This week's anniversary of June 16th 1976 is an appropriate time at which to reflect on questions of the state response to the recent wave of protests.
The brutal police response to the 1976 demonstrations set off a wave of unrest during which, according to the official enquiry which followed, 451 people were killed by police.
With June 1976, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the 1985 Langa massacre and those in Sebokeng in 1990 and in Bisho in 1992, are all still imprinted on our memories.
No police, or security force members, were ever brought to trial for any of these incidents, which were merely the most prominent of a long line of demonstrations repressed by the authorities with sjamboks, teargas and live ammunition.
By contrast with the large numbers killed by the apartheid security structures, the recent wave of protests have resulted in one death. On August 30 last year 17 year old Teboho Mkhonza was killed when police opened fire on demonstrators blocking the N3 outside Harrismith.
It would appear that this tragic incident is but one of a small number of deaths at the hands of police in demonstrations over the last decade. Without diminishing the loss resulting from these killings it is important to recognise that in this period the SAPS has been involved in policing literally thousands of demonstrations where no lives have been lost, or injury caused.
What is more South Africa now has an independent body, the Independent Complaints Directorate, responsible for investigating killings by police. Assisted by a video taken by a community member at the Harrismith march, the ICD investigation has now resulted in 3 policemen standing trial for murder.
South Africa's policing system then has changed profoundly. Not only has the ICD been created but in the mid-1990s South Africa's former riot police and internal stability units were re-selected, re-equipped and re-trained to focus on 'crowd management' rather than the repression of popular protest.
Prior to this, legislation governing the holding and policing of demonstrations was also amended by means of the Regulation of Gatherings Act of 1993.
Despite all this, incidents continue to occur where police unnecessarily or unjustifiably disrupt demonstrations. Along with other incidents, such as the torture of Landless People's Movement activists last year, this shows that the state is not immune to heavy handed and repressive measures. But whilst there have been incidents of brutality and heavy-handedness, it is still important to acknowledge that the police have performed well in many cases, in policing demonstrations with minimum force, though police are required to respond to prevent injury to people, and damage to property.
While the current wave of unrest in some ways highlights the progress that has been made in the policing arena, it does not do the same for local government, which at its worst has actively destroyed people's homes and livelihoods. In Chris Hani informal settlement for instance, earlier this month, the Red Ants were deployed by the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan council to brutally evict 24 000 people, with no provision made for people to be accommodated elsewhere.
More broadly, as Dale McKinley and Ahmed Veriava show in Arresting Dissent, an analysis of state community conflict, more militant protests have often followed from a failure on the part of local governments to seriously engage with communities and listen to their grievances.
The current unrest is in part a reflection of grass roots dissatisfaction with service delivery, the fulfilment of economic and social rights guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as some of the more objectionable elements of neo-liberal policies. At the same time it is also a reflection of a breakdown of communication, and an unwillingness to listen to community members, and community organisations, on the part of local government.
This in part would appear to reflect a tendency on the part of some ANC led local governments to assume that they are the only ones who may legitimately claim to represent 'the people' and to seek to undermine other organisations which take on this role.
There is not necessarily a quick fix to many of the problems which are feeding the unrest. But one aspect of this may be the more straightforward business of ensuring that systems of communication at local level are more open and more robust.
In the 1990s for instance, local peace committees brought together those who had formerly been implacable opponents into structures which facilitated open dialogue.
South Africa does not have to re-live the violent confrontations of the past. While some have predicted a growing wave of demonstrations, if systems for consultation and communication can be improved at the local level, and systems of delivery strengthened, this may prevent another generation of youth from being born at the barricades.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In Business Day, 15 June 2005.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation