Essays | July 1, 2014

Protests and the Construction of National Security Threats in South Africa

SA Protest
Protesting police brutality by the Right 2 Know Campaign
(Gauteng Branch) at the Johannesburg Central Prison.
Source: Jayshree Pather – Right 2 Know, 8 Feb 2014

The revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden – that the United States (US) has developed surveillance capacities that make it possible for intelligence agents to surveil all Americans and many non-Americans – have provoked outrage and debate over the extent of their anti-terror policies far beyond their border. This massive overreach has even crept into the monitoring of popular mobilization. The Guardian newspaper has revealed a US Department of Defense plan to support universities to develop large scale projects identifying when mass protests in regions considered strategic to the US are likely to tip over into government-changing actions. The universities will use social movements’ digital traces to track when social movement mobilization tips over into contagion, allowing them to predict when radicalization is likely to turn into US-directed national security threats. Clearly the US is using the ‘war against terror’ as a pretext to spread its intelligence capacities across the globe to develop early warning systems of threats to its geostrategic interests.

But the tendency to stretch the concept of ‘national security’ to justify the expansion of the state’s coercive capacities is not peculiar to the US. South Africa does not face the same sort of threats to its national security, especially of the terrorist ilk, largely because it has remained seemingly non-aligned in major global geopolitical battles. This has not stopped the country though, from adopting a plethora of post-9/11 measures to counter terrorism and other forms of crime.

South Africa’s problems relate mainly to the unfinished business of social transformation, illustrated graphically by waves of mass protests that have engulfed the country for the past decade. Protests peaked in 2010; the year after the seemingly more progressive, pro-poor Jacob Zuma took office after years of neoliberal austerity.

The state has also intensified repression against protests, especially in the Mpumalanga province, where the paramilitarized Tactical Response Team (TRT), similar to the US Swat Teams, was deployed to quell social unrest in the area, leading to a massive spike in public complaints against this police unit. Several whistle-blowers on government corruption have also been assassinated, and this problem has spread to other provinces, notably KwaZulu-Natal: the deadliest province of all for whistle-blowers and activists. Most of these assassinations have gone unpunished, which has created a climate of near-impunity for assassins.

However, the most violent incident against protestors took place in 2012, when the police, including its three paramilitary units, the TRT, the Special Task Force and the National Intervention Unit, killed 34 striking mineworkers and injured 78 others at Marikana platinum mine in the North West province. The police used violence meted out by striking miners as a pretext to attack the miners, but the miners resorted to violence only once they themselves were attacked by union officials from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The strike revealed serious fissures between NUM and its own members, with the latter accusing the organization of failing to represent them properly, and being in bed with the employers. Evidence has emerged of the police having killed many miners in a more premeditated fashion, which has punched holes in the police arguments that they acted in self-defense.

Police militarization has led to an increase in the number of paramilitary units, their normalization in more and more areas of policing, and more joint deployments of the police and the military. The police have also introduced a more militarized form of public order policing developed by the French gendarmes, the French model of public order policing, which has been used to contain class struggles in the French public housing estates. They also embraced intelligence-led policing, which has allowed for more secretive and unaccountable policing.

Some public commentators have blamed growing police violence on a lack of police training and poor oversight. But when the trajectory of policing is examined in its proper context, it becomes apparent that the edging out of community policing in favor of more authoritarian forms of policing is a deliberate political strategy to contain growing class conflict.

In an attempt to justify more authoritarian responses to the protests, the Ministry of State Security has framed the protests as threats to national security, especially industrial protests. According to the previous Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, “… [violent] industrial action tended to be protracted, illegal, unprotected, and disruptive to key sectors of the economy, with a new trend of the shunning of union representation and hard won established labour relations dispensation in South Africa.”[1]

Referring to these strikes as illegal is problematic as the country’s Labour Relations Act makes a distinction between protected and unprotected strikes, but does not consider unprotected strikes as illegal, as workers have a constitutional right to strike. Furthermore, his statements about the shunning of union representation and labour relations procedures, fail utterly to grasp the fact that workers were shunning these organizations and procedures because they were failing to address their grievances.

Once the question of what constitutes national security threats becomes stretched to include protests, then it becomes easier for the security agencies to act against advocacy that threatens ruling class interests by using extraordinary measures. This has been seen in relation to shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has been subjected to repeated state repression.

Records held by the Ethekwini Municipality (which incorporates Durban) have revealed that in 2010, a protest planned by the Valley View Flats Committee in Ethekwini was prohibited because “an intelligence report said that these were actually members of Abahlali baseMjondolo attempting to protest under another name. The integrity of the application was therefore question(ed) due to the apparent misrepresentation and (the) march was not approved.”

