FRUSTRATION with poor service delivery is boiling over , with the highest number of protests since 2004 recorded in the first seven months of the year, according to Municipal IQ.
While politicians blame the highly charged political environment for the surge — the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party, Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Democratic Alliance (DA) are holding elective conferences this year — analysts say most protests are sparked by genuine anger about poor delivery.
Municipal IQ economist Karen Heese said yesterday it was worrying that 88% of protests last month were violent. Almost half of the protests in July occurred in informal settlements.
ANC leader and Free State Premier Ace Magashule recently blamed "criminal elements" in the party for violent protests in the province, linking them to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December.
The Department of Police said communities were largely peaceful when they gathered to protest. It was only when they were "infiltrated" by "criminal elements" that the protests turned violent.
Spokesman Zweli Mnisi said yesterday: "Protests are a democratic right ... however, in situations where police are attacked, they have a right to defend themselves, property and law-abiding citizens appropriately."
The Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department yesterday described the situation as "worrying", adding that there was "speculation" that the increase in community dissent this year could be linked to the ANC’s December conference.
Spokesman Nghamula Nkuna said the protests, which on the surface appeared to be sparked by poor service delivery, were really very "complex" to diagnose.
Mr Nkuna said the department had put in place measures which it hoped would alleviate the burden on municipalities and assist them in delivering services, such as the introduction of the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency and an anticorruption unit.
Yesterday, eight people were arrested in Sandton during a service delivery protest, and the Informal Settlement Network in Ekurhuleni threatened mass action in more than 100 townships in the metropolitan area if their living conditions failed to improve.
Ebrahim Fakir, researcher at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said there were several reasons for the protests, including frustration about the failure of the government to deliver and internal party politics and factionalism.
Communities were also unhappy with unaccountable officials they perceived as corrupt or unresponsive to their concerns.
Mr Fakir said the "common thread" in protests across the country was "deep-seated resentment and a feeling of being alienated from the mainstream", given the glaring inequalities in SA .
"It’s a feeling of powerlessness many experience in relation to the political and economic elite in society." Protests were moving from townships to cities and "economic hubs", he said .
The highest number of service delivery protests since 2004 was recorded in 2010, with 111 . Municipal IQ had recorded 113 in the first seven months of this year .
Most of the protests have been in the Western Cape, at 24%; followed by the Free State (14%); Gauteng, Eastern Cape and North West (12%); Mpumalanga (9%); Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal (6%); and Northern Cape (5%).
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille last week brought charges of intimidation against the ANC Youth League after it threatened to make Cape Town and the province ungovernable.
But Western Cape ANC secretary Songezo Mjongile said yesterday that "ungovernable" simply meant that city officials would be prevented from doing their job, for example, by blockading the road in front of the legislature.
The ANC’s provincial executive council condemned the recent violence in service delivery protests, including the stoning of a Golden Arrow bus in Khayelitsha on Friday.
It called on community leaders to discourage violence and damage associated with the protests, as it created room for "opportunistic elements" which tried to "demonise" legitimate demands.
The stoning of the bus caused its driver, Sandile Hoko, to lose control of the vehicle, which crashed through a road barrier, ploughed into shacks and killed Mr Hoko. Five people, including a child, were injured.
"The reason why people end up taking this desperate action is because they are not getting a sympathetic ear from government," Mr Mjongile said.
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, disputed the credibility of the figures provided by Municipal IQ, arguing that they were based on media reports.
"That’s an invalid method for counting," he said. He acknowledged, however, that SA had a "serious problem" with service delivery protests, dating back to 2004.
"We know we have a severe problem ... why in a working democracy do we have protests that seem never-ending? It's got to do with a mixture of political issues," Mr Friedman said.
This included a local level of government that was "not responsive" to citizens; conflict in the governing party and factional battles.