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Getting to the roots of contemporary protests in South Africa

- Takudzwa Pongweni

Mistra and the Wits School of Governance recently launched the book, Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection’s (Mistra’s) latest edited research volume, in partnership with the Wits School of Governance, seeks to answer the question of why mass protests in SA have escalated, especially during the past 20 years, says Joel Netshitenzhe, executive director of Mistra.

"It is a book whose time has come. There is quite a [lot of] literature both internationally and in South Africa on protests, the manifestations and implications of protest. And yet in the last few years, there has not been a systematic study that undertakes that,” said Professor Susan Booysen, the director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra). 

Booysen was speaking at the launch of Mistra’s latest edited research volume in partnership with the Wits School of Governance. Titled Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation, the publication, edited by Heidi Brooks, Rekgotsofetse Chikane and Shauna Mottiar, explore the underpinnings of contemporary protest and its short-term causes and structural drivers.
Infrastructural citizenship.

Mottiar’s chapter examines electricity contestations in Lamontville from the perspectives of self-connected residents in the informal settlement of KwaMadlala and residents who access Eskom services in the formal area of Dizababa.

“In 2020 in Lamontville, formal householders removed illegal electricity connections of informal householders as these connections were beginning to impact their power supply,” said Mottiar. This resulted in protest action by the informal householders, in the form of barricading roads and burning down municipal offices.

“My chapter examines the ways in which the state is visible at the everyday spatial and temporal scale through infrastructure, and how infrastructure is also a conduit for identities,” she said. 

The case study applies the idea of “infrastructural citizenship” to these contestations, to understand how electricity infrastructure is used in an attempt to shape residents’ behaviour into “appropriate” forms. It shows how this is resisted, but also how communities are divided according to their differential status concerning infrastructure, she explained.

Sethulego Matebesi’s chapter is centred on transactional activism. “There are no signs that these community protests will soon end in South Africa, so what I’m aiming at is a chapter that illustrates the engagement practices of these community groups,” said Matebesi.

Transactional activism refers to the “perverse system of incentives” where state actors provide leaders of protest groups with incentives, he explained.

“It has a huge impact on the agency, and also the future of community organising in South Africa,” he added.

“What is important about this chapter is that it points to the fact that by starting to pay attention not only to the causes of protests, but also to the leadership context, it can help us explain the engagement practices that have started to affect the operations of community groupings, and have led to a vicious cycle of community protests in South Africa.”

Luke Sinwell, Terri Maggott and Trevor Ngwane make use of a case study of Operation Dudula and Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia to argue that grassroots mobilisations can be activated in a manner that either sustains a system of racial capitalism or is employed as a mechanism to liberate the oppressed.

“We take the view of looking at the politics of grassroots mobilisation, and we look at how grassroots democracy can be a tool to maintain the status quo, to oppress or to liberate,” explained Sinwell.
The outcome of a community mobilisation can be affected by who goes to the community, and with what ideological framing the individual goes to the community, he added. The mob killing of Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean national illustrates this. In April 2022, Diepsloot residents took to the streets to protest against a series of murders, high crime rates and ineffective policing. Police Minister Bheki Cele arrived in Diepsloot to address the angry community and advised them not to take the law into their own hands.

However, the fracas had already attracted the attention of Operation Dudula, and that night, after Cele left, Nyathi was dragged out of his house, beaten, stoned and set alight.

“Operation Dudula identified a place where it could intervene because people were already fighting against crime and indicating that Zimbabweans were the problem, Nhlanhla Lux [Dlamimi] promoted active citizenship underpinned by a particular ideology which arguably leads to the weaponisation of grassroots,” Sinwell added.

Linking theory carefully and concretely to grassroots politics and leadership in impoverished communities may be able to prevent the weaponisation of grassroots democracy and thereby prevent the killing of more individuals like Elvis Nyathi, he explained.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.

More about the book:

Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation (MISTRA, 2023)
Edited by Heidi Brooks, Rekgotsofetse Chikane and Shauna Mottiar

Popular protest has become a regular feature of post-1994 South Africa. As a young democracy born out of resistance, we may understand the contemporary manifestations of protest as extensions of this broader history. However, it is notably in the context of formal democratic institutions that popular protest has become an increasingly normalised mode of influencing policy, demanding delivery and forcing change. Protest is constitutive of South Africa’s democratic politics, but also reflective of it.   

Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation explores the underpinnings of contemporary protest and both its short-term causes and structural drivers. Focusing on the surge of protest from the mid-2000s, this edited volume provides an overview of the complexity of protest action, the diversity of protest spaces and actors, and responses to protest from both citizens and state. The volume situates its analysis against the backdrop of the global wave of protest witnessed since the turn of the 21st century, while examining protest in South Africa’s local and historical contexts. 

Contributors to the volume examine protests in relation to, among other factors, provision of infrastructure and services; contestations around socio-economic development; issues of citizenship; and demands for inclusive democratic governance. Chapters also examine the role of women in protest action, the policing of protest, and the intersection of protest action with spaces of formal politics. The volume also alerts us to the darker side of protest, and the destruction and division it may foment. It thus considers the prospects of South Africa’s evolving, sometimes violent, protest terrain for social and state stability and democratic progress.

Bringing together In the diversity of spaces, sectors and communities of interests in which collective action has emerged, Protest in South Africa: Rejection, reassertion, reclamation shows how protest is underpinned by a rejection of the status quo, a reassertion of interests, and a reclaiming of the political and democratic space. 

Book chapters:

Chapter 1: The architecture of protest in South Africa: Contexts and underpinnings – Heidi Brooks, Rekgotsofetse Chikane and Shauna Mottiar

Part I: Complex causes in protest trends and dynamics

Chapter 2: Protest in an age of contention: South Africa’s resonances with the global South and beyond – Heidi Brooks
Chapter 3: The nexus of citizen, party and state in accumulating protest repertoires in South Africa – Susan Booysen
Chapter 4: Protest apathy in South Africa - Rekgotsofetse Chikane and Halfdan Lynge

Part II: The architecture of protest

Chapter 5:  Gendering protests