South Africa has the ingredients for Arab Spring style protests; will always need public order police – experts

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South Africa has all the basic ingredients for the type of dissatisfaction that could lead to highly contagious anti-government protests of the like seen in North Africa, experts warn, emphasising the continuing need for public order police.

“We have the basic ingredients for social disenchantment,” says Elrena van der Spuy, associate professor at the University of Cape Town, when referring to the great social inequality present in South Africa. “North African developments are useful reminders for protests to spread and be contagious.”

She says that the high number of young unemployed males in South Africa make the country a fertile breeding ground for protests similar to those in North Africa as there is great social inequality and large numbers of young people willing to take part in protests.

According to Brigadier ‘Happy’ Schutte, operational head of the Crime Combating Units Gauteng, an Arab Spring style revolution could happen tomorrow in South Africa as large numbers of disaffected youth make up society – 80% of the youth in townships are unemployed, he said.

It just takes the right people to stir up a crowd, “then you’re going to have a problem.” From his own experience, it takes only one person breaking a window to turn a crowd violent. In Tunisia it was the self immolation of a single grocery seller (who set fire to himself after police confiscated his wares because he lacked a permit) that kicked off the protests there, which then spread to many other Arab countries because people were dissatisfied with conditions in society.

There are many opportunities for protests to get out of hand in South Africa, especially during increasingly common service delivery protests. Last year, for instance, four people were killed, 94 injured and 750 arrested during protests, according to the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR).

Furthermore, people in South Africa have become accustomed to struggle politics and willingly protest when they are dissatisfied, van der Spuy notes. Service delivery protests are one good example of this, but many ‘service delivery’ protests are also staged to voice unhappiness with local officials’ performance.

According to Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, director of strategic research company MarkData, speculation before recent local government elections suggested the ruling ANC would suffer at the polls due to corruption, poor service delivery and inadequate local administration, especially as the ANC keeps making promises around election time that it is not delivering on. However, results showed that the ruling party’s support base remains fairly secure.

Schlemmer says that for the majority of people who vote for the ANC have genuine grievances and anger, but such people still pin their hopes on the ANC, expecting the party to eventually deliver.
“Although depicted in headlines as mass disaffection, the cores of open protest among African voters were largely limited to the 17-20% of people living in typically badly neglected temporary shack, backyard or inner city housing,” Schlemmer stated on Politicsweb. “In the established formal townships very roughly 60% of urban Africans are broadly satisfied with conditions.”

The question then, is how long will it be before people to become dissatisfied enough with the government to start mass protests, and how long before the right leaders come along to galvanise protests?

Schlemmer points out that the South African government’s provision of grants and pensions to around 15 million people ensures massive political loyalty, and those moving away from the party are suburban dwellers from the middle class who do not depend on government. Nevertheless, Lemmer says that between a quarter and a third of South Africans have serious grievances about the police and the way they act.

The United Nations notes that whatever the differences among countries, the basic problems highlighted by the North African revolutions are similar: high youth unemployment, rising food and fuel costs, persistent corruption, denial of basic rights and limited participation in decision-making.

Addressing African countries in late May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded them that in North Africa it was a lack of freedoms “that led young people to take to the streets demanding change and fulfilment of their legitimate aspirations for better lives.”
“For the most part in recent times, we Africans have taken our requests for democracy to the polls, not the streets,” noted John Dramani Mahama, vice-president of Ghana, in a commentary about the protests in Egypt. Mahama added, however, that in some African countries elections have “not resulted in any real change. And ultimately, that is what sparks all revolutions: the urgent, non-negotiable need for sustainable change.”
“With time, ferment and the pressures of popular expectations will build up a powerful head of steam,” Schlemmer notes, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before mass protests erupt if social conditions do not change.

Regardless of Arab Spring style protests, “the demand for specialised public order policing capacity will grow,” van der Spuy says. She predicts a continuing need for public order police as there are a variety of threats that require such police forces internationally and on the African continent. Such threats include gang warfare, organised crime, ethnic violence, public protests and post election violence.

Hence the importance of maintaining public order police forces. Van der Spuy says that in South Africa there are a lot of concerns and complaints around public order policing, especially the decentralisation of public order policing, the disbanding of the South African Police Service’s Public Order Policing units and the ongoing changes in strategy and policy.

She will be speaking about some of these issues at defenceWeb’s Public Order Policing conference next month. “I think this conversation is really important,” she said, adding that there are few opportunities to get regional, local and international experts and academics and law enforcement officials together. Speakers will include several academics, consultants, members of the police and industry. “The mix of speakers will be interesting,” van der Spuy said.

For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb‘s Public Order Policing conference at Gallagher Estate on October 3-4.

For more information contact Maggie Pienaar at ++27 11 807 3294 or [email protected]

A detailed programme is available here.