Protest Blues: Public opinion on the policing of protest in South Africa

Benjamin James Roberts, Narnia Bohler-Muller, Jare Struwig, Steven Lawrence Gordon, Ngqapheli Mchunu, Samela Mtyingizane, Carin Runciman


The policing response to rising protest action in the country has received increased attention in the last decade. This is particularly due to concerns over confrontations during which protestors have been arrested, injured and in some instances killed by the police. Despite the criticism voiced by various stakeholders about the manner in which the police manage crowd gatherings, relatively little is known about the views of South African adults on the policing of protest action and the factors that shape such attitudes. To provide some insight, the study presented in this article draws on data from a specialized module on protest-related attitudes and behaviour that was fielded as part of the 2016 round of the Human Sciences Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) series. This nationally representative survey included specific questions probing the public’s overall evaluation of the performance of the police in dealing with protests and the justifiability of the use of force in policing protest action. The paper will present the national pattern of results based on these measures and then determine the extent to which there exist distinct underlying socio-demographic cleavages. A combination of bivariate and multivariate analysis will also be undertaken to provide an understanding of the role of the perceived effectiveness, acceptability and reported participation in protest (especially disruptive and violent actions) in shaping views regarding policing protest. The article concludes with a discussion that reflects on the implications of the research for the policing of protest action in future, taking into account the appreciable rise in the incidence of protest since the mid-2000s as well as the mounting tensions between state institutions and communities over the political, moral and constitutional arguments for and against such actions. 


South Africa; attitudes; protest; police; violence

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