South Africa

Social unrest warning from governance expert

Service delivery protests are on the rise ahead of national elections next year, with many of them turning violent due to police incapacity and a lack of skills in South Africa’s security cluster.

This is feedback from governance expert Dr Sam Koma, who told eNCA that service delivery protests tend to ramp up prior to elections. 

Protest action picks up because communities know that politicians will be forced to do something about their demands as they need votes for the upcoming elections.

Koma said most South Africans face a cost of living crisis, forcing them to forfeit some of their basic needs while unemployment, poverty, and inequality remain elevated. 

When this is coupled with communities saying that they have been raising service delivery demands to local municipalities and politicians, but no action has been taken, protest is their only option. 

“Increasingly, they sense that they are not being listened to. This is when they would normally decide to embark on a protest to register this displeasure with local government and politicians,” Koma said. 

Dr Sam Koma

According to Municipal IQ, the number of service-delivery protests in South Africa is likely to reach a new annual record in 2023.

The country is suffering its worst-ever electricity blackouts, and patience is fraying over the deterioration of municipal services, leading to 122 protests in the first six months of the year.

At that rate, this year will overtake the 237 incidents of 2018, dwarfing the lull during the pandemic years.

“Over the last ten years, protests have become increasingly violent and lawless,” said Kevin Allan, the managing director of Municipal IQ, which tracks the performance of South Africa’s municipalities.

Koma warned that these protests tend to turn violent as the police fail to respond appropriately due to capacity constraints and a lack of information within the security cluster. 

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has admitted previously that they are facing serious capacity constraints. 

Koma said the police currently have 5,500 members of the public order policing division, while the ideal operational strength is around 13,000. 

“This must be understood as one of the contributing deficiencies facing the police in terms of handling a large crowd and responding appropriately to protests.”

Questions have been raised previously regarding the incapacity of South Africa’s security cluster. 

The cluster has proven unable to preempt, prevent, or contain social unrest in the past few years. The July Riots of 2021 and the recent truck burnings in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga are notable examples. 

High risk of unrest in South Africa

Xhanti Payi, senior economist at PwC South Africa

PwC senior economist Xhanti Payi said that South African companies will face increased uncertainty and volatility until the country addresses its major social problems. 

“This is something we just have to accept. Businesses have to do what they can to build resilience,” Payi said. 

South Africa is uniquely exposed to economic volatility and social unrest due to the country’s high level of unemployment, rising cost of living, and decreasing adherence to the law. 

Payi expects the country to experience an increase in the number of strikes, financial volatility, and general instability. 

“These things are going to continue to work against us. Focus has to be on how one builds resilience to this,” Payi said.

“The important thing is not just to sit around – it is vital to innovate and adapt.”

Businesses have to analyse their companies’ risks and develop strategies to mitigate against them. 

“Many businesses are very concerned about disruptions to their operations through strikes and competition,” he said. 

Nearly 40% of CEOs surveyed by PwC said they think that in the next decade, their businesses may not exist if they do not build resilience now.

“Disruption is a multi-faceted thing. They are also very concerned about social unrest and developments on this front.”

Payi raised the examples of the recent truck burnings in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga and the taxi strike in Cape Town in early August. 

South Africa is at high risk of widespread social unrest, and local businesses cannot ignore this. “Businesses should do as much as they can towards addressing the social challenges and develop strategies to mitigate their effects,” Payi said. 


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