Songs of protest

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Service delivery protests have skyrocketed with 2014 seeing a record number of protests across the country. Findings from the recent Civic Protests Barometer however says that poverty alone is not sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

Burning tyres, roads being barred and angry protestors gathering up in arms are just some of the images that comes to mind when thinking of South Africa’s predicament when it comes to service delivery protests.

With a record number of 208 protests being recorded in 2014, government and local government has been scrambling to get their ducks in a row in order to placate the raging masses. In the recent Civic Protest Barometer 2007 to 2014, authors Jaap de Visser, M. O’Donovan and Jaap de Visser investigates this phenomenon and asks whether these protests are in fact a “rebellion of the poor”.

According to the report, “Understanding the protests as a form of civic conflict locates the South African experience within the broader field of comparative international scholarship on conflict in fragile and conflict affected countries, which is useful for purposes of comparative research. Internationally, civic conflict is regarded as a symptom of both social exclusion and the fragility of state institutions.

“The link between civic protests and the quality of state institutions is apposite because the South African Constitution creates obligations on the state to put people, and especially the poor and vulnerable, at the centre of social policy. The regime for developmental local government in the constitution, for example, obliges municipalities to be responsive, accountable and inclusive governments. Systemic civic conflict is clearly incommensurate with the constitutional commitment to building developmental local government, and thus a signal not only of institutional weaknesses, but of a breach of constitutional obligations.”

Gauteng most protest-prone

The barometer, which measures the spread of protests among South Africa’s 278 municipalities and nine provinces for the period 2007 to 2014, goes on to show that Gauteng is the most protest-prone province, with 30% of all protests taking place in the province. The next most protest prone province was the Western Cape (22%). The lowest share of protests took place in the Northern Cape. However, as the authors note, the Northern Cape also has the smallest population with about two percent of the country’s population.

It further indicates that since 2011, Gauteng’s share of protests has been rising more rapidly than anywhere else. In 2012 only 20% of protests took place in that province. By 2014 this proportion had increased to 36%. The barometer also shows the spread of protest shares within the eight metropolitan municipalities, which are the largest cities in the country, as well as the metro’s share relative to all other municipalities.

According to their findings, in 2014 Cape Town and Tshwane tied as the most protest prone municipalities with 28 service delivery protests each. During the combined period of 2012 to 2014 the most protest prone municipalities were, in descending order, Cape Town, Johannesburg, eThekwini, Tshwane and Ekhuruhleni. Between them these five metropolitan municipalities accounted for 50% of all protests.

Looking at trends in violent civic protest from 2007 to 2014, the authors say that, “Violent protests have been defined in this study as those protests where some or all of the participants have engaged in actions that create a clear and imminent threat of, or actually result in, harm to persons or damage to property. Ever since data was first recorded in 2007 it is clear that an ever increasing proportion of protests involve violence. This trend continued until 2014. In 2007 just less than half (46 percent) of all protests were associated with some form of violence. By 2014, 83% of protests involved violence on the part of the protesters or the authorities. In 2007 the total number of violent protests was 44. Seven years later this number had increased more than fourfold to 181.”


The barometer also measured five forms of violence: intimidation, personal attacks, arson, damage to property, and looting. According to the findings, “intimidation was the most frequently cited form of violence (376 protests) associated with protest in the 2012 to 2014 period. Physical attacks on individuals were less prominent (315 protests). The destruction of property (including arson) was recorded more often than attacks on individuals (a combined total of 372 protests). Two thirds of the types of violence recorded at protests thus went beyond “mere” intimidation and involved the destruction of property, assault, looting and even death.”

Following the data collected by the barometer, Powell, O’Donovan and De Visser ask the question whether civic protests are indeed a sign of “a rebellion of the poor?” According to them, in recent years, noticeably after the 2010 “Arab Spring,” the hypothesis that the protests are a forewarning of an impending “rebellion of the poor” has begun to surface in some public debates, political statements and even academic publications.

They say two propositions are implicit in the hypothesis. The first, according to them, is that the causal explanation for the civic protests can be found in the extremely high levels of poverty in the country. “The latest official statistics put the poverty head count at 56.8%. High levels of inequality accompany the high levels of poverty. Official statistics put the country’s Gini coefficient at 0.7. Poverty on this scale is a serious concern, and eradicating poverty is a cornerstone of the National Development Plan published in 2011 and has been a major priority in government policy since the Mandela government of 1994.

“Secondly, the hypothesis contains a predication that the protests signal an impending crisis in the country, what some have called a “ticking time bomb,” an uprising of the poor that will undermine the stability of the country as a whole, if not addressed. Civic protests are certainly common, widespread and increasingly violent, as the CPB data shows. They signal alienation and exclusion among a segment of the population. The prevalence and violence of the civic protests, in what are generally labelled municipal service delivery processes, is sometimes used as evidence for making a wider argument that the South African state has “failed” or is “failing.” The rebellion of the poor hypothesis and its variants thus makes a generalised claim about both the cause and implications of the civic protests,” they say.

Empirical evidence

For that reason, they say it must be tested against factual evidence. The question they were interested in is whether the empirical evidence supports the claim or not. In their investigation, the hypothesis that the protests are a forewarning of an impending “rebellion of the poor” is tested against protest data for the period 2012 to 2014. It shows the size of the poor population and the number of people that took part in protests. According to them, if the hypothesis is correct and poverty is the dominant cause of protests, then the number of protests in any area should be proportional to the number of poor in that area.

“A region containing, say, 20% of the poor population would be expected to have 20% of protests […] This correlation should be constant irrespective of the units of aggregation. In practice this correlation is not observed. For example, the proportion of protests taking place in metropolitan areas is well in excess of their proportion of the poor population. Conversely, rural areas have a far lower proportion of protests than can be expected of their proportion of poor. Examining the mismatch between protest levels and poverty levels points to the extent that poverty has explanatory value as a cause of protests,” they discovered.

MLGI (Multi-Level Government Initiative) collects data on protests at the level of local municipalities, and it is at this level that the analysis is conducted. The data shows that there is very poor correlation between the size of the poor population and the prevalence of protests in general.

As the barometer points out, the poverty hypothesis therefore has poor explanatory value in accounting for who is involved in protests. The authors argue that the 81% of protests that cannot be explained by poverty alone need to be understood through other factors, possibly presented in conjunction with income levels.

“Further research will be required to explain the participation of the “not poor” in protests and how factors such as how well they are represented politically, the extent to which their expectations are met, urbanisation, and, pivotally, service levels, impact on protest levels. While poverty is certainly a factor contributing to protests it is far from a sufficient explanation. The “rebellion of the poor” hypothesis seems wanting and we need to look for other explanations for the extensive involvement of the non-poor in protests,” the barometer findings conclude.

(Source: Civic Protests Barometer 2007-20141 (DM Powell, M O’Donovan and J De Visser)

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