Understanding the history, content and character of ‘violent’ protest

A UCT student is arrested by member of POP. Picture by Siyavuya Khaya.

Dale McKinley argues that the response of the police is the source of violence during protests.
If we are to believe the mainstream media and most political parties then it would appear as though South Africa is under a massive assault from ‘violent’ protests.
According to this storyline, it is the protestors (whether community members, organised workers or other political/social activists) who are blindly engaging in ever-increasing acts of wanton violence. In doing so, the argument goes, such ‘violence’ is undermining the ‘peace and stability’ of the ‘nation’ as well as the ‘rule of law’ which is being defended by the ANC/state, the police and law-abiding citizens.

This kind of story not only lacks any meaningful historical analysis but it is factually wrong as well as politically and ideologically biased.

A brief historical analysis shows us that the origins of post-1994 protests are to be found primarily in the ANC’s embrace of capitalist neoliberal policies. This required the new ANC state to politically manage and where necessary suspend and actively oppose, bread and butter, class-based and implicitly anti-capitalist struggles by workers and the poor.

Over time this has resulted in the closing down of participatory space and voice by a political and economic elite that have become disconnected from the mass of citizens in pursuit of their own class and personal interests. They have replaced that space and voice with enclosed structures, invited spaces, securitised politics, secretive deals and unilateral decision making.

In turn, political and socio-economic protests have increasingly become the only avenue for workers and the poor to make their voices heard and to contest their continued marginalisation and exploitation. As such protests have spread, the ANC and the state it controls have consciously chosen to politically undermine, verbally attack and often physically repress them.

To do so, they have come to rely more and more on the heavily armed and militarised coercive forces of the state (police, security-intelligence services). It is this political and ideological approach and subsequent practical approach – not the protests and protestors themselves – that constitute, by far, the greatest source of violence.

Protestors during #FeesMustFall at the University of the Western Cape in 2015. Photo: Mzi Velapi

The fact is that over 90% of protests carried out over the last decade have been peaceful. Most of the violence associated with protests is the result of police conduct/action. The results have been tragic – the unofficial body count of those killed by the police during protests since 1994 now stands at 84, with many more thousands injured, arrested and held in jail for long periods of time.

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The latest figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) show that during 2014-2015, the police were responsible for 3,711 cases of assault, 244 cases of death in police custody and 145 cases of torture. In those few cases where those involved in genuine political and socio-economic protest have engaged in violent conduct, this has mostly targeted property and vehicles. Those ‘protests’ facilitated and often carried out by ANC factions and corrupt business people specifically engage in violent conduct to further their own selfish and reactionary interests.

To understand ‘violent’ protest we must understand both the socio-economic ‘rule’ of the ANC/state as well as the political-ideological role of the police under capitalism. Neither is neutral. Rather, they have, and continue to be central to the protection of elite class interests. The real violence in our society does not come from ordinary people who have been forced to engage in protest; it comes from a systematic war on workers and the poor.

Dale McKinley is a researcher, writer and activist.

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