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Getting to the bottom of what really drives public violence in South Africa
7 February 2014

This year started badly for the South African Police Service (SAPS) given that by the end of January 2014, more than ten people had been shot dead during violent public incidents. Protest action over water shortages in Mothotlung in the North West resulted in four protestors allegedly dying at the hands of the police. A week later, police allegedly killed three protestors when a large crowd from the village of Kubjana reportedly attacked the Relela satellite police station north of Tzaneen. The villagers were frustrated by the recent unsolved murder and mutilation of a young woman in the area. In addition to the deaths, four police officers were wounded and a number of police vehicles damaged.

Arguably, the police have become caught in a cycle of violence with certain communities. The root cause often tends to be frustration with poor service delivery or inadequate responsiveness from local governments. This boils over into displays of public violence, which is sometimes exploited by criminal elements who loot shops and businesses. The police are called in and they are quick to use rubber bullets and teargas to quell the violence. However, this can escalate tensions and lead to battles between the police and communities that can go on for days. The end result is that police-community relations suffer.

According to the SAPS Incident Registration Information System (IRIS), police officers were deployed to monitor a total of 12 399 crowd-related events (34 incidents a day, on average) between April 2012 and March 2013. Most of these were public gatherings that had been given permission in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act 205 of 1993. However, as many 1 882 (15%) of these gatherings turned violent, resulting in 3 680 arrests.

This means that an average of five violent public incidents took place each day in that year. This represents a 54% increase from the previous year when 1 226 incidents were recorded. Unfortunately, these figures are almost a year old and only the police know whether the number of incidents has increased since April last year.

The police have raised concerns that the large number of violent protests undermine their crime-prevention efforts. When protestors blockade roads and damage property, the police need to divert their resources away from other responsibilities and activities in order to disperse protestors.

Unfortunately, there is little indication that government has an adequate understanding as to what drives different forms of public violence and how best to respond to these without relying on the police.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has previously argued that public violence and protests need to be monitored, reported and recorded as a matter of urgency. ‘Accurate data would allow us to better assess the scale of public frustration, and determine how many communities have reached the point at which their anger and frustration leads to destruction of infrastructure, lost school days, deaths and injuries. It would also allow us to monitor the response of the state and politicians to issues of burning concern,’ explained Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow in the Governance, Crime and Justice Division of the ISS in 2012.

Several institutions collect data on protest and strike action. However, these data sets vary in terms of quality, reliability, coverage and accessibility. For example, the methodology used to collect the statistics generated by the SAPS IRIS is unclear; as is the level of detail of each incident.

Analysts have identified three other data sets. The first is maintained by the Department of Human Settlements (DHS) and is called the Spatial Viewer on Protest Actions (SPAVOPA), which focuses on housing and service delivery protests. Incidents are recorded based on press clippings, Internet searches and other print media reports.

A second data set is managed by a private research company called Municipal IQ, and has been recording service delivery protests at municipal level since 2004. Their statistics are gathered via media reports and academic research.

A third data set, called the Social Protest Observatory, is based at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The CSS monitors national protest action through media reports and a network of activists and scholars. The Municipal IQ database is only accessible via paid subscription, while the SAPS IRIS database is restricted.

The run-up to the previous national elections in 2009 saw a notable increase in protests, strikes and election violence. Based on this, the country can anticipate a spike in such actions in the period leading up to the next national elections, which are expected to take place in May.

In order to understand the factors that cause public violence and develop effective strategies to address these without police intervention, it is important that there is a comprehensive data set, which must be free and accessible to all. Such a system needs to be developed using rigorous methodology. Its success will depend on collaboration with various role players.

In November 2013, the ISS hosted a round-table discussion in Gauteng for academics, researchers, community practitioners and government agencies. These included representatives from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and SAPS’s Operational Response Services Division.

Participants agreed that a comprehensive system for the collection of protest and strike action will improve the understanding of the complex drivers of public violence and potentially allow for the early identification of triggers and trends. This would enable all role players, including state organs, to design multi-faceted and appropriate responses to better manage, if not prevent, such incidents.

Such interventions could free up police resources to improve their crime-prevention efforts. Improved analysis of incidents can also assist with local planning and better coordination among role players such as the IEC and SAPS to facilitate information sharing and resource allocation.

As a starting point the ISS, through its Crime and Justice Information and Analysis Hub, launched a free public violence map viewer. Accessible to all, it allows Internet users to view public and potential election violence hot spots using interactive maps.

Users can also report incidents of violence online. All information will be verified and logged onto the system. Additional information for each incident is collected to ensure the development of a comprehensive database. Data from the IEC, SAPS and Statistics South Africa is also incorporated to ensure that the information can be used for planning purposes.

Many methodological issues still need to be resolved. These include how incidents are to be counted and categorised, and how data can be sourced and verified. Ideally a network of public violence monitors needs to be developed to empower communities to report incidents via the ISS system.

It is important to note that statistics and data are not in themselves a solution; rather they provide a base to create a better understanding of the drivers of violence and their hot spots. A system such as the one that is being developed by the ISS, in consultation with various role players, could improve the monitoring and responding to these incidents in new and creative ways that reduce, rather than escalate, public violence.

For more information, visit http://www.issafrica.org/crimehub/public-violence

Lizette Lancaster, Project Manager, Crime and Justice Information Hub and Mpho Mtshali, Intern, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

Sunday Times

Polity.org.za

DefenceWeb

Geoawesomness

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