Condemnation of protests meaningless without action to find the cause by Steven Friedman, 11 May 2016

11 May 2016

MORALITY keeps societies together — moralising can tear them apart. Which is why there is no point in denouncing people who set schools alight if you have no interest in why they do it.
The burning of schools in Vuwani in protest at a shift in a municipal boundary prompted a familiar response — a rush to denounce the culprits, but little effort to find out why it happened. Public figures and reporters have been quick to tell us that is bad to burn schools. But, except for some reports hinting at rivalry between traditional leaders as a cause, no one seems interested in working out what is actually happening in Vuwani.

This is a problem, not because it is a good idea to burn down schools. It isn’t, and public figures should say so — as long as they mix their pious statements with a serious interest in finding out what went wrong and how to stop it. But if all opinion-formers say about the violence is that it is bad, we are left with an empty exercise in self-righteousness that makes the speakers feel good about themselves, but does nothing to prevent this happening again — particularly since people who burn schools do not listen to those who condemn them.

On their own, the condemnations are an exercise not in being moral but in moralising. We are moral when we impose on ourselves a duty to behave in a way that does not hurt others. We moralise when we point to the flaws of others so that we don’t have to do anything about a problem ourselves. Not only does this block solutions, it labels people and makes it harder to build a society based on mutual respect.

In this case, Vuwani residents are painted as a barbarous mass; this is a post-1994 version of that old white complaint that "they" do not value what "we" give them. It labels people, but does not explain anything. If the moralisers bothered to look at research on grassroots politics, they would find that we are dealing not with savages, but with the way in which power operates in parts of our society.

Researchers offer two broad explanations for grassroots violence. The one, proposed by researchers sympathetic to the protesters, is that people try to make their grievances heard but no-one listens — they resort to violence because that is the only way they can be heard. A ground-breaking study published five years ago was titled The Smoke that Calls — the title was inspired by a protester who claimed it was only when the authorities saw smoke that they heard the calls of citizens.

The second fingers local power-holders — traditional leaders or politicians trying to strengthen their support base or people using politics to amass money. They organise protest, some of it violent, because they want to hold onto or enhance their power and they do it by persuading some residents that what threatens the power holder threatens them too.

Which explanation is right? Either might be at work in any given protest and in some cases both may — when people are frustrated and angry and a local power-holder uses this to organise protest.

What we know about Vuwani is that some local people are very angry about being included in another municipality. We also know that traditional leaders have a stake in the dispute because the Venda king has supported the protests (while condemning the violence) and other traditional leaders have denounced him and the demonstrators. Schools may be burning because traditional leaders are whipping up sentiment or because people are frustrated or a mixture of both.

So the problem is not that people in Vuwani are barbarians. Either they and their schools are victims of power-hungry traditional leaders (or other local power-holders) or they feel that the Demarcation Board, which sets municipal boundaries, does not listen to them. Either or both are possible — traditional leaders are sometimes known to encourage violence when they feel this is in their interests. And, while the public is consulted on demarcation, decisions are often driven by officials who care far more about the technicalities of municipal borders than about where local residents want them. Since municipalities are there to serve citizens, what local people want is more important than technically neat boundaries and they tend to become angry when this is ignored.

If we take all this into account, we recognise the dignity of the people of Vuwani by not reducing them to an unthinking mob; we can also press for solutions. Whether the violence is fuelled by local power-holders, residents or both, it is a symptom of political failure. Either decision makers have failed to understand how much damage local power-holders can do and how to deal with it or treating people like planning problems rather than citizens when boundaries are drawn is the problem. And both can be fixed if we understand them.

Yes, burning schools is a problem. But, if we condemn it rather than explaining it and finding ways to end it, we will find ourselves condemning it again and again.

• Prof Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy