South Africa recorded more than 900 service delivery protests in six months from August to January, according to Minister of Police Bheki Cele, as the pandemic did little to halt them.
According to the South African Police Service (SAPS) Incident Registration Information System (IRIS), a total of 909 protest actions took place from 1 August 2020 to 31 January 2021, Cele stated in response to a parliamentary question from Freedom Front Plus MP SF Du Toit.
“All the above-mentioned incidents were recorded as crowd management unrest-related incidents,” the response read.
The response added that a total of 657 persons were arrested from 1 August 2020 to 31 January for service delivery protest action incidents, in which illegal road closures were erected that infringed on the constitutional right of freedom of movement.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Africa last year warned that protests in South Africa are here to stay. The pandemic has exposed socio-economic weaknesses resulting from poor policy implementation and a fundamental failure of political leadership, it said, adding that many South Africans are giving up on democracy (with low voter turnout) but not on voicing their frustration through protests at a political elite believed to be out of touch with the plight of ordinary people.
The Institute for Security Studies Protest and Public Violence Monitor has been tracking and reporting on demonstrations across the country since January 2013. The average over the past seven years has been 2.26 protests daily. Until 2020 the highest number of incidents were recorded in 2013 and 2014 with more than three protests a day. This period was followed by reductions to nearly one per day in 2018 when Cyril Ramaphosa became president. The number started growing steadily again in 2019 to about 2.5 a day on average.
In July 2020 an average of eight protests occurred per day – the highest in a single month since 2013, the ISS noted. Based on figures from August to January, there were on average nearly five protests a day during this six-month period.
In 2020, the ISS said the leading cause of demonstrations was the policing of lockdown restrictions and crime (14%) with a particular focus on gender-based violence. The second most prevalent issue for those taking to the streets was labour-related concerns (13%), mainly the supply of protective equipment to staff such as healthcare workers. In third place was electricity supply problems, particularly in Gauteng as a result of power outages and restrictions during peak usage times.
More than three in five protests (62%) were peaceful with no need for police intervention. Heavy-handed policing typically results in negative publicity for law enforcement and can lead to more disruptive or violent protests.
Given desperate economic conditions, protests will likely continue to rise, the ISS cautioned. Government, particularly at local level, must understand that the solution doesn’t lie in tougher policing. Rather, meaningful engagements with aggrieved communities are needed.
There will of course be a role for the police if violence erupts. In these cases, law enforcement agencies must seek to de-escalate tensions and promote dialogue wherever possible before resorting to heavy-handed tactics.