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Were the #AlexShutdown protests an election campaign?

Alexandra township on the banks of the Jukskei River and covered in rubbish

Situated on the banks of the Jukskei River, at the heart of one of South Africa’s most affluent suburbs, the township of Alexandra found itself engulfed in violent protests that would bring the area and its surrounds to a standstill in April 2019. One of the poorest urban regions in the country, the township’s low-cost homes and hardwood shacks stand in stark contrast to the tree-lined streets and high-walled mansions in its neighbouring suburb of Sandton. While the region is no stranger to poverty, hardship and suffering, it recently became a battlefield for warring political forces as they embarked on a tug-of-war for the region at the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub ahead of the upcoming May 8 elections.

The streets of Alex are a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and nationalities - although previously stable as the residents of the area battled the hardships of poverty and marginalisation alongside one another. That is, until recently, when fiery tyres blackened roads and burning rubble blockaded streets, as neighbour appeared to turn on neighbour in a struggle for space, legitimacy and resources.

At face value the protests appeared to centre around unemployment, illegal land occupation, a lack of service delivery and tensions between South Africans and foreigners in the township. Soon, however, a narrative of a different kind began to emerge. While impossible to deny the issues relating to poverty, a lack of basic service delivery, clean water, sanitation and space, coupled with high levels of unemployment, news headlines were soon dominated by accusations that clashes were being instigated, maliciously and deliberately driven by a political agenda.

Suddenly, it seemed that it wasn’t the residents at the centre of disruptions and demands, but localised political agents serving a destabilisation plan in an attempt to undermine other political parties in the region.

To add fuel to fire, soon local, provincial and even national politicians began weighing in and shifting blame, fanning flames that many claim had been dormantly smouldering all along. As could be expected, tensions did rise - and soon the melting pot that is Alexandra was on the verge of boiling over.

The Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters were quick to blame ANC party-agents for inciting violence and fuelling tensions, while the ANC regime denied the claims, noting that perhaps if the DA-run municipality had better service delivery then residents would not be forced to turn to protest action.

While Executive Mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba said a forensic investigation would be launched into the Alexandra Renewal Project and what he calls the looting of the R16-million set aside for development. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch an SIU investigation into the dealings and contracts awarded surrounding the failed project. The ANC, however, says this is an attempt to detract from the fact that service delivery is not on the DA-led city’s agenda.

Protests in the Western Cape township of Khayelitsha flared up around the same time as protests in Alexandra. While also dubbed ‘service delivery’ protests, the Cape Town Human Settlements MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela described the protests during an interview on CapeTalk as a desperate attempt by the ANC to make the DA-run Western Cape ungovernable ahead of the upcoming elections.

This seemed to be an opposition-held belief in various metros. Former executive mayor of Tshwane and DA-Premier candidate for Gauteng, Solly Msimanga, laid criminal charges against those he claimed were responsible for the protests in Alexandra, citing both criminal law and the Local Government: Municipal Electoral Act, claiming in his affidavit to be in possession of proof that the protests were driven by ANC office bearers. According to him this evidence includes Whatsapp screenshots, as well as audio recordings in which an ANC-community leader admits that ‘the party’ is involved in organising and driving protest action. According to Msimang, this constitutes an incitement of violence and a number of other offences as outlined in the section 97 of the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code of Conduct. Allegations that an ANC-branded vehicle was being used to distribute tyres to be burnt in the protests were also doing the rounds amongst residents who spoke to

During the time period of the #AlexShutdown movement, Gauteng provincial spokesperson for the South African Police Service Kay Makahubela told media that they were aware of several protests in Gauteng, including in Vereeniging, Soshanguve, Bekkersdal, Pretoria West and Hammanskraal, but that police were investigating claims that the protests were being instigated by external roleplayers with vested interests. "If it’s found that there are people involved in terms of influencing other people, those people will be arrested," Makhubela said, adding that police intelligence units were on the ground gathering information in an attempt to preempt any violence before it flared up.

As police were putting out fires in the DA-run Tshwane, however, ANC councillors staged a walk-out of the State of the Capital address, saying they could not attend meetings while the electorate in the townships had grievances that were being ignored. The EFF leader in the region dismissed the ANC gesture, stating that there was nothing genuine or organic about the unrest in the townships surrounding Tshwane, putting the entire situation down to “ANC thuggery” which was now playing games in an area that they had failed for the past quarter of a century. The DA councillors agreed with this, with Utility Services MMC Abel Tau saying that the administration would not be held hostage or intimidated by the ANC, who he blamed for being behind the disruptions in the townships.

While the blame-game over Alex and its future, as well as the allegations over maladministration and looting of funds allocated towards upgrades continue, the timing of the unrest and political undertones by supposed civil leaders comes at a strategic time as the country gears up to go to the polls.

A brief history of protests since the dawn of democracy

Public violence, protests and unrest are by no means a new phenomenon in South Africa, or in South African politics . In 2018, South Africa’s ranking in the Global Peace Index fell to 125 out of 165 countries, in part due to violent protests and political violence. But protests are not always to be seen in a negative light - the democracy South Africa celebrates today was born from decades of public unrest, civil disobedience, demonstrations and protests. For this reason, South Africans have a high-tolerance for public disturbances and have continued to fight to see the right to protest entrenched in the country’s Constitution. In 2012 Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng wrote that “Indeed, protest is one of the principal means by which ordinary people can meaningfully contribute to the constitutional objective of advancing human rights and freedom.” In 2017 the Constitutional Court found that the right to protest without fear of arrest was non-negotiable.

Jameelah Omar, senior lecturer in Public Law at the University of Cape Town agrees.

“Protest is a tool of communication for those who lack access to alternative avenues of dissent,” he said, adding that historically protests were used as a method of applying pressure on the state.

In the past, organisations like Equal Education have also emphasised the importance of protest. In their view, certain groups like children are unable to exercise their political rights or societal voice through mechanisms like voting, leaving protest as their only way to truly participate in the democracy.

In a booklet titled ‘Human Rights in community Protest’ issued by the South African Human Rights Commission, the SAHRC describes South African protests as often being rooted in poverty and inequality.

South Africa is familiar with these types of protests, often oversimplified and boxed under the label ‘service delivery protests’. These grassroots or community-based protests tend to be organic and temporary, lacking in formal structure or organisation. South Africa, however, is seeing in increase in more structured social movements; the type formed to target issues related to government politics.

Omar says that political protests tend to occur in swells, especially in and around election time. Manager of the ISS Crime and Justice Information Hub, Lizette Lancaster, agrees. “We are seeing an increase in the number of protests a day and the intensity of the protests ahead of the elections.”

These increases, she says, are most notable during events relating to election processes such as campaigning, or during processes by the Electoral Commission (IEC) such as voter registration drives. “On the last voter registration weekend end of January, the IEC noted that by 11:00 of the first day, approximately 140 voting stations around the country were not yet open due to community protests.” According to the IEC, this equates to 0,6% of voting stations in South Africa. Lancaster says in 2016, there were 92 such incidents recorded during the voter registration weekend in March. According to the ISS, of the arrests made during public violence in 2014 (also an election year), in cases where the political affiliation of the perpetrators was known, 52% were from the ANC and 26% from the EFF.

EFF poster in Alexandra township before elections May 8 2019

In 2016, ahead of the local government elections, violent protests erupted in the City of Tshwane over the choice of mayoral candidate - an eruption that left at least five people dead and more than 1000 injured. Later, the ANC would blame its own members for stoking the protests, that also lead to xenophobic attacks and the looting of foreign-owned shops.

Municipal IQ economist Karen Heese believes this year things are different. Her company offers an intelligence service that monitors the 257 municipalities in South Africa and uses data to quantify and better understand the nature and trends behind events. The data show while current action is in keeping with the usual spike ahead of elections, this is also the highest number of protests for the first quarter on record.

Speaking to she said these protests since the start of the year do seem to be of greater intensity, and this is a trend that continues as the #ShutDown hashtag grows. Despite this, Heese says it is important to remember that there are similarly pronounced protests between elections and in non-election years.

Heese says the data paints a clear picture and can help South Africans anticipate possible outcomes. “For months preceding the general elections there was an increase, and then a lull around elections. And in 2009, after that, a spike again, especially where there were factional tensions,” she explained.

Protests by numbers

While 2018 saw 237 major service delivery protests, breaking the previous record of 191 protests in 2014, the count for 2019 is expected to surge higher yet. From January to March 2019 Municipal IQ recorded 67 protests - a record high for the first quarter of the year. In a statement the intelligence service noted that this is likely as a result of protesters making the most of the opportunity to draw political attention to their grievances in the run-up to the election.

From 2004 to 2019, Gauteng averages as the most protests-prone province. In 2018, however, the Eastern Cape for the first time overtook Gauteng in number of protests for the year, and is neck-in-neck with the smaller economic hub for the number of protests in 2019 so far. “There is noteworthy pressure on the Eastern Cape municipalities - not only in Nelson Mandela Bay communities, where repeated protests have taken place, especially in places like Motherwell, but also further afield in towns like Steynsburg and Lady Grey,” Heese said.

Municipalities, according to her, are not more prone to protests depending on who is governing the metro. She says protests seem to be more dependent on the area and the specific pressure and regional issues it experiences. Areas with a lack of service delivery or a poor track-record of government intervention are, understandably, more prone to frustrations which could boil over into protest action or erupt into violence.

Heese also says that while foreign-owned shops and business are subjected to looting, arson and intimidation during service delivery protests, this was only recorded in about 4% of service delivery protests staged since the xenophobic violence in 2008.

“Care must be taken not to conflate the issue,” she said.

While xenophobic elements are a concern, they are not as common as many would believe. “It is imperative that there is a concerted effort by all politicians from all parties to build respect for foreign nationals’ rights, and to be accountable for service delivery failures rather than blaming these on migrancy,” she said.

It is widely accepted that the mass protests that have become the norm in South Africa are just another form of public discourse, although with elections approaching and violence on the rise, the tone of this discussion has taken on an ominous tone.

What about 2019?

According to experts, however, the 2019 elections are different in many senses. “The run-up to the May 8 elections will see increasing election-related protest hotspots,” she explains, going on to state that this is due to a number of reasons.

One of these reasons is that some residents are more willing to take up disruptive or violent protesting due to a quarter-century of frustrations and neglect in their communities, and that rather than exercise internal control, even non-protesting residents aggrieved by service delivery failures and a non-responsive government allow this to take place. “Political leadership also often take up local grievances to advance their own political ambitions,” Lancaster explained.

According to Lancaster, the political battlegrounds have not changed too much in recent years. “Many of the protest hotspots are similar to the hotpots prior to or during the 2014 and 2016 elections, and many residents say they experience the same problems but are now willing to intensify their efforts.”

She says some ‘hotspots’ are persistent, like Gauteng’s Bekkersdal and Alexandra, and areas like Mamelodi in Tshwane. In the Western Cape, areas like Khayelitsha and Gugulethu are often on fire, and under fire, due to community unrest.

But 2019 is different - and while the playing fields may have stayed the same, the goal posts have moved. “The 2019 situation is exasperated by greater contestation between parties in metros”, explained Lancaster, referring to local government roleplayers having different political affiliations, motivations and political interests to provincial ruling parties, or even national roleplayers. “The entry of newer political parties in traditional strongholds further complicates the matter.”

Alexandra residents burned shops and homes belonging to immigrants

© & Jamaine Krige

But what does this mean for our upcoming elections? “Trends suggest that if protestors and organisers use disruptive protest practices at the last voter registration weekend and before elections, then these areas are more likely to erupt again, possibly with greater intensity.”

It is also important to remember, she says, that protest action on the street does not always translate to action at the polls. “Many people may continue to support the political party they are protesting against, and voting for an alternative is not an option.” This, she says, is especially true in rural areas like the Eastern Cape and Sterkspruit, or Vuwani in Limpopo, where disruptions and protests against demarcation plans have been ongoing over years, yet a shift in political leadership has yet to take place.

Lancaster says the first step to contain violence is that political leaders across the board must be more responsive to constituents and must lead by example, while condemning all forms of violence and intimidation in their actions and messaging. According to the ISS Crime Hub, the majority of cases of political violence since 2013 have had both ANC victims and ANC perpetrators.

The Human Sciences Research Council’s Mia Swart agrees with Lancaster, adding that the only way to address the culture of impunity breeding current violent actions is to hold political parties accountable for the violence committed in their name.

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