Top government officials, including President Jacob Zuma, misconstrued data on public order policing before Parliament, according to a University of Johannesburg (UJ) report released on Wednesday.
The longer UJ researchers worked on the report, the “more it became clear that senior South African Police Services [SAPS] officials and government ministers misconstrued IRIS data and in consequence misled Parliament and the public”.
“This is significant because their interpretations were central to motivations for a massive increase in expenditure on public order policing,” the report states.
IRIS is the police’s incident registration system, according to which there were 156 230 crowd incidents between 1997 and 2013.
The research was produced by the UJ Social Change Research Unit’s Professor Peter Alexander, Dr Carin Runciman, and Boitumelo Maruping.
The crowd incidents are broken down into “peaceful” and “unrest”. Peaceful ones made up around 90% of all incidents recorded, and unrest cases the remaining 10%.
Alexander said crowd incidents were not necessarily protests. A high proportion of the incidents were recreational, cultural, or religious events.
The way “peaceful” and “unrest” were defined was primarily determined by the character of police intervention, and unrest should not be equated with violence.
In the report, three examples are cited where IRIS statistics were misused. One was on September 3 last year, when national police commissioner Riah Phiyega and Lieutenant General Elias Mawela, the divisional commissioner for public order policing, briefed Parliament’s portfolio committee.
‘Only 54% of protests were violent’
During his presentation, Mawela said: “Violent protest action escalated from 1 266 in 2011/12, and then in 2012/13 it is 1 882, and in the last financial year [2013/14] it escalated to 1 907.”
“Here there is a conflation between ‘unrest-related incidents’ and ‘violent protests’, which are not the same,” Alexander said, reading from the report.
“From our analyses we have demonstrated that not all incidents classified as unrest are violent. In analysis conducted for a forthcoming research report on protests, we found only 54% of protests sampled were violent.”
He said Phiyega told the committee that to deal with the “increasing and continual violent protest actions”, police needed an extra R3.3bn per year for public order policing.
“Misrepresentation of numbers was central to justifying massively increased spending,” Alexander said.
Another example arose from Zuma’s state of the nation address to Parliament on February 12 this year.
“We are a democratic state and recognise the community’s right to protest. We however appeal that these protests should be within the ambit of the law and must be peaceful as stated in the Constitution.
“The police successfully brought under control 13 575 recorded public order incidents, comprising 1 907 unrest-related incidents and 11 668 peaceful incidents,” Zuma said.
Alexander said the president moved from “protests” to “incidents” without indicating that these were different.
“He then gives the total for crowd-related incidents, praising the police for bringing those ‘under control’, but 86% of theses were ‘peaceful’, events like football matches, religious events, and self-marshalled protests, which did not need to be, and by definition were not, ‘brought under control’,” Alexander said.
‘Concept used under apartheid’
“While his statement is framed by reference to democratic rights, he ends up saying, in effect, that protests, all protests, must be limited by police intervention. His choice of the word ‘control’ is especially interesting, because it was a concept used under apartheid but replaced by a philosophy of ‘crowd management’ after the transition.”
According to the report, while police did face violence in their jobs, the worst of this was not associated with protests. The question then was why the figures would be exaggerated.
“In our view, the answer may be found less in the violence and more in the threat to established order that generals and minsters associate with popular protest,” the report states.
“The effect, and possibly the intention, of the official discourse represented above is that it stigmatises protest, an important feature of a democratic society.”
Alexander said it was disturbing the way IRIS statistics were misrepresented, deliberately or not, because this had implications for the criminalisation of the right to protest, for the direction of funds away from the poor, and for holding South Africa’s leaders accountable.
The presidency did not respond to questions on the report by 16:00.
National police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale told News24 that there was an obligation to police public events as per the National Sports and Recreation Act.
“The implications are that in general, all assemblies, gatherings, meetings and demonstrations, will be classified as crowd management [peaceful] incidents as we have to deploy officers from the public order policing unit. It is a specialist unit in crowd management,” he said.
“The SAPS did not conflate ‘incidents’ and ‘protests’. Any crowd management action is defined as an incident, which will either be peaceful or unrest.
“In other words ‘incidents’ include all protest actions, peaceful gatherings and pure unrest incidents that cannot be justified as a crowd management incident like taxi violence, gang violence, ethnic, racial violence, demonstrations, political meetings, road barricades, revenge attacks by a small group of people.”
He used an example of an angry group of people barricading a road in protest against poor service delivery.
“When police disperse them, they will regroup and barricade the road again. That will be registered as one incident,” Makgale said.
“If the protest actions continue for an extended period, we register it as one incident on a daily basis, [for example if the] community of Malamulele protested for over 14 days, it will be registered as a new incident every day as we have to deploy each day after conducting a risk assessment.”