IT IS interesting to consider the latest service delivery protest in the news - police retaliated with live rounds after an Ermelo community staged what became a particularly violent service delivery protest. The death of one man and an attack on an eNews team are features of the intensity of the incident, but otherwise it conforms to the increasing phenomenon of (often violent) service delivery protests. What sticks out is the timing of the protest.

It comes after last week's state of the nation address, when local government elections were confirmed for the end of May. The question the protest raises is why the community of Wesselton doesn't take its dissatisfaction to the polls. This raises a more troubling issue: are service delivery protests perceived to be an increasingly legitimate and possibly more effective alternative to our country's hard- won democracy?

Of course, local government elections are not an entirely diametrically opposed issue to service delivery protests. Some commentators have speculated that the protest was sparked by the release of the African National Congress's (ANC's) list of candidates for local elections. Even if this wa s the catalyst, the important issue is that communities across SA can be galvanised behind the broad and clear consensus that "service delivery", especially by local government, is inadequate, often with allegations of corruption and ineptitude.

While Mpumalanga's MEC of cooperative governance, Madala Masuku, is correct to condemn the violence against "a government chosen by the people", the moral high ground may not be safe from the protests that have become an entrenched phenomenon. Municipal IQ's Hotspots Monitor, which records major protests staged against local government, as reported in the media, found that despite a distinct drop in the number of protests in the second half of last year, 2009 and 2010 together account for about two-thirds of all protests since 2004. This consolidation of the phenomenon is an indictment of public participation at the local level.

Protests have now afflicted 40% of local and metropolitan municipalities, with the latter especially badly hit despite their typically sound delivery records. Arguably, protests in metro municipalities, which account for almost half of all protests we recorded , are not always prompted by an outright failure of delivery, but rather an inability to deliver at a pace that keeps up with urbanisation. To this end, the target announced in the state of the nation address to formalise informal settlements is important, especially given that about 37% of protests on the Hotspots Monitor take place in informal settlements.

The urban make-up of many of the protests explains, in part, Gauteng's prominence; with the province accounting for 40% of protests last year, followed by the Western Cape ( 15% of 2010's protests), with heated protest activity raging on the fast-growing Cape Flats.

These metro protests are often complex sociopolitical battles, in which protests are sparked by perceived inequalities in delivery, as well as the obvious and pressing need for the upgrading of hundreds of informal settlements.

The North West and Mpumalanga, which accounted for 10% and 7% of protests last year, are subject to more complex political dynamics, as is evident in the Ermelo case - many are prompted by clear frustrations with the pace and quality of service delivery, often in the presence of infrastructure backlogs, but individual cases may also involve factionalism, infighting and personal agendas that play on underlying discontent.

Nonetheless, there is little evidence of a clear or consistent "third force" behind protests over time, and especially not across the country. Rather, the issues of poverty, inequality and disappointed expectations provide the source of community unhappiness.

It is hard, then, to predict whether protests are likely to spread to other parts of the country in the run-up to elections, in the way that contagion was evident in the Free State in 2004 and Mpumalanga in 2009. If they do, it is a worrying indication that communities perceive greater potential to leverage change through violent protests, possibly by influencing internal ANC priorities, than they do through the ballot box. The apparent absence of a viable opposition party may remain one of the most significant reasons behind protests.

- Heese is Municipal IQ's economist, while Allan is its MD.