South Africa was the seventh most active country in the ACLED dataset in 2014, in spite of lacking any form of armed insurgency or rebellion. This means that the form of conflict in South Africa differs drastically from countries with similar activity levels such as Libya and Sudan. What has defined South Africa as a politically volatile country is the prevalence of protest and civilian collective action as a method of provoking a response from a secure incumbent government which faces no severe political threat, armed or otherwise.

The general election in May 2014 showed that the ANC still retained a secure, albeit diminishing, lead with 62% of seats in parliament and a majority in eight out of nine provincial legislatures (Smith, 9 May 2014). Elections, both general and municipal, are on a five year rotation; the population is unable to impose their political will through the ballot box for long periods of time. Furthermore, the ANC policy of ‘cadre deployment’, in which loyal and politically connected individuals are given municipal positions, means that public servants are more concerned about the support of party bosses than the electorate (Alexander, 2010).

As a result, demonstrations have become an important method by which communities interact with the local government. Riots and protests accounted for 82% of all conflict events in South Africa. The emergence of the ‘service delivery’ demonstrations by communities against the perceived substandard provision of utilities (such as water, sanitation, electricity and subsidised housing) by the local government shows that civilian collective action is becoming an useful tool in provoking a response from a secure government, which is often perceived as inflexible.

Riots And Protests By Type, South Africa, January 2013 to December 2014


However, 2014 represented the first year that service delivery demonstrations declined since 2011, accounting for 22% of all riots and protests as opposed to 26% in 2013. This could be due to the interrupting factor of the 2014 general elections. Though the number of service delivery demonstrations has tended to mirror the number of non-service delivery demonstrations, April 2014 marked a point of departure when service delivery demonstrations declined and others increased.

Previous studies on service delivery demonstrations have found that elections can dampen rates as communities can express their grievance through the ballot box (Karamoka, 2011). The aftermath of the electoral period in 2014 saw a slow but steady rise in service delivery demonstrations as communities begin to fight for the fulfilment of promises made during the electoral period. In contrast, a significant portion of the increase in other forms of demonstration comes from party members and cadres marching to display their political allegiance.

Service delivery demonstrations are generally more violent than other forms with 59% being classified as ‘rioting’. The next electoral contest is the municipal elections in 2016. This raises the possibility that 2015 may see an increase in service delivery demonstrations, leading to an increase in violent collective action overall.


Service-delivery demonstrations, political voice and elections in South Africa
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Daniel Wigmore-Shepherd

Research Analyst at ACLED-Africa
Daniel Wigmore-Shepherd is a Research Analyst for ACLED and PhD candidate at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the relationship between elites and conflict, and the role of violence in the political marketplace. He holds a Masters in Research in Anthropology from the University of Durham. Other academic interests include identity politics and the use of computer modeling in the humanities.

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