Major intersections are turned into landfill sites when people feel the only way they will be heard is to cause havoc. Picture: MOELETSI MABE
Major intersections are turned into landfill sites when people feel the only way they will be heard is to cause havoc. Picture: MOELETSI MABE

Last week was another stark reminder of how quickly parts of SA can be transformed from centres of economic hustle and bustle to ones of chaos and violence.

On Monday, municipal workers in the capital city blockaded roads with trucks and refuse over a decision by the Tshwane municipality to award managerial staff an 18% pay increase. Workers led by Samwu demanded a similar wage hike.   

Peaceful protests are constitutionally enshrined political tools to influence elected officials to initiate social change. But as officials routinely show complete disregard for this valid expression of frustrations, protesters feel it is necessary to be destructive and violent for their voices to be heard.

Even when communities demonstrate peacefully, hand over a list of grievances and plead with authorities, often the result is indifference at best.

Videos online showed major intersections in Pretoria transformed into landfill sites as refuse trucks unloaded rubbish onto the city’s streets,  severely disrupting traffic. 

Unfortunately, these scenes are increasingly common in SA. The reason is simple: violent protests deliver results.  Few people, including authorities, pay attention to peaceful, nonviolent protests until they turn violent or cause a real disturbance. 

News coverage of unrest mostly starts when tyres are found burning on a major road. Very seldom are the concerns and frustrations of communities even discussed before “they’ve had enough”. Even when communities demonstrate peacefully, hand over a list of grievances and plead with authorities, often the result is indifference at best.

One example is protests over plans to increase fees at universities, as well as to increase government funding of universities. It was initially a peaceful assembly, with students marching from one campus to another.  It was only after students started damaging property, and at one point broke through the gates of the parliamentary precinct, that their demands were met. The damage to property cost the universities around R800m.  

In the same week as the violence in Pretoria and Johannesburg, mothers in Cape Town held a peaceful march to parliament, demanding police action on gang violence that has killed around 900 people.  It was not their first demonstration and it won’t be their last.

These are the sort of demonstrations that need to be encouraged but the response from authorities is objectionable.  

Nearly 11,000km east, in Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China, a regime intolerant of protest, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have remained largely peaceful, without destroying public property, despite police using force to disperse protesters.

Now an activist has said protesters are adopting violence given the government’s indifference. “People seem to have much more tolerance especially when the government refuses to give any direct and meaningful response to the demands of the nonviolent movement,” Benny Tai wrote from a prison cell, AFP reported.

Communities are not immune to empty promises; they hold water for about as long as politicians spend deflecting responsibility.

South Africans have legitimate concerns.  Communities are facing serious challenges. Workers feel underpaid. Racial inequality remains entrenched a generation after the end of apartheid.

But for as long as their demands are ignored, SA should not be shocked by their fury.

Business and government leaders are in urgent need of proactive leadership. A leadership that will genuinely engage polite demands from protesters before residents or workers feel the only way to demand action is through violence.   

If it continues like this, the state or businesses will find it difficult to dig themselves out of the hole, as giving in to demands only after the protests turn radical establishes a bad standard that will be used in future protests.   

The state needs to assert its authority. It needs to arrest those who break the law, protect those who march peacefully, and hold to account the organisers unable to control their marchers.

On Friday, the Tshwane municipality proudly announced it had reached an agreement with the striking workers. Services would continue immediately. We are yet to hear of the action against the vandals.