Social unrest warning for South Africa – police on high alert

 ·19 May 2024

A threat analysis conducted by police crime intelligence has highlighted concerns that the upcoming elections could be disrupted by violence, intimidation, and possible boycotts in certain areas of the country.

These worries have been echoed by several researchers, who fear that threatening rhetoric from some key political players, compounded with South Africa’s numerous societal woes, provide fertile ground for discontent.

Experts say that the threats and uncertainty of discontent has and will continue to strain business and investor confidence in the country, despite security agencies’ levels of readiness.

The report

First reported by City Press, the 14-page report by the crime intelligence unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS), was presented on Friday to the State Security Agency, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and senior police officials.

Their collective responsibility is to ensure a conducive environment for the May 29 elections, aiming for a process that is both free and fair, devoid of any form of intimidation or violence.

The report warns of “direct risks” such as potential trucker strikes and disruptions to the election process, including court rulings affecting participation.

It identified “hotspots” include political disruptions and protests, with potential threats to voting stations. According to the report, these include:

  • IFP supporters in Zululand District have disrupted rival campaigns.
  • ANC supporters have disrupted IFP gatherings in Mhlabuyalingana.
  • Posters removal in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng fuels campaign instability.
  • Imbilane community and taxi association plan election disruption in Ulundi pending court decision on police officials’ case.

Additionally, there are concerns of arms theft from police stations.

“Indirect risks” involve deliberate tampering with services and the spread of fake news.

Security measures which are said to be in place include the involvement of private security firms and the military, with authorities prepared to address any violence or disruptions during the election period.

Institute of Security Studies (ISS) researchers Gareth Newham, Godfrey Mulaudzi and Lizette Lancaster said that the July 2021 riots “were a wake-up call for law enforcement, businesses and communities.”

“Police and private security have since improved communication and coordination, and seemingly better state and private intelligence-gathering systems should prevent large-scale violence [and] unlike in the July 2021 riots, the state seems to be taking threats of electoral violence more seriously,” added the researchers.

In March, the Presidency emphasised that law enforcement agencies were preparing for all scenarios to ensure free and fair elections.

“I just want to make it clear to anyone who is threatening any form of unrest that there will be follow-up, and they will be arrested,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It was recently announced that 17,000 police officers will be deployed to high-risk to monitor the election period.

Economists concerns

Award-winning economist Dawie Roodt told BusinessTech that he is concerned about the possibility of violence before, during or after the elections, due to ominous rhetoric from some political leaders, compounded with other societal woes.

“This is a dangerous time for South Africa [and] I am really concerned about the possibility of riots,” said Roodt.

These risks were echoed by recent research by think tank BMI, whose crime and security index flags South Africa’s election year.

Roodt fears that divisive political rhetoric and unrealistic promises could exacerbate tensions.

“I really hope that all our leaders, our political leaders, civil society leaders, [religious] leaders, everybody, just makes sure,” that they do not incite any violence during a sensitive time, said Roodt.

Roodt, BMI and other researchers identify compounding societal challenges, including rampant unemployment, entrenched structural inequality, and pervasive poverty, as pivotal drivers of violence, with the potential to precipitate a devastating cascade effect.

This was echoed by Oxford Economics’ senior political analyst, Louw Nel.

Nel said that “the lack of inclusive growth is the most significant risk factor, with weak economic growth, high inequality, and unemployment straining the economic policy environment… high inequality and social polarisation elevate the risk of protests and unrest, with political violence risks above the African median.”

He worries about a repeat of past violence, especially as financial markets struggle with election uncertainty.

Roodt mentioned that such uncertainty is and will continue to strain business and investor confidence.

Research supports this, with the North-West University’s Business School’s Q1 2024 Policy Uncertainty Index (PUI) showed that policy uncertainty rose in Q1 of 2024, affecting business confidence and weighing on investors and the markets.

The report said, “The prevailing uncertainties around the pending South African election and its outcome have contributed to business confidence being brittle in 1Q 2024.”

“The uncertain political outlook is now also weighing on investors and the markets as to possible election outcomes.”

Read: The biggest social unrest risks in South Africa right now

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