Sebokeng, South Africa - In the early hours of March 10, in a small town in South Africa called Sebokeng, about 100 people gathered to protest their imminent evictions from government housing. They blockaded the road - a major route into Johannesburg known as the "Golden Highway" - with stones and burning tyres. They sang songs in defiance of the eviction orders, promising they would die in their houses before they left them.
The Sebokeng protest did not make the news, except perhaps in the odd traffic report announcing the road closure. It was just one of hundreds of demonstrations by South Africa's poor and marginalised, which in recent years have become increasingly common - sometimes with fatal results.
So-called "service delivery protests" often take place in semi-urban areas, far from South Africa's wealthier and more affluent urban districts. About one-quarter of these protests turn violent, according to police estimates, sometimes leaving shops looted or libraries and clinics burnt to the ground.
The causes of service delivery protests are as diverse as the problems facing South Africa's poor. A lack of affordable housing, the accidental death of a child or the cut-off of the water supply can all trigger angry demonstrations. The protests have been especially common in Gauteng province, South Africa's economic core. Police estimate that more than 500 protests have taken place in the past three months in Gauteng alone.
'Increase in disruptive protests'
Researchers at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) said the protests stem from dissatisfaction among those who have been left behind in the new South Africa. "After 20 years, after the failure to address specific demands, the dissatisfaction is becoming generalised," said UJ researcher Trevor Ngwane. "Over the past three or five years we have seen a steady increase in disruptive protests and violent protests."
When people protest and burn tyres, and blood is shed, that is when you get a response.
However, Ngwane added that the violence often comes only after several attempts at peaceful petitions, meetings and demonstrations. This was the case at Sebokeng, where the protest followed several meetings with local officials that, residents complained, had little effect. "When people protest and burn tyres, and blood is shed, that is when you get a response," said local activist Pharks Khaiyane. "When you call a meeting and speak to them [local officials], it's like you're speaking another language. But when you burn tyres, that language is understood."
Khaiyane's cynicism is typical of many of South Africa's disenfranchised. Twenty years ago, the African National Congress (ANC) successfully led South Africa out of apartheid. After these 20 years of democracy, the ANC does have achievements to point to: A new black middle class has emerged, and several large infrastructure projects have been built. The government has also built more than 1.4 million houses and expanded the country's social welfare system. However, life has changed too little for many South Africans, with the country's unemployment rate remaining stubbornly high at 24 percent, and economic inequality is among the highest in the world.
Protesters also believe they are being ignored by their local ward councilors, who should be the first line of elected officials dealing with communities' problems. One protester in Sebokeng said she had never met her ward councilor. "We know his name, but his face we don't know," said Tshepiso Maiyane.
Media coverage of dramatic protests can also fuel further protests, by causing long-neglected communities to realise that violence can bring attention to their plight. "Some protests are seen by millions of people, and that influences how ordinary people think," Ngwane said. "In every protest the media is crucial. People want their protest to come out in the media. A protest that comes out on the television has more prestige and gets more importance."
Ngwane also notes a darker trend. The platinum miners' strike at Marikana 18 months ago ended with the killing of 34 workers, captured by media for all the world to see. But rather than being intimidated by the killing, some local activists were inspired by the miners' hard-nosed attitude. "People saw that this government could shoot you and kill you, but you can continue to fight," said Ngwane, mentioning that some communities organise protests declaring: "We will make our own Marikana here."
As the number of protests has increased in the past few years, so has the number of protesters killed by police. At least nine people have been killed this year so far, four during a single protest against a water shortage. The deaths are sometimes the result of a lack of training or even simple incompetence on the part of police, rather than malice. During the water protest, three people were shot to death when the police mistakenly used live ammunition instead of rubber bullets. The police officers involved are now facing disciplinary action.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Sally de Beer defended the police response to service delivery protests, saying it was proportional. "The South African police service respond to protests in line with principles of situational appropriateness and proportionality, while applying a progressive approach to the use of violence from participants by applying less lethal options of force to de-escalate the situation," de Beer said.
South African police have also reportedly committed to almost doubling the number of public order police officers from 4,700 to 9,000 in response to a large number of protests. De Beer said South Africa has enough public order officers to deal with demonstrations already, but are nevertheless "enhancing" ability in the face of the protests.
Police have also responded in another, unconventional way - by taking out advertisements in major newspapers offering advice on how to protest. For example, they ask people to leave personal weapons at home when attending a protest.
National elections in South Africa are scheduled for May. The ANC is expected to win, but is likely to lose voters to both established opposition parties and new left-wing organisations. One of these political parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters, was photographed using a truck to ferry tyres to a recent service delivery protest, allegedly to be burnt in a blockade.
Service delivery protests have not historically coincided with elections, but that might change this year. Many commentators have said that while communities are protesting against ANC rule, they will remain loyal to the party at the ballot box. But new, unabashedly populist political groups may seek to take advantage of the dissatisfaction.