Menu Close

Understanding violent protest in South Africa and the difficult choice facing leaders

A while police van lies on its side and in flames after protesting farmers set it alight
A police van lies in flames after white farmers went on a rampage in Senekal, South Africa. Tracy Lee Stark/The Citizen.

Protests and social mobilisation are the lifeblood of democracy. They enable the discontent of citizens to be communicated to political elites between elections, and when intra-institutional processes have lost their efficacy. But most protests never lead to sustainable change. They peter out because of one or other reformist measure. Or they lose support because they tend to take on violent overtones.

Most protesters and leaders engage in peaceful mobilisation. But there are always some leaders and activists who are intent on violence. This is because protests and social movements always involve heterogeneous communities with multiple expressions, political factions and leaders.

Some of these expressions and political factions believe in violent direct action and behave accordingly in the protests. Add to this the opportunism of criminals who use the protests as a cover to conduct criminal activity, and it is not hard to imagine why protests can turn violent.

Much of this is reflected in the contemporary protests and social mobilisation around the world. All of the movements - #BlackLivesMatter, the Hong Kong Democracy Movement, Gilets Jaunes in France, #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall in South Africa - were in the main peaceful. But they nevertheless manifested in violent direct action on occasion.

Protest leaders often expressed disquiet and dissociated themselves from the violence. But on many occasions, they also excused the violence, suggesting that it could not be compared to that experienced by protesters at the hands of police or by the victims of oppression and exploitation. This may be true in most cases. But it evades the strategic issue that violence can often undermine and erode the legitimacy of protests. It creates the opportunity for police and security forces to repress the social action itself.

Protest leaders also often blame the violence on criminals or on aggressive police action. Again much of this is true. Criminals use protests to conduct criminal activity including, among others, looting and theft when the opportunity arises. Moreover, aggressive policing and repressive actions by security services can often turn the tide of peaceful protests and prompt violent acts by some protesters.

But these explanations do not account for all forms of violence in protests.

Why peaceful protests turn violent

Perhaps the foremost scholar on social movements and political violence is political scientist Donatella Della Porta. She holds that violence in protests is a product of two distinct developments: aggressive police action and political factionalisation, in which distinct political groups try to dominate the leadership of social movements. The explanation of aggressive policing is uncontested by most progressive intellectuals. They often refer to it to explain the violence. But they often ignore the second explanation because it involves a collective self-reflection and a political confrontation with movement participants.

There is no doubt that in many of these movements, there are individual activists and political groupings who explicitly hold the view that violent action is legitimate. They use the circumstances to actively drive such behaviour, as I explain in detail in Chapter 9 of my 2018 book, Rebels and Rage.

These proactive commitments from factions within these protest movements suggest that violence is as much internally driven from within the social movements as it is a response to the repressive actions of the police and security services.

This then necessitates a reflection on the strategic efficacy of violence as a means of sustainably achieving social justice outcomes. Of course, this reflection must be contextually grounded. It must be understood in the context of the democratic societies within which the protests occur. After all it is the democratic character of these societies, flawed as they may be, which establishes the parameters of legitimate political action and the consequences for the violations thereof.

Rage versus violence

Social mobilisation requires rage but not violence. When the two get confused, the cause of social justice itself may be delegitimised or defeated. Rage is important because it can inspire people, galvanise them, and as a result enable collective action against injustice. It also need not always lead to violence. Neither does it need to lead to emotionally driven acts of impulsiveness.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the life of the late statesman Nelson Mandela, it is that effective leadership of a social or political struggle requires an understanding of the political lay of the land. It also requires an assessment of the prevailing distribution of power among social forces, an acute grasp of the leverage available to political actors opposed to the social justice cause, and a plan for how to overcome these without compromising on the ultimate social outcome.

Much of the case of young activists for adopting violence as a strategic option is predicated on the presence of structural violence. This refers to the prevailing economic and political conditions which produce not only deep social marginalisation within and across nations, but also the implicit racism that is codified in institutions and daily practices.

If there is such structural violence present, it is held, is there no legitimacy to acts of physical violence that are targeted to address the marginalisation and oppression?

Social pact in a democracy

The answer to this lies in the social pact that undergirds democratic society. Citizens cede the authority of legitimate violence to the state in exchange for security and rights. The alternative to this is that all bear the right to legitimate violence, thereby making society vulnerable to the rule of the strongest and the most forceful. The real victims of such an environment are the poorest and weakest in society.

Yet what does one do if political factions or individuals resort to violence in a peaceful protest? This after all is one of the major challenges that confront leaders of protests. Most of them are committed to peaceful social mobilisation, but are confronted with individuals or political factions who violate the peaceful character of the mobilisation – either proactively or as a response to aggressive police action.

The protest leaders have to then engage in a rearguard battle in which they have to explain why there is violence accompanying the protest, even though they have expressed a commitment to peaceful social mobilisation. Inevitably the leaders come off as unconvincing or duplicitous or as making excuses for the violence.

Of course those who are committed to violent direct action are aware of this reluctance by protest leaders to identify them. They realise that most protest leaders will not identify the perpetrators of violence because they would not want to be seen as abetting the authorities.

The perpetrators of violence can then behave in a manner that explicitly defies the collective underlying principles of the protest without having to fear any sanction. Essentially the political norms disable the incentive structure for political factions to abide by the strategic principle of peaceful social action.

The only way out of this dilemma is to change the rules. Leaders must either explicitly exclude political factions or individuals who are committed to violent social action. Or they must make explicitly clear that they will identify those who violate the principle of nonviolence that serves as the guiding philosophy of the protest.

Of course the political factions or individuals are unlikely to meekly accept this state of affairs. But leaders are going to have to explicitly manage this political challenge by openly debating the issue with movement participants, explaining why this is necessary for the success of the protest itself. Otherwise, such leaders will forever remain hostage to factions and small unaccountable political groups who serve as parasites on the progressive social cause.

This then is the challenge for protest leaders.

Exercising leadership

Political leadership sometimes requires difficult choices. Such difficult choices are not simply required from those leading institutions and governments. It is sometimes also demanded of leaders of social movements. This is particularly true when individual acts of violence can compromise the outcomes of the protest itself.

Protest leaders have a choice: either they allow acts of violence and, therefore, play to a political script not of their own making, or they act in a manner that keeps the social mobilisation on a path that they have explicitly chosen. This is especially important because the alternative path will not only erode the broader legitimacy of the cause. It will also provoke reactions that could undermine the protest and the sustainability of the social justice outcome.

This choice of enabling or containing political violence is, therefore, the central strategic challenge confronting the political leadership of contemporary protests both in South Africa and around the world.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 117,100 academics and researchers from 3,789 institutions.

Register now