Yet, according to Abahlali’s S’bu Zikode, the Committee is affiliated to Abahlali, but decides democratically as a separate organization whether to protest. The intelligence report clearly failed to apprehend this flow of decision-making and showed that intelligence operatives are involved in vetting protests, which points to a dangerous overreach of intelligence powers into the legitimate political organizing.

South Africa’s protests are diverse in motivation, but they have not coalesced into a national movement mounting a serious contest for power, and repression is an attempt to stop this from happening. However, the country’s mainstream media often caricature the protests as “service delivery protests,” which downplays the complexity of the phenomenon, and makes it more difficult for grievances to be communicated in ways that allow them to be addressed. In fact, many protests have been held by members of the African National Congress (ANC) against their own organization. Such protests became most pronounced in the wake of the 2011 local government elections, when the organization imposed their choice of candidates on many branches, leading to revolts against these decisions that continue to this day. In these cases, the underlying cause of the grievances is about not being listened to, rather than service delivery.

The security services have over hyped the extent of violent protests, presumably to make the case for more resources, and ultimately more state repression under the guise of protecting property and ensuring social stability. As the University of Johannesburg’s South African Research Chair in Social Change has pointed out, protestors may use disruptive means to communicate messages, such as burning tires and buildings, but these should be distinguished from violent protests where people are targeted and injuries, even deaths occur.

A recent research project by the University of Rhodes into protest trends in seven South African municipalities suggests that the vast majority of protests are peaceful, and go off without incident. While violence often occurs only when the police use violence against protestors, an increasing number of protestors are resorting to more disruptive means when the authorities ignore more conventional repertoires of protest. These repertoires usually involve protestors notifying the relevant municipality of their intention to protest, as required by the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

However, more municipalities have introduced measures that are not recognized by the Act, and that make it increasingly impossible for protestors to use the Act and exercise their right to protest lawfully. They are doing this to discourage people from taking their grievances to the street in the first place, and to encourage them to use other grievance resolutions mechanisms (such as ward committees) as the protests are embarrassing the government; however, in many areas these mechanisms have become dysfunctional, making protests the only viable form of communication.

In some areas, such as the Mbombela Municipality in Mpumalanga and Johannesburg, these conditions have driven protestors out onto the streets without notifying the municipality of their intention to protest, as the police perceive these protests as unlawful, they are more likely to attack them violently. So in other words, an increasing number of protests are protesting unlawfully because municipalities are making increasingly impossible to protest lawfully. The most extreme problem exists in Rustenburg, where the municipality has placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way of protests, which led to 53% of protests being prohibited in 2012.

These obstacles include requiring protestors to seek the permission of the chief if they wish to stage a protest in a rural area; given that many protests are against these very traditional authorities, this condition has made it all but impossible to protest lawfully against these authorities. The municipality also requires protestors to obtain a letter from the person they are marching against, confirming that they are willing to accept the memorandum: a condition that makes the right to protest subject to the say-so of a protestor’s adversary. What appears to lie behind these conditions is a government attempt to stamp out protests against mining exploitation in the platinum belt, which suggests that an undeclared state of emergency is in operation in the area.

As constructivist theorists of securitization have argued, the language used to describe security threats does not simply capture a security reality ‘out there,’ but is actually constitutive of that reality.[2] These social constructs can then be used to assert the existence of security threats that bear little relation to reality, to justify increases in the coercive capacities of the state. In this regard, South Africa is not alone in adopting an increasing securitized approach to social problems. The process is following well-recognized laws of motion in other parts of the world, captured well by Mark Neocleous:

“Whatever example we use, the pattern is the same: an ’emergency’ occurs in which ‘security’ is threatened; existing emergency powers are exercised and new ones put into place; these are then gradually ‘stretched’ beyond their original scope; this stretching is gradually justified and legitimised, until the police and security forces are exercising the powers way beyond their original context, to the extent that they become part of the everyday functioning of the rule of law: the emergency becomes permanent, the exceptional becomes the rule, and the sun fails to set on the sunset clauses. And the reason for this is simple: emergency powers are the highpoint of security politics.”[3]

The strengthening of the security cluster is not just about clamping down on criminals, but about dismantling emerging forms of working class power and restoring ruling class power. However, workers and communities have also shown that they are not willing to take these problems lying down, and they continue to mount crippling mass strikes and protest after protest. If these struggles escalate, then society could be reshaped, and this time not on the terms and conditions of the ruling elite. In this regard, no matter how difficult the current period seems, it also holds great promise.




[1] Siyabonga Cwele, Address by the Minister of State Security, Dr SC Cwele, on the occasion of the State Security budget vote, Parliament, Cape Town, 5 May 2010.

[2] Thierry Balzacq, ‘Constructivism and securitisation studies’, in Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Victor Mauer, ‘The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies’, Oxon: Routledge, pg. 56.

[3] Mark Neocleous, 2007, ‘Security, liberty and the myth of balance: towards a critique of security politics’, Contemporary Political Theory, Number 6, pp. 144.



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