State Violence in the Protest Capital of the World

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dear Readers, in the below, Tony Roshan Samara describes the underside of post-conflict “development” when it is pushed forward with little attention to “justice.”  The issues he addresses are of major importance to all interested in charity and justice, development and humanitarianism.

Tony Roshan Samara

World interest in the killing of thirty four mine workers in South Africa this past August has waned even as political unrest spreads across the country, and the ANC-led government unleashes a renewed police crackdown on protesters. While many insightful pieces have been written about the incident at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, however, one of its most important lessons for South Africa and beyond has yet to be fully explored.

For many observers familiar with South Africa, myself included, as horrible as the killings were they did not come entirely as a surprise. Overemphasizing the labor aspect of the recent conflicts obscures what is a deeper and wider current of frustration over the political transformation in South Africa that has been building for some time. Protest is on the rise and is not limited to labor struggles. In response, the South African government has come to rely disproportionately on the police, and sometimes the military, to address what are fundamentally political conflicts over the direction and pace of economic development. Violence and bloodshed have too often been the result.

Almost two decades after the end of apartheid, the crippling inequalities generated by white minority rule remain. In the 1990s, at the urging of the International Monetary Fund and others, the ANC made the highly unpopular decision to abandon social welfare oriented policies and instead implement austerity measures in the name of global competitiveness. As recently as this past January IMF head Christine Lagarde praised the county’s “prudent fiscal policies” while urging continued “moderation in wage growth”.

This prudence has failed to make much of a dent in poverty, much less deliver the prosperity advocates promised. The official unemployment rate continues to hover around twenty five percent, while the unofficial rate is closer to forty. At least half the country lives in poverty. And as national aggregates these figures obscure an even more dire situation for black South Africans, people under the age of thirty five, and women. The nation is, as many have observed, one of the most unequal anywhere.

Behind the statistics lie troubling developments that speak to the deeper meaning of Marikana. The years since political liberation have witnessed growing impatience across the population over the pace of job creation and service delivery, a loss of faith in the ANC, and the failure of major opposition parties to offer meaningful alternatives. In the meantime, a small but highly visible black elite has emerged, many of its members having moved from government into major industries, like mining, that remain largely under white control.

The result, according to researcher Peter Alexander, at the University of Johannesburg, has been a rebellion of the poor unfolding over the past decade, with the past two years experiencing peaks in the number of recorded protests. Confrontations are so frequent that Alexander has dubbed South Africa the protest capital of the world.

The response by government has been disheartening. While quick to acknowledge the legitimate frustrations of the population, in practice it has engaged in a clear pattern of portraying protesters as criminals, and often attempting to suppress their actions by force. In a direct contradiction of what the ANC promised before 1994, the post apartheid state has pursued domestic security through a massive expansion of the criminal justice system. The national budget for policing, justice and corrections increased from 14 billion Rand in 1995 to over 71 billion in 2009. [1]

Much of this spending has been geared towards increasing the size of the police force, and between 1997 and 2011 the South African Police Service grew from approximately 120,000 personnel to 197,000 in 2011. Over roughly the same period, its budget grew 12% per annum. Aggressive policing in black communities has contributed to a skyrocketing of complaints to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, from 2500 per year in 1998, when the investigative body was founded, to almost 6400 in 2010.

In truth, police are placed into a situation for which they are completely unequipped. As my own work has documented, they are increasingly deployed to patrol the gap between the promises of government and realities on the ground, a gap which only widens with every passing year. In the absence of socio-economic development, the police are tasked with confronting a highly politicized and organized population with deep, collective experience in defying the state. That conflict and violence ensue should surprise no one.

The incident at Marikana may be a harbinger of things to come beyond South Africa. From public squares and urban slums to garment factories and dusty villages, people have steadily been massing, erecting barricades, flying banners, defying authority. Seeing few alternatives, democratic and authoritarian governments alike are choosing to defend an order that many view as unjust and, increasingly, illegitimate. And for this task they have turned to the police. The stage has thus been set for what is shaping up as an era of clashes between states and their populations across the globe.

Tony Roshan Samara is associate professor of sociology at George Mason University and the author of Cape Town After Apartheid: Crime and Governance in the Divided City (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). He has written extensively about conflicts between police and low income communities in South Africa.


[1] Louise Ehlers and Sean Tait, “Finding the Right Balance: Immediate Safety versus Long-Term Social Change,” SA Crime Quarterly 27, March 2009, pp.23–30.