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Rebellion of the poor : South Africa’s service delivery protests – a preliminary analysis

D 14 juin 2010     H 14:41     A ALEXANDER Peter     C 0 messages

7 June 2010
Since 2004, South Africa has experienced a movement of local protests amounting to a rebellion of the poor. This has been widespread and intense, reaching insurrectionary proportions in some cases. On the surface, the protests have been about service delivery and against uncaring, self-serving, and corrupt leaders of municipalities. A key feature has been mass participation by a new generation of fighters, especially unemployed youth but also school students. Many issues that underpinned the ascendency of Jacob Zuma also fuel the present action, including a sense of injustice arising from the realities of persistent inequality. While the inter-connections between the local protests, and between the local protests and militant action involving other elements of civil society, are limited, it is suggested that this is likely to change. The analysis presented here draws on rapid-response research conducted by the author and his colleagues in five of the so-called ‘hot spots’.


There are grounds for tracing service delivery protests back to the apartheid era, and a strong case can be made for linking them to discontent that was noted in surveys conducted in the late 1990s and to the social movements that emerged in the years after 2000 (Seekings 2000, Nthambeleni 2009). However, analysts agree on dating the contemporary phenomenon back to 2004 (Atkinson 2007, p. 54, Booysen 2007, p. 24, Pithouse 2007).

In defining the object of investigation, Booysen (2007, p. 21) writes of ‘grass-roots protests against both the quality of service delivery and public representation of grass-roots’ service delivery needs’. Pithouse (2007), who draws on detailed knowledge of shack-dwellers’ protests, rejects this ‘economistic’ approach, arguing that the protests are about ‘citizenship’, understood as ‘the material benefits of full social inclusion . . . as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations.’ Perhaps the distinction between the two approaches is more one of focus and level of analysis than a substantive difference about the collection of events that requires explanation. Atkinson’s interest is in ‘social protests – many of them violent – that wracked black and coloured townships . . .’ (Atkinson 2007, p. 54). This neatly sidesteps the debate about whether ‘service delivery’ is a defining characteristic, but it opens the scope too broadly. The xenophobic violence of May 2008, for instance, had very different dynamics, and strikes and other occupation-related protests (such as those by police, soldiers, students and street traders) are also distinct. This analysis will not, however, ignore the xenophobia and worker solidarity present in some of the protests that concern us here, or reject the possibility that there may be underlying causes linking the various actions.

It appears that what we are attempting to grapple with is locally-organised protests that place demands on people who hold or benefit from political power (which includes, but is not limited to, local politicians). These have emanated from poorer neighbourhoods (shack settlements and townships rather than suburbs). Perhaps this is best captured by defining the phenomenon as one of local political protests or local protests for short.

The form of these actions relates to the kind of people involved and the issues they have raised. They have included mass meetings, drafting of memoranda, petitions, toyi-toying, processions, stay-aways, election boycotts, blockading of roads, construction of barricades, burning of tyres, looting, destruction of buildings, chasing unpopular individuals out of townships, confrontations with the police, and forced resignations of elected officials.

The varied nature of such protests makes them difficult to quantify. One potential source is data collated by the Incident Registration Information System (IRIS), which is maintained by the South African Police Service (SAPS) Crime Combating Operations’ Visible Policing Unit (VPU). This includes a subset on ‘public gatherings’ (Vally 2009, p. 10). The definition here of the term ‘public gathering’ derives from the Regulation of Gatherings Act 1993, which recognised freedom of assembly and protest as democratic rights, and sought to ensure that these were practised in a peaceful manner (State President 1994, Duncan 2009, p. 4). ‘Gatherings’ were not defined in the Act, although the term included ‘processions’ (also undefined), and according to Duncan (p. 6) events involving 15 people or fewer were excluded, as these were regarded as ‘demonstrations’ (again undefined).

From a list of ‘prominent reasons’ for gatherings that the VPU provided to Centre for Sociological Research (CSR) researcher Natasha Vally, it is clear that a large majority of such events were protest-related (Vally 2009, p. 11). The reasons included ‘demand wage increase’, ‘solidarity’, ‘dissatisfied with high crime rate’, ‘resistance to government policy’, ‘mobilising of the masses’, ‘in sympathy with oppressed’, ‘service charges’, and, finally, ‘sporting event’. While many gatherings were probably local political protests, the quantity of these as a proportion of the total is unknown. Contrariwise, some of the actions defined above would not have been included in the IRIS data. Notwithstanding these qualifications, the data presented in the tables below provide some indication of the scale of the protest movement. Data for 2008/9 are not yet available.

Peter Alexander, Research Unit in Social Change, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

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