Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

With services protests likely to hit a record high again this year, it is  consoling and disconcerting that social discontent has been seen on the streets globally in recent weeks.

These protests are a serious concern, endangering matric pupils writing of exams in some communities, disrupting traffic and at times injuring passers-by, resulting in torched and vandalised infrastructure from libraries and schools to municipal offices, pushing up special-risk premiums and deterring investment. But we are not alone.

The unfolding of the 2007 global recession set off a new era of protests, with weak growth, rising inequality and youth unemployment resonating beyond SA. The underlying themes are worth considering.

First is the issue of inequality, evident in Ecuador, where cutting fuel subsidies sparked concern about the affordability of transport and food, especially in rural, indigenous communities. In Chile, violent protests against economic inequality were prompted by a rise in metro fares, leaving 17 dead and thousands arrested. In eSwatini, public servants expressed unhappiness with the expansion of their king’s fleet of luxury vehicles in a country where almost 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Perhaps a more enduring theme for international protests is that of regime change

Another prominent theme in the wave of protests is a response to corruption and nepotism. In Lebanon, relatively peaceful protests have been organised via WhatsApp to raise economic problems and corruption after measures imposed to secure international aid. This contrasts sharply with the fatal  protests in Iraq, where protesters against unemployment and alleged sectarian appointments in government may cause the prime minister to resign.

In Egypt, protesters accuse President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of corruption while in Bolivia allegations of irregular presidential elections also fuelled allegations of corruption and led to president Evo Morales stepping down under pressure from the military and accepting political asylum in Mexico.

Perhaps a more enduring theme for international protests is that of regime change. This is evident in Barcelona, where secessionists have protested to demand a Catalonian state, and in Hong Kong, where protesters embarked on what became street battles to resist an extradition bill to mainland China. In Peru, mines have been closed to protest against an unstable government. In Indonesia, protesters oppose a draconian criminal code, and in Haiti 30 people were killed in protests demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.

And then there is climate change, with the Extinction Rebellion (XR) organising protests in many countries — including the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, France and New Zealand — overlapping with protesting school children and supporters of 16-year old Greta Thunberg. Dutch farmers staged protests to highlight the role of the aviation industry in emissions.

Price of onions

There is noteworthy solidarity in these protests. Protesters around the globe have been seen to inspire each other. Catalonia leaders, for instance, told followers to use protective techniques published by Hong Kong comrades.

What worries so many in power is that even where initial sticking points have been dropped, like legislation in Hong Kong, the stirring of the hornet’s nest cannot be easily undone, with protests continuing and demands becoming broader. Recent protests in India, for instance, began with the price of onions. As Open Democracy argues, immediate triggers merge with longer-term grievances.

While there are complex economic and political commonalities to these protests, the underlying theme is that communities feel marginalised from governance structures and reach a point of apparent desperation before converging on the streets, at times at great risk to their personal safety.

This can be an indictment of political systems for not allowing productive channelling of grievances, or simply a reflection of grievances being too large and substantive to be negotiated through political systems. The backdrop for this strife is falling global growth to the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

Another pertinent feature in many protests is the use of social media, which offers an accessible platform to raise awareness and harness solidarity, as well as to organise protests, appealing especially but not exclusively to youthful protesters and at times circumventing the need for traditional organisers of protests such as trade unions and NGOs.

Painful austerity

Attempts to shut down these avenues, in the Middle East for instance, have largely failed, with savvy users switching to other platforms to communicate. In SA, where service delivery protests are more localised, social media is not always used or even necessary, since protesters can be called through the use of simpler means such as vuvuzelas.

Clearly, in SA’s case it is the two concerns of inequality and corruption (and how these affect service delivery) that resonate most profoundly, with the legitimacy of SA democracy largely intact — for now. This may change given the grim economic outlook presented by finance minister Tito Mboweni in his medium-term budgetary policy statement (MTBPS). If public sector debt continues to increase, local government services, with other public sector services, will continue to be cut, and inequality will deepen further. In communities, necessary but painful fiscal austerity is likely to translate into growing unhappiness, fuelling protests.

Not only must local government do more with less, focusing on efficiency, cost-saving and innovation to service SA communities equitably, other government initiatives must progress across the public sector to ease rising levels of public dissatisfaction.

Work to eradicate corruption in the public sector — as mammoth as it may be — must forge ahead and be seen to result in consequences. While the underlying basis for economic inequality, including stubborn youth unemployment (a theme emerging from the Arab Spring) can neither be easily solved nor wished away, it needs to be a cross-cutting policy priority if social stability is ever to be realised.

Important work in sectors such as agriculture can contribute to the required redress, but must work with multiple initiatives. Only truly motivated, dedicated and hard-working public servants, without side-hustles, can tackle these tasks. Those who are not up to the task need to be identified and face consequences for programmes to take their full effect and restore public confidence in the state.

Protests, especially in SA, are unlikely to disappear — they have become part of our democracy’s DNA. But the nature, extent and volume can be mitigated into a more functional expression of community feedback.

While it remains to be seen whether a period of global and local economic growth may stabilise protests as many have postulated, a more active, mobilised citizenry is likely one of the features of a post-millennial society globally.

More than 50 years later, the words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan ring true: Come mothers and fathers ... Your sons and your daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’.

• Heese is Municipal IQ economist and Allan its MD.