What is behind the social unrest in South Africa and what can be done about it

South Africa has the highest registered social protest rate of any country in the world. The reasons for this are more complex than often assumed.

The extent and severity of the looting and sabotage in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng in July following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma have brought social protest and civil unrest to the public discourse.


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But many comments on the July riots – which killed over 300 lives and cost the economy billions of rand – have neglected the long history of violent protests in the country. The truth is that while the discontent of Zuma’s supporters was the trigger, the roots of the social unrest run much deeper.

In addition, the available data show that the number of protests in South Africa has increased steadily over the past 20 years. For example, the average number of service delivery protests has increased almost ninefold each year between 2004-08 and 2015-19.

There is also evidence that social protests are increasingly violent and disruptive.

It is important to understand what is behind this trend of growing social unrest that is making the country precarious and what can be done to address the underlying causes.

If the government is to avoid a recurrence of the social and economic disaster of the July 2021 riots – albeit on a smaller and local scale – it should look back to learn some important lessons about why protests happen and how to deal with them.

Seeds of discontent

There are a number of key factors to understanding the reasons behind social protest in South Africa:

First, it is important to recognize that the people and places with the greatest social and economic disadvantage are not the most likely to protest. Protests against “service delivery” – the provision of basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation – are for example heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, eThekwini, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Mangaung. Yet rural communities actually have much lower levels of service coverage.

Access to basic services has also improved across the country over the past two decades. But delivery protests have increased exponentially over the same period. There are obviously deeper and more complex reasons for how and when ineffective community service delivery leads to social conflict.

Second, it is often a sense of injustice (inequality), not just the level of care, that creates grievances and resentments that spark social protest. For example, long-standing differences in the equipment of neighboring communities are a clear signal that the government is unwilling or unable to meet their needs fairly.

A typical example are informal settlements, which were often focal points for protest actions. Rural migrants arrive in the city hoping for a better life only to end up in misery. Until the government can implement a realistic and scalable plan to upgrade informal settlements, this is likely to continue.

Third, government departments tend to be fixated on achieving numerical goals at the expense of quality of service and what is most important to the communities. Recent research suggests that when it comes to service delivery and related public investment, local government officials are more likely to be caught up in a “play it safe” and “compliance” culture than innovation and true transformation.

A notorious example is the delivery of open field toilets, where the communities get the credit and the contractors are paid to build them, whether or not houses or people live nearby.

Government must stop paying lip service to the principles of community consultation and local participation and take this work seriously. The extra time and effort is justified by the fact that community plans and investments are closer to people’s real priorities. Local acquisitions can also help protect and sustain investments in public infrastructure.

Eventually, feelings of frustration and anger were compounded by years of waiting for promises to be fulfilled. International studies suggest that communities are more likely to protest when they can clearly point the blame and when visible institutions have the means to make amends.

Community services have a clear line of sight in which communities can easily measure and certify progress in their everyday experience. Mismanagement and corruption have led to the collapse of many municipalities in recent years. This is especially the case in smaller towns where sewage is running down the street and there is no water in the pipes. In this way, complaints about the provision of services are a frequent trigger for social protest. But the complaints often reflect a much broader basket of dissatisfaction.

In the last 18 months, the hardship and suffering of poorer urban communities in particular have been exacerbated by the disproportionate loss of jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. The reality of hunger and food insecurity is a moral issue, but also crucial for social stability.

The recent extension of the monthly Covid-19 special grant of R350 ($ 23) should help alleviate some of the immediate pressures on poorer households. But the country also needs a clearer plan for addressing food insecurity.

Not a quick fix

At the heart of the matter, South Africa’s deeply rooted social inequalities and segregated living conditions provide fertile ground for popular discontent. There is no simple solution to this.

The population of the metropolises continues to grow. This puts additional pressure on poorer communities, which are forced to cope with rapid densification, strained services, informality and poor economic opportunities. Fragmented communities and weak, underserved government institutions make upgrading and redesigning these districts even more difficult.

Meanwhile, wealthy households can buy into places that are safer, better planned, and with better quality facilities. You can opt out of public services by paying for private schools, health care, and safety. This further accentuates the socio-economic divide.

There is a real risk that the current financial crisis will further corrode public services. This will encourage more and more middle-class families to buy into private provision. If the government does not get this problem under control, the growing gap between the middle and working classes will heighten perceptions of injustice and exacerbate social instability.The conversation

Justin Visagie, Senior Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council; Ivan Turok, Distinguished Research Fellow, Human Sciences Research Council, and Sharlene Swartz, Head of Inclusive Economic Development, Human Sciences Research Council

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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