Are South Africa’s protests really driven by rising expectations?

Are South Africans protesting because government service delivery is poor? Or are they protesting because delivery is so good that expectations have been raised to the point where government cannot meet them?

The ‘rising expectation’ explanation of the protests has found favour with a diverse range of institutions and individuals, such as the government, the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR)City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and Municipal IQ. It featured prominently in President Jacob Zuma’s most recent State of the Nation address.

This argument is fascinating, as it allows vested interests to perform a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, turning a ‘bad news story’ into a ‘good news story’. ‘Rising expectations’ allows government to argue that protests occur, not because the government is doing badly on service delivery, but because it is doing well.

The SAIRR also have a vested interest in spinning the protests, as they support more neoliberal solutions to South Africa’s problems than the ANC government. To this end, the Institute has argued that the provision of free services creates expectations that all services should be free. The only way for the government to free itself from this trap, it argues, is to privatise service provision to reduce unrealistic and unsustainable demands on the public purse.

An institution which measures the performance of municipalities, Municipal IQ, has also climbed on the rising expectation bandwagon, although they have also been critical about its explanatory value, too. It has also given credence to the argument’s ugly twin, ‘relative deprivation theory’, which maintains that social movements are inspired to struggle because they see services being delivered in other areas, but not in their own.

In a recent City Press article on the protests, Municipal IQ said that they found it strange that there were more protests in provinces where service delivery was most pronounced, notably Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. Conversely, they argued, protests levels were low in provinces where service delivery was practically non-existent, such as the Eastern Cape and the Free State.  Yet the evidence provided by City Press’s own feature – which analysed service delivery in protest hotspots – was inconclusive on the link between protests and service delivery.

Police statistics problematise the Institute’s claims. According to statistics released to Media24 Investigations, between 2009 and 2012, Gauteng saw the largest number of service delivery protests, followed by the North West province, KwaZulu/ Natal and Mpumalanga. The Northern Cape had the lowest number of protests, followed by the Western Cape. While it is unsurprising that Gauteng, as South Africa’s industrial heartland, registers the largest number of protests, the police figures for the other provinces do not bear Municipal IQ’s arguments out.

The province with the second highest number of protests (according to the police), the North-West, can hardly be described as an epicentre of service delivery; in fact, corruption and mismanagement appears to be distributed fairly uniformly across the province. Yet, if the ‘rising expectation’ argument was to be taken seriously, the Western Cape would be brimming with protests.

What explains the discrepancy between Municipal IQ’s statistics and the police’s? The police compile their own statistics from public order police records, and these are then pooled in a database called the Incident Registration Information System.

Municipal IQ has explained that their protest estimates are lower than those of the police as they collect data about protests against municipalities only. In doing so, they make the problematic assumption that only municipalities are responsible for service delivery. Yet the methodological problems do not stop there.

According to a Municipal IQ press release, the organisation relies on media reports for its protest database. If this is the case, then it stands to reason that it would record more protests in the Western Cape and Gauteng, as these are the most media-rich provinces. Other provinces may be less visible in Municipal IQ’s protest space, not because there are fewer protests, but because the paucity of media may lead to protests being under-reported. This methodological deficiency should caution journalists against taking Municipal IQ’s arguments, and the statistics on which they are based, at face value.

Undoubtedly, the government’s record of delivering services, in the sense of installing services, is admirable, and Statistics South Africa’s data bears this out. But the rising expectation argument assumes that mere availability of services is enough to measure the universality of service delivery: so, accessibility and affordability don’t really matter. Yet so many protests have been about these delivery dimensions, and ‘rising expectation’ proponents remain blind to these realities.

This narrow approach towards measuring universality doesn’t take into account the fact that some provincial and local governments have failed to maintain the infrastructure that has been rolled out, leading to disruptions in service delivery. The commodification of service delivery in the early 2000’s led to water, electricity and telecommunications services becoming increasingly unaffordable, and the free basic services on offer were grossly inadequate.

‘Rising expectations’ also assumes that the protests are overwhelmingly about service delivery, when this is not the case. This explanation flattens out the diversity of protests, and caricatures them in unhelpful ways. Other issues sparking protests include crime, industrial disputes, housing and education.

Many protestors also feel aggrieved about being inappropriately represented, or even misrepresented. The University of Johannesburg’s South African Research Chair in Social Change has also linked migration in the North-West to the province’s propensity to protest. Mono-causal explanations, such as ‘rising expectations’, fail to capture these complexities.

Case studies of protests also unsettle the ‘rising expectation’ claim as a general explanation. According to the Social Change Chair’s research, the 2009 protests in Balfour suggested that protestors wanted to relocate from Mpumalanga to Gauteng because they aspired to having the level of services offered in the apparently better-off Heidelberg. So there was evidence supporting the relative deprivation argument that delivery elsewhere fuelled rising expectations in Balfour. Yet relative deprivation does not explain why, in the face of uneven development, some communities engage in collective action and not others.

Three years after the Balfour protests, destructive protests broke out in Heidelberg, debunking the view that the town was a model for service delivery. In the process of objecting to electricity disconnections and the cost of basic services, protestors burnt down houses, municipal buildings, and an old age home. Rising expectations cannot explain these protests, as according to this argument, Heidelberg residents had no reason to protest in the first place.

There are dangers in allowing public debates about the protests to be dominated by conservative vested interests. One danger is that the protests themselves are likely to intensify and become more destructive. This is because protestors may feel that their grievances are not being heard or are being distorted, which may increase desperation.

Furthermore, explaining protests largely in terms that make the government look good can create space for official explanations that posit a sinister ‘third force’ as protest drivers. This is especially so in municipalities that have a good delivery track record, narrowly defined. After all, the argument goes, these are not ‘real’ protests motivated by ‘real’ grievances. Needless to say, such explanations serve the more securitised elements of the ANC government well, as they can be used to delegitimise the protests and justify repressive responses.

Protests in South Africa are big news at the moment, so it is important to ‘get the story right’. Lives may even depend on it. In this regard, journalists should treat the rising expectation argument with caution.

While claiming to be a general explanation of the protests, this argument is expedient and self-serving, and when held up against the reality of protests, it actually has unclear, even limited, explanatory value. And that should be the bottom line for any journalist seeking expert analysis to interpret a complex social phenomenon.



Main Pic: Service delivery protest in Khayelitsha, Cape Town by David Harrison

This article was originally published by SACSIS

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