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What lies behind social unrest in South Africa, and what might be done about it

South Africa has among the highest recorded levels of social protest of any country in the world.
Residents clean up the streets and local businesses after looting incidents in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Image: EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

South Africa has among the highest recorded levels of social protest of any country in the world. The reasons behind this are more complex than often assumed.

The scale and severity of the looting and sabotage in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng in July, following the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, has brought social protest and civil unrest into the popular discourse.

But much of the commentary on the July riot – which cost over 300 lives and billions of rands in damage to the economy – has neglected the long history of violent protest in the country. The truth is that, while disgruntlement by Zuma’s supporters was the trigger, the roots of social unrest go much deeper.

What is more, the available data shows that the number of protests in South Africa has been steadily rising over the past 20 years. For instance, there has been an almost nine-fold increase in the average number of service delivery protests each year comparing 2004-08 with 2015-19.

There is also evidence that social protests are increasingly violent and disruptive.

It is important to understand what lies behind this trend of growing social unrest, which makes the country precarious, and what might be done to tackle the underlying causes.

If the government wants to avoid a repeat of the social and economic catastrophe of the July 2021 riots – even if on a smaller and more localised scale – it should look back to learn some important lessons about why protest happens and how to address this.

Seeds of discontent

There are a number of key factors in understanding the reasons behind social protest in South Africa:

First, it is important to recognise that the people and places with the highest levels of social and economic deprivation are not those most likely to protest. For example, protests over “service delivery” – the provision of basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation – are heavily concentrated in the metropolitan areas, such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, eThekwini, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Mangaung. Yet rural municipalities actually have much lower levels of service coverage.

Access to basic services has also improved across the country over the past two decades. But delivery protests have increased exponentially over the same period. There are evidently deeper and more complex reasons behind how and when ineffective delivery of municipal services ends up in social conflict.

Second, it is often a sense of unfairness (inequality), not just levels of provision, that lead to grievances and resentment which spark social protest. For instance, long-standing differences in amenities between neighbouring communities send a clear signal that the government is not willing or not able to meet their needs in an equitable manner.

A case in point is informal settlements which have often been hotspots for protest action. Rural migrants arrive in the city with expectations of a better life, only to end up living in squalor. Until the government can implement a realistic and scalable plan for upgrading informal settlements, this is likely to continue.

Third, government departments tend to get fixated with meeting numerical targets at the expense of service quality and what matters most for communities. Recent research suggests that municipal officials get locked into a culture of “playing it safe” and “compliance” in delivering services and related public investments rather than innovation and genuine transformation.

An infamous example is the delivery of toilets in an open field where municipalities get the credit and contractors get paid for erecting them, whether or not there are any houses or people living in the vicinity.

Government needs to stop paying “lip service” to the principles of community consultation and local participation, and take this work seriously. The extra time and effort are justified by aligning municipal plans and investments closer to people’s actual priorities. Local buy-in can also help ensure that investments in public infrastructure are protected and maintained.

Finally, feelings of frustration and anger have been heightened by years of waiting for promises to be fulfilled. International studies suggest that communities are more likely to protest when they can clearly attribute blame, and where visible institutions are perceived to possess the means for redress.

Municipal services have a clear line of sight, where communities can easily measure and attest to progress in their experience of daily life. Mismanagement and corruption have led to the collapse of many municipalities over recent years. This is especially so in smaller cities and towns, with images of sewage running down the street and no water in the pipes. In this way, grievances over service delivery are a common trigger for social protest. But the grievances often reflect a much broader basket of discontent.

Over the last 18 months, the hardship and suffering facing poorer urban communities, in particular, has been compounded by their disproportionate loss of jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. The reality of hunger and food insecurity is a moral issue but also critical for social stability.

The recent extension of the R350 (US$23) special Covid-19 monthly grant should help to alleviate some of the immediate pressures on poorer households. But, the country also needs a clearer plan of how to tackle the problem of food insecurity.

No quick fix

At the heart of the matter, South Africa’s deep-seated social inequalities and segregated living conditions provide fertile ground for popular discontent. There is no easy fix for these.

Metropolitan populations continue to expand. This places added pressure on poorer communities forced to cope with rapid densification, strained services, informality and sparse economic opportunities. Fractured communities and weak, under-resourced governing institutions further complicate the task of upgrading and transforming these neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, affluent households can buy their way into places that are safer, better planned and have higher quality facilities. They can opt out of public services by paying for private schooling, healthcare and security. This accentuates the socio-economic divides even further.

There is a real danger that the current fiscal crisis will further corrode public services. This will encourage more and more middle-class families to buy into private provision. Unless the government gets to grips with this issue, the widening chasm between middle and working-class communities will amplify perceptions of unfairness and exacerbate social instability.The Conversation

Justin Visagie, Senior Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council; Ivan Turok, Distinguished Research Fellow, Human Sciences Research Council, and Sharlene Swartz, Head of Inclusive Economic Development, Human Sciences Research Council

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



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This is the third generation of ANC followers that have been brought up to burn things when they do not agree with something and to loot what is not theirs !!

It is refreshing to read an article that puts the blame for the state of the country on the government and municipalities, where it belongs.
But the sad part is that the people that suffer the most will vote for the ANC again. One wonders if things will ever come right?

Social unrest ? = Criminal savage conduct ! What to do about it ? Phoenix shows the way.

Good insights. one could say with near certainty that things will not improve under the ANC.

Short answer: Men of small intelligence, who worship their peers.

It is very simple: the population grew from 15 million in 1959 to 59 million in 2020. That is growth of 248%. Yet today only 5,2% pay 92% of the income tax and 85% of the VAT. It is a mathematical impossibility to lift all these people out of poverty. The small tax base can try but what is the poor doing in return to help solve the problem? Perhaps a reduction in birth rates, not destroying existing infrastructure or at least picking up their litter? We can only solve this problem if the whole of society works together.

@jnrb – 100% on the money!

Never ceases to amaze that not a single Academic/Economist/Politician/Journalist wants to come anywhere near discussing the problem of “dysfuntional-family” population growth amongst the poor – virtually exclusively – being the Root Cause of the problems in this segment of the community.

These academics are no different.

Denying this is a problem does the future of this country enormous damage.

It is only a matter of time before this whole pack of cards collapses on itself.

If you can’t feed them. Don’t breed them.

Truth is that the causes of social unrest in SA all stem from ANC faults and failures:

-ANC policies of patronage for employment (unsustainable),
-ANC policies of using race based policies for trying to redress equality (unsustainable),
-ANC wasting or corrupting away scarce resources, inteionally unintentionally (unsustainable),
-ANC not investing in nation building,
-ANC using cadre deployment as a system for placing and promoting incompetant leaders (unsustainable and disastrous),
-ANC importing desperation by allowing up to 10 million illegal immigrants to enter and stay in SA (not refugees but economic migrants),
-ANC allowing the degrading or corruption away of key institutions, like the police and the judiciary (disastrous, as we recently have seen).

So, this cocktail of toxic Ness is all brought to you by the ANC.

But more than 50% of voters elect them. I’d say the problem is South African voters.

That’s the patronage system. They are one in the same. Party before country.

One word, inequality. The vast majority of South Africans are unemployed, those that are earn R8k a month while we allow a bunch of fortunate sons to earn R100k a day. If you can’t see why this is a problem then don’t worry you not part of the solution

This escalated under Zuma and since Ramaphosa took over things were much more peaceful. The latest unrest flared up because the criminal faction want to regain control on the state resources.

Ramaphosa needs to light a fire under the butts of the police and army to stabilize the country. We cannot afford security efforts along the lines of what we saw in Afghanistan.

The reality is (and has been for centuries all over the world) that life is not fair – so get used to it! Stop blaming others and take responsibility for your own life. Nobody owes us a living and our future lies in my own hands. It’s the choices we make every day that determines our future, full stop.

You are a lone and brave voice in the wilderness of political correctness and victimhood politics.

Thank you to the authors for “explaining” that it’s due to inequality. So THAT’s why millions north of the Limpopo cannot wait to stream across SA’s borders – to experience inequality for themselves.

Aye these authors have a one string guitar; poverty and inequality. They do not advance one actual reason backed up by proof for the KZN looting it is just a broad guess. My view, it was planned as a looting spree, linked to the Free JZ but led by criminals, some employed, many of these by ANC government. They had equipment to break open ATM’s etc and transport for the looted goods, solar panels etc. The “police” were told to stand down and home and business owners not to interfere, all by the ANC regime. Thank goodness the brave didn’t listen to this.

Thank you. Sanity.

I would also add the following:

1. All those crying inequality to show the rest of us unenlightened ones how its done by being first to hand out 50% of their own possessions; and

2. AFTER they have done that (really only afterwards, important) to then go and do a study of how Zimbabwe erased all its social ills and problems by taking everything from and/or getting rid of the pesky white man. Their academic work should deal with things like per capita income, life expectancy, health, education world ranking etc.

Can some learned person just explain to me why the are millions living in slums in India, Brazil etc and no violence but in RSA we find all sorts of reasons?

Good question and India has money to spend on a space program instead of poverty aliviation. And the population is fine with that. The difference here is the entitlement syndrome because it was promised to them.

Correct it was promised to them to secure a vote.

There is nothing unique or strange about the situation. It is as old as the mountains and has been discussed for many ages. Bastiat summed it up when he described how socialist infringements on property rights will lead to fighting in parliament and riots in the streets. We are the most socialist country in earth that has not entered the hyperinflationary death spiral yet.

The people are simply fighting for the opportunity to make law. That is it.

“As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose–that it may violate property instead of protecting it–then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder.” – Frederic Bastiat, The Law

“How is it that the strange idea of making the law produce what it does not contain—prosperity, in a positive sense, wealth, science, religion—should ever have gained ground in the political world?” – Frédéric Bastiat, The Law

People get the Government they deserve……..and vote for .

The liberation parties in Southern Africa have denied voter education to their people.

Things will only improve for the majority if they take responsibility for their vote.

End of comments.





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