Police confront supporters of President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on January 6 2021. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE THEILER
Police confront supporters of President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on January 6 2021. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE THEILER

Recently an astounded world watched images of Donald Trump supporters, incited by the president himself, rampaging through America’s most sacred legislative symbol, Capitol Hill, in a dangerous but thwarted attempt to overturn election results.

The attack took place on a scale last seen in 1814 when British soldiers tried to raze the building, shocking the world for its violence, which is only now beginning to be fully understood.

SA is not unfamiliar with violent protests in its legislature — #FeesMustFall protesters were arrested in the parliamentary precinct in 2015. Service delivery protests — as recorded by Municipal IQ’s municipal hotspots monitor with a focus on those against municipalities for specific service concerns — have sharply increased since 2009.

These dipped to a nine-year low in 2020, with the proportion of violence retreating slightly (to 75% of protests, against 78% recorded between 2004 and 2020), but this can largely be attributed to lockdown conditions and draconian policing that thwarted many public gatherings.

With so many municipalities still floundering, and their performance in the spotlight with upcoming local elections, should citizens be concerned that the recent Washington sedition resonates with frustrated SA protesters?

Voluminous analysis is likely to be dedicated to the Make America Great Again protest, but superficially there are a number of similarities with SA service delivery protests:

  • Protesters felt disenfranchised: In the case of many of those who breached Capitol Hill, there was an explicit view that electoral results had been “crooked” and that their collective voice had not been heard. While the legitimacy of SA elections is rarely challenged, many service delivery protests or protests against councillor candidates centre on the legitimacy of councillors and other elected leaders.
  • Protesters were violent: The most jarring aspect of the storming of Capitol Hill was the express intention to harm legislators who confirmed president-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win, and anyone else who facilitated this process. Regrettably, most service delivery protests in SA take on a violent dimension, but individuals are seldom targeted as they were the US putsch.
  • Protesters attacked a symbol of authority: Capitol Hill is an almost sacred symbol of American democracy to most US citizens, and aside from wanting to interfere with proceedings in the building, there is little doubt it was an attractive symbolic target for those who stormed and defaced it. Many service delivery protests are marked by a similar logic to targeting municipal buildings.

There are, however, a number of significant differences:

  • The protest was organised on a national scale: Protesters came from around the US and identified with right-wing and white supremist groups, including QAnon, the Proud Boys and other extremists. Service delivery protests are predominantly rooted at a community level and tend to rally around a specific service delivery grievance, with — if anything — a left-wing bias.
  • The US protest was legitimised and spurred by national leadership: The “orders” to march on Capitol Hill were given by Trump himself. No national SA leader of stature has encouraged violent protest in democratic SA.
  • Empowered protesters: One of the most striking discoveries in the wake of the US protest was just how many of the protesters were securely middle-class with significant knowledge of how to engage with democratic processes, including an actual state legislator. In SA most service delivery protests take place in communities where there is a lack of information on how to engage with council structures, or a failure of measures to do so taking place.
  • Police complicity/lack of preparedness: Another striking difference between this riot and those seen in the US in 2020 under the #BlackLivesMatter banner was the lack of apparent police preparedness, with what some have speculated goes as far as complicity. The relationship between SA protesters and the police remains largely antagonistic.

There is little doubt that the US protest action is a unique and scarring event for the country, distinct from other protests in the US and in other countries, to be scrutinised intensely in future.

However, it would be naive for any democracy, no matter how robust, not to be shaken by the images of violent protest, and not to consider the lessons they offer in dealing with fake news, seditious incitement, populism and disenfranchisement. The key question for all democracies is: at what point do protests cross a line into acts of terror?

As so many have already quoted, it is pertinent to recall the words of civil rights giant John Lewis, in the recent posthumous essay published in The New York Times: “Democracy is not a state, it is an act.”

• Heese is Municipal IQ’s economist, and Allan its MD.

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