A protester pictured last month during a service delivery protest in Ekangala, Gauteng. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/CITY PRESS/LEON SADIKI
A protester pictured last month during a service delivery protest in Ekangala, Gauteng. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/CITY PRESS/LEON SADIKI

SEVERAL ministers have made statements about community protests in recent weeks. In our view, these misdiagnose the problem, and policies are unlikely to reduce unrest.

The government’s message may be summarised as follows. First, protests are about delivery of services. Second, protesters come from a tiny minority of the population that is resentful because, unlike everybody around them, they have not benefited from expansion of basic services. Third, genuine and understandable dissatisfaction must not lead to unruly behaviour but should be channelled into legitimate means of persuasion.

Our response is based on research conducted since the end of 2009. Our database includes more than 2,100 protests reported in the media since late 2004, and we have conducted qualitative interviews with more than 250 people across the country. Research is continuing, our conclusions are provisional, but patterns are emerging.

First, categorising community protests as being about "service delivery" underestimates the importance of other grievances protesters also raise — issues such as representation, corruption, jobs and crime. Even where services are the main concern, people often complain about quality of delivery rather than absolute failure to deliver.

Discarding the "service delivery" tag opens possibilities for a more informed debate about complex phenomena. This can recognise that only 43% of the working-age population has any kind of a job, and that unemployment and underemployment fuel discontent. It can also take into account the way in which sympathetic handling of grievances can minimise conflict, and that dishonesty and arrogance trigger disorder.

We are witnessing what many union leaders, activists and academics now regard as a rebellion of the poor. It is a rebellion against rotten services, dishonesty, police violence and poverty. Unless actual and underlying issues are identified and addressed, the rebellion will grow.

Second, and related to this, protests are not the actions of a small minority. We have recorded them in all metropolitan and district municipalities, and in nearly all local municipalities. While residents of informal settlements are more likely to protest than those of a formal townships, most protesters live in the townships. Formal townships may have electricity, but they still have high unemployment, corruption, uncaring councillors and poor-quality services.

Third, media attention focuses on violence, but even on the reckoning of the police, the overwhelming majority of protests are completely peaceful. When communities move beyond this, they usually draw attention to their plight by means of disruption; blocked roads and burning tyres being the most common. Such activity may be annoying for a motorist driving to work, but there is no lasting damage to people or property, and it makes sense to distinguish disruptive protests from those that are truly violent.

Violence is rarely planned and mostly derives from escalation ignited by hostility to protesters. This usually comes from the police, but not universally so.

A KwaThema resident described a scene where a crowd was angered by a public official tearing up their memorandum. The police then fired tear gas. "Grannies" were hit and, in retaliation, young people started burning buildings and looting shops.

Respectable opinion finds it difficult to comprehend why people destroy their own libraries and clinics. But this is not dissimilar to workers losing pay in a stoppage for higher wages, or prisoners going on hunger strike for decent food. It arises from powerlessness and limited options. Self-sacrifice is a common aspect of struggle.

Ministerial statements brand people, some of them at least, as the problem, and present the police as peacekeepers. The reality is different. We have media reports of 43 community protesters killed by the police since 2004 (not including Marikana), and no reports of police killed by protesters.

We have not found antagonism to public participation and other formal processes. Letters get written, meetings held, memoranda delivered and peaceful gatherings mobilised. In Balfour, we found that demands of a 2009 protest repeated ones mentioned in the integrated development plan for 2004. In Bushbuckridge, a young man, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), told us: "We really need a clinic. But we won’t rush into it. We will just wait to see if the councillor plays his part. If he fails, we will protest."

However, some issues require a quick response. Perhaps electricity has been cut off or the police have refused to arrest a murderer. A recent protest in Kagiso occurred after a mining company started blasting rock close to the township. The noise was frightening and large cracks appeared in house walls. There was no public consultation, the authorities were lethargic, and without militant protest, people’s houses would have fallen down.

Finally, larger protests are agreed on by community assemblies. In several accounts, we heard that anybody could call a meeting. Meetings are open to people from any party, or none. Decisions are taken democratically. In Kagiso, these included agreement that schools, the clinic and the community hall would not be attacked. In Bekkersdal, people referred to their assembly as a "parliament". Individuals are given mandates and they are held accountable. This is the antithesis of conspiracy. It is popular democracy.

We are not persuaded by conspiracy explanations of protests. There are certainly instances where protests are linked to infighting within the ANC or to ANC opposition to Democratic Alliance-ruled municipalities. But, as with agitator theories of strikes, conspiracy theories tell us little about why people join a struggle or how it is organised.

What would it take to see a reduction in the level of protest action?

There must be a fundamental shift in the distribution of wealth in our society, with the economy run in the interests of the poor.

Ward councillors are at the centre of a crisis of representation. Part-time councillors in a large municipality now receive basic pay of R32,712 a month, more than 25 times as much as the old person’s grant, so there is a wide social gap between them and most unemployed residents.

In practice, many councillors do not account to the people they represent, and some of our interviewees said they want the right to recall councillors not doing their job. The authorities insist on inviting people to pursue demands through institutions they and the constitution have created, but where people no longer value these, politicians should be prepared to engage in the spaces that people invent for themselves.

There ought to be a complete ban on the use of live ammunition by the police. There is no place for this in public-order policing, and where people are killed, it inflames the situation, leading to further unrest.

Some protesters now regard our present form of representation as something "you have to buy", to quote a KwaThema resident. But protesters are not enemies of democracy, Through struggle, they are often creating a deeper, more accountable democracy, and there are some who would like to extend this to politics in general.

• The authors are associated with the South African Research Chair in Social Change, which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, administered by the National Research Foundation and hosted by the University of Johannesburg.