A REPORT by the University of Johannesburg's Centre for Sociological Research says heavy-handed police action may have worsened recent service-delivery protests.

In some cases police reaction added to the climate of violence, according to the head of the centre, Peter Alexander. "The evidence points to police exacerbating the problem by the way they intervened," he said during the launch of the report yesterday.

The report followed "quick- response" research in Gauteng's Thokoza and Diepsloot townships, and at Balfour and Piet Retief in Mpumalanga, after community protests in the past two months.

Among the report's findings were that communities involved in the protests shared similar problems and frustrations such as unemployment and lack of basic services.

There was no evidence of people's demands being a campaign against President Jacob Zuma's administration or the policies of the African National Congress. Rather, protests were motivated by local-level failures.

The report also ruled out xenophobia as a cause of the protests. "It is clear that the four protests only occurred after unsuccessful attempts by community members to engage with local authorities over issues of failed service delivery," it concluded.

Balfour and Thokoza were singled out as places where police reaction contributed to the violence. Alexander said police in Balfour were "very violent in terms of how they dealt with local residents" yet none had been held responsible for their actions.

Alexander showed images of a 15- year-old boy, allegedly shot with rubber bullets at point-blank range. The boy also had a deep gash at the back of the head said to be the result of being struck with a firearm.

Nonkululeko Mbatha, spokes- woman for police commissioner Bheki Cele, dismissed the allegations, saying "at this stage they remain allegations unless someone confirms it ". She said Cele, who has pressed for strong police action, did not say police should be trigger-happy. "They need to act within parameters of the law."

Luke Sinwell, editor of the report, said service protests were the result of systematic apartheid-era inequalities that could not be solved merely by changes in local leadership. Replacing councillors "assumes that there are resources available within the present policies that would adequately address the problems ," he said.

johwaw@bdfm.co.za