As long as I can remember South Africa has always been a country simmering with unrest. Protests turning violent in South Africa is nothing new, in fact they became so frequent and volatile that in 2008 professor Mike Hough, University of Pretoria, published a paper in the South African Journal of Military Studies accessing the revolutionary potential of South African service delivery protests which wreaked havoc on local municipalities across the country. One could agree if such a paper needed to be written in the first place, things aren’t exactly going well.
From an observers perspective it might seem that these strikes happen out of nowhere, like someone lit a match and the whole town caught on fire. That is what we always see on TV. More often protests escalate into violence, protesters get frustrated and resort to an act of vandalism, the police respond with force (not yet extreme), the crowd riots in response and the police return the fire until the situation deteriorates into utter chaos and disorder for hours or even days or weeks as we may have come to see with the recent Fees Must Fall protests.
On 27th September BusinessTech reported that 2016s Fees Must Fall protests did damage of over R700 000 000 (around $55 798 736). Campuses literally caught aflame, students were shot and more buildings were set alight as the protests intensified. In some instances it was militaristic, full on war between students and police. And someone has to ask, why are violent protests so common in South Africa? Why is it protesters resort to these tactics in the first place? Can’t they think of another way to be effective without setting themselves and the communities they live in a step behind?
Of course they know that, but why do they do this in the first place. A common answer amongst observers is that it has worked before, it gets attention so they do it again, quoting the struggle against the Apartheid regime as an example. As much as the freedom fighters were militaristic in their tactics, so is the new generation. History has taught them, that violence, chaos and destruction works. To an extent this is true, the way South Africans protests are they resemble the images of June 16 and other protests and resistances, without the guerrilla/terror warfare aspect, of the Apartheid era. The protests are almost identical. This answer suggests, protests of this nature are like a societies learned reflex to threats. Twice I have been caught in a storm of these type of protests in my hometown, I was in high school then and in a day the whole town would turn into a war zone, rubber bullets, rocks, burning tires, garbage on the streets, shattered buildings and burning schools. For a moment you feel like you are in the black and white past. I called their tactics self-destructive, stupid and downright barbaric. Now, I think I have an insight as to why this happens, and I think I might have been a little too hasty in my judgment, a little too ignorant myself to the deeper issue. It started by making an observation.
When my three-year-old nephew wants something he asks for it first. If you ignore him, he begs for it. If you continue to ignore him, he starts crying. When that does not work, well, he throws a tantrum. That tantrum sometimes includes him throwing stuff at you and trying to hit you. The point is violence, chaos and destruction are his last resort because he doesnt feel heard, at that point it isn’t about just getting what he wants it is about something else entirely, he wants to be acknowledged.
In his paper Shame, Guilt and Violence published in 2003, James Gilligan attributes violent behavior to feelings of indignity, shame and guilt. It is because, he explains, the opposite of these emotions, pride, dignity and self-worth, reinforce a sense of the self. This is why if someone disrespects us we feel like a little part of our self has just died or has been removed. What feelings of indignity, not being acknowledged and many others like it do is that they kill our sense of self. Violence is a means of establishing that sense of self again, because the act of violence forces a person to pay attention to you and in paying attention to you your sense of self is restored. To suffer an indignity is so overwhelming and pervasive that people would do anything to get rid of it, because it is essentially feeling like you are losing yourself. When someone fears you or protect themselves against you what that tells you is that you are someone, someone worth fearing – someone worth respecting, someone with some sort of dignity.
I believe our societies aren’t that different. Societies don’t just rise up and torch buildings and block roads because they are inherently violent or barbaric. They aren’t heard or acknowledged. At that point they are, like my nephew, frustrated and angry and they fall back to the one natural thing we all do when we break or feel like our dignity is compromised and our options are taken from us completely, they throw a tantrum. Although the word tantrum denotes immaturity this is not my intention at all, adults throw tantrums all the time. Terrorism, war, insurgencies and revolutions are all tantrums at a large scale, this doesn’t make them immature. So are the protests that rip South Africa year by year. The people feel deprived, worse off and neglected, and an inefficient government, increasing inequality, classism and corruption are causing it. In this view not only is a chaotic protest a means of displaying dissatisfaction it is an act of re-establishing a community’s sense of dignity. It all comes down to that, establishing a sense of self-worth. What the South African government has done is threaten that sense of self-worth and people rightly lose their minds, they freak out. Nobody wants to feel like they dont matter or they are insignificant or less significant. Throwing a tantrum is what people do when all the other efforts have been unacknowledged, downplayed or poorly tended to.
That is why violent protests are common in South Africa. That is why protesters resort to violence. Can they do things differently? Yes, they can but, and this is a huge but, circumstances, especially the history and the level of social development in the bulk of the society, make it near impossible.