern Cape town observed, “We have the freedom to speak, but nobody listens.”

Social movements theorists Sydney Tarrow and Donatella della Porta have analysed how state non-responsiveness radicalises protest action, and prompts a shift in tactics from legal to illegal forms of protest, as protestors conclude that lawful protest will get them nowhere. These are reasonably predictable protest cycles. Simply condemning illegal and violent protest, as the government tends to do, is easy; understanding why it happens is much more difficult.

In view of unfolding developments, what stops Grahamstown, or any other small town for that matter, from becoming Oukasie, Sharpville, Orange Farm or Siyathemba? Do we really know?

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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