Policy Brief 6: Is South Africa reverting to a repressive state?

Since the Marikana massacre in 2012, several journalists, academics and media commentators have argued that South Africa is reverting to a repressive state (McMichael 2014; Pithouse 2016: 1-5). Some have even used the term ‘police state’ to describe post-Marikana South Africa (Hlongwane 2014; Kasrils 2013; Essop, Eliseev and Grootes 2015; Bezuidenhout 2016).

In this paper, I argue that South Africa is unlikely to descend into full-blow repression, as the state does not have the capacity to repress on a broader scale. As a result, there are unlikely to be more Marikanas in the sense of an organised, armed assault on protestors, although the possibility cannot be ruled out that state violence could occur as an unplanned reaction to particular events. While there are clear and well-acknowledged legal limits on the state’s ability to use violence, the political limits, and more specifically the limits imposed by popular agency, are less well-acknowledged (Cox 2013). This is because repression is often studied as a static structural factor constraining movement activities, but not as a factor that is changed dynamically through interactions between state structures and popular agency.

Arguably, the social and political conditions that would allow the state to use ongoing (as opposed to sporadic) violence, do not exist in this current conjuncture, as the balance of power is shifting gradually towards popular movements outside the hegemonic bloc. No matter how powerful the men and women with guns seem, there are important signs that they are actually quite vulnerable. The shifting modes of state repression point to this fact, and in this paper, I analyse how the coercive capacities of the state are shifting away from overt repression towards less visible, more pre-emptive forms of repression.

The first indicator of this shift is that intelligence work has become increasingly important to stabilising social relations. Surveillance provides the state with a politically low-cost form of social control, as abuses are very difficult to detect. It is difficult to tell whether South Africa has the global shift away from human intelligence to signals intelligence – owing to high levels of secrecy – but it would be unsurprising if it has. While the government’s targeted interception capacities are regulated in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communications-related Information Act (Rica), mass surveillance remains completely unregulated in terms of the law, which predisposes these capacities to abuse.

The second indicator, closely related to the first, is the shift from militarised policing to intelligence-led policing. As its name suggests, this policing model uses risk assessment as its main tool to direct policing decisions about where and how to intervene. Intelligence-led policing does not necessarily make human rights violations go away; it merely makes them less visible. The South African Police Service (SAPS) has embraced intelligence-led policing for several reasons. Police violence is eroding trust between the police and communities, making it more difficult to revert back to community policing, even if they wanted to (Bezuidenhout 2008: 48-49). Yet at the same time, SAPS cannot risk many more high profile shoot-outs with protestors, as the long-term political costs will simply be too great. So, it stands to reason that the SAPS would search for a policing model that still allowed them to contain dissent using a less politically-risky approach, and intelligence-led policing provides just such a model.

The third indicator is an increasing use of pre-emptive methods of containing protests through manipulations of the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA), to stop more protests from spilling out onto the streets in the first place. In a research study I led on the right to protest in eleven municipalities[1] – and which involved the physical collection and logging of municipal data about gatherings and protests over a five year period (2008-13) – I found that none of the municipalities studied received a clean bill of health (Duncan 2016). In spite of the fact that the municipal and the police statistics point to the majority of protests take place peacefully and uneventfully – which is not the dominant image of protests either in the media or the public imagination – all the municipalities surveyed instituted unreasonable restrictions on protests.

Internationally, the academic literature has recognised the fact that ruling elites have expanded their repertories of social control beyond outright repression to that of pacification (Keinscherf forthcoming: 3). But the fact that the elites have found it necessary to shift from more visible to less visible forms of social containment at all, is not a sign of their strength; rather it is a sign of their weakness as they recognise the fact that they lack the capacity to repress openly. The paper then analyses why this is so, using Gramsci’s concept of organic crisis, as well as Cox’s updating of this concept Cox 2013; 2014), to analyse the current political conjuncture. An organic crisis develops when popular capacity for action increases; more people can be detached from the previous hegemonic block and be convinced to side with the subaltern classes; there is a decline in capacity of the elite to offer significant concessions, but there is also a decline in the capacity of the hegemonic bloc to mobilise effective repression. When these conditions obtain, the hegemonic bloc cannot offer concessions easily, yet neither can it repress easily either (Cox 2014).

The police and municipal data suggest that popular capacity for action is increasing, and when the South African protests are viewed in the global context, it becomes apparent that these increases are being sustained in the sense that they can be viewed as part of a broader protest wave responding to crises in the global capitalist economy. The municipal data points to new political actors taking to the streets, new organisations being formed, and the hegemony of the ANC diminishing, which does not support arguments advanced by Booysen (2011: 126-173) and Fakir (2014) that the protests are merely about holding the ANC to account. Rather, more communities becoming subjectively available for alternative politics to that offered by the ANC alliance. With respect to Gramsci’s two other conditions for an organic crisis, the neo-liberal phase of capitalism has entered a period of organic crisis in several regions of the world. In the case of South Africa, while the Zuma administration promised a more redistributive state, the objective conditions did not favour radical redistribution. Marikana hastened political shifts that have been underway for some time now, and has not dampened protest levels: to that extent, it has not been a particularly successful massacre for the ruling elite. There are also not insignificant divisions in the political elite, including in the security cluster itself.

While overstatements about the power of the coercive capacities of the state are understandable in the wake of Marikana, they are not helpful, as they can instil fear and political paralysis. What Cox (2013) has referred to as ‘repression horror’, can lead to movements seeing the state as omniscient and omnipotent, even when this is, in fact, not the case. The paper concludes by considering the implications of these arguments for universities, in the wake of the student protests.


Bezuidenhout, J (2016) ‘Political observers: SA has become a police state’, Mail & Guardian, 8 April, http://mg.co.za/article/2016-04-07-fears-that-sa-has-become-a-police-state .

Booysen, S (2011) The African National Congress and the regeneration of political power, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Cox, L (2013) ‘Changing the world without getting shot: how popular power can set limits to state violence’, in Australia Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (eds), State of peace conference, Vienna/ Berlin: LTI-Verlag.

Cox, L (2014) ‘Waves of protest and revolution: elements of a Marxist analysis’, (unpublished paper), http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/4867/.

Duncan, J (2014) The rise of the securocrats: the case of South Africa, Johannesburg: Jacana.

Duncan, J (2016: forthcoming) Protest nation: the right to protest in South Africa, Durban: University of KwaZulu/ Natal Press.

Essop. R, Grootes, S. and Eliseev, A (2015) ‘#SONA2015: opposition parties accuse ANC of turning SA into a police state’, EWN Eyewitness News, http://ewn.co.za/2015/02/13/Opposition-MPs-accuse-ANC-of-turning-SA-into-police-state.

Fakir, E (2014) ‘Circling the square of protests: democracy, development, delivery and discontent in Bekkersdal’, Ruth First Memorial Lecture, University of the Witwatersrand, 13 August, http://witsvuvuzela.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/FinalRuthFirstLecture2014.EF_.pdf ).

Hlongwane, S (2014) ‘This brutal police state in which we live’, Business Day, 22 January, http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2014/01/22/this-brutal-police-state-in-which-we-live.

Kasrils, R (2013) ‘Mr. President, arrest this descent into police state depravity’, Mail & Guardian, 6 March, http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-06-mr-president-arrest-this-descent-into-police-state-depravity.

Kienscherf, M. ‘Beyond militarisation and repression: liberal social control as pacification’, Critical Sociology (forthcoming), https://www.academia.edu/9631849/Beyond_Militarization_and_Repression_Liberal_Social_Control_as_Pacification.

McMichael, C (2015) ‘Police wars and state repression in South Africa’, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 51(1): 3.

[1] The following municipalities were studied: the Rustenburg municipality, the Nelson Mandela metro, Lukhanji, Makana and Blue Crane (all Eastern Cape), Breede Valley, Witzenberg, Langeberg (all municipalities falling into the Cape Winelands District Municipality), Mbombela (Mpumalanga), eThekwini (KwaZulu/ Natal) and the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council (Gauteng)

*This is an abridged version of an inaugural lecture at the University of Johannesburg, 13 June 2016.

Professor Jane Duncan works in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg, She was previously Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) holding various other posts including the Chair in  Media and Information Society in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes and co-Director of the Highway Africa Centre. She is also the founder of the Media Policy and Democracy Project (MPDP).

Aside from which Jane is the author of, ‘The Rise of the Securocrats: the Case of South Africa’, and in 2016 will be publishing her new book, ‘Protest Nation: the Right to Protest in South Africa’. She holds a Master's degree from the University of Witwatersrand, and completed a PhD at the Wits School of the Arts in 2007.

Comments are closed.