The view of municipals on community protests

How do government personnel perceive community protest? Who are the protesters and why do they protest? What early response mechanisms are available to address these protests to reduce community demonstrations? Justin Steyn shared findings from a South Africa Local Government Association (SALGA) study on community protests as perceived by local government during a seminar, co-hosted by the HSRC.

Community protests have become an increasingly urgent area of concern in South Africa. While the Constitution places the onus on local government to promote community participation in the affairs of local governance, the public struggles to find its ‘democratic voice’.

Citizens have the right to express their discontent with governance and service delivery, but violence increasingly dictates the language of protestors, as public property, and the property of elected officials have become easy targets for protesting communities. We support stiff penalties for people convicted of public violence, principally due to the economic costs to the country. In Cape Town, for example, the city pays out R6 million per month to repair the uninsured damages resulting from spontaneous violent protest; money that would be better spent addressing the needs of indigent communities.

Community protests are not service delivery protests

Community protests differ from service delivery protests as these include any type of action that occurs within a municipal space, while service delivery protests arise directly from issue-specific matters. Most protests are not directly related to local government’s mandates but occur in a municipal space. Local government is the communities’ first point of contact with the machinery of state, irrespective of where the service mandate lies.
Findings from a study on protests conducted in 2010 indicated that areas with a high level of protests, such as the metros, actually experienced fairly good service delivery, whilst areas with poor service delivery, such as in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, had low protest levels. We wanted to determine how local government perceives these findings.

Study methods

For our study, we targeted metros and districts in high protest areas. A total of 122 people – including municipal managers, technical and services planners, political representatives, financers, auditors and local government personnel – participated in a survey comprising metros and districts. Participants were also asked to provide possible recommendations and interventions on how to address protest actions in their communities. The Municipal IQ hotspot monitor (a web-based data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of all of South Africa’s 278 municipalities); the PLAAS (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies) GIS protest incident map and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) interactive map on protest frequencies were used to identify the hotspot protest areas.

Study findings

Statistics from the multilevel government initiative reveal that between 2012 and 2014, the majority of the protests occurred in metropolitan areas; however there’s a tendency for rural areas to start protesting more frequently. As expectations are increasing, rural areas, such as those in the Eastern Cape, are engaging more frequently in protests, especially around issues of service delivery and governance.

Many municipalities from across the country said that in their respective areas protests are infrequent (86%), and that service delivery protest action is often driven by issues around safety and security, demarcation, maintenance of water facilities and other bread and butter issues.

The study also found that local government perceived protestors as comprising mostly young people between 18 and 35 (69.5%) years old, criminals (14.4%), people from other municipalities (12.7%) and secondary school students (5.9%), with the smallest category being migrant labourers (1.7%).

As shown in Figure 1 and 2, most protestors were perceived to be male (53.4%), and unemployed individuals (71%).



Why do communities protest?

Service delivery and accessibility was found to be the strongest motivation behind the majority of protests (49.6%), followed by employment opportunities (42.1%) and roads and maintenance of public facilities (39.7%), forming the top three perceived reasons for protesting. Other reasons include land, access to housing and political leadership (see Figure 3).

Although 38% of local government representatives believed that protests were peaceful and took place with their knowledge, 21 % reported protests to be ‘disorderly with property destruction’, and 14 % said ‘legal protests were likely to turn violent’.

In terms of responding to protests, municipalities generally engaged with protesting communities, as avoiding engagement with protestors would negatively affect the relationship between community members and local government/municipalities.



Strategies for reducing protest actions

Participants provided potential actions that could see a decline in protest activity. The most favoured actions were: better functional ward councils (53.8%), involving community members in council decision-making, and the provision of monetary and human resources from national government in addressing backlogs (50.4%).

The least favoured courses of action included police using less force in controlling crowd actions (2.5%), private sector wage negotiations (3.4%), and police using more force (5%) (Figure 4). To implement these actions, participants recommended that local government should be equipped with resources such as improved accountability processes, political interventions and strategic deployments, enhanced public participation protocols and systems for meaningful engagement, more income resources, and better policy enforcement capabilities.

How can local government address community protests?

Key recommendations to be considered at local and national level that could change the perceptions of local government towards community protests are as follows:

At local level:
•    Development and adoption of early response systems based on existing good practices.
•    Proactively identifying issues that give rise to community protest action and using Community Development Workers (CDWs) and councillors to communicate with communities regarding actions being taken.
•    Engaging with communities before projects are planned.
•    Improving public consultation and communication processes.
•    Actively planning for migration in the Integrated Development Plan (IDP)
•    Pursuing densification strategies.
•    Synchronising government planning cycles using a bottom-up approach.
•    Promoting the IDP as the central planning document of all spheres of government.

And at national level:
•    Developing a framework for protest action outside the Gatherings Act that provides a method encouraging proactive redress from all spheres of government;
•    Ensuring that local government participation structures are the primary structures through which redress activities occur;
•    National and provincial spheres of government must assist in building capacity in public participation structures at the local level;
•    Contribute to improvements in coordination between spheres of government; and give communities access to all spheres of government;
•    Channelling additional resources into local government to enable it to perform its service delivery mandates.


At present, it is the common view that ‘the community target local government; whenever communities want to protest they want to protest’, even if the local government is not responsible for many of the issues emanating from community grievances. More often than not, service delivery is expanding in the midst of moving targets caused by mandate creep, new legislation and regulations, unclear roles and responsibilities divided between national, provincial and local spheres of government and migratory populations.

Ultimately, protest is about a competition for scarce resources and baskets of resources. Increasing the capacity of local government to provide effective stewardship of its resources, combined with better integrated planning between spheres of government, certainly will do more towards addressing the root causes of protest. However, this must not be viewed in isolation from economic conditions and the levels of job creation provided by the formal private sector. State resources are finite and the state cannot be expected to provide cradle to grave resource packages amid dwindling natural resources and deepening cyclical downturns in the global economy.

Most of the issues providing fertile grounds for community protest reside in state systems that are uncommunicative, uneven communication that leaves communities without knowledge on projects and roles and responsibilities designated to specific spheres of government, or shared service delivery from government.

Communities expect local government to provide service excellence and service leadership and it is up to local government to ensure that it delivers on this expectation within its constitutional developmental mandates and within its efficient use of existing resources and capacities.

Authors: Justin Steyn, policy analyst, South African Local Government Association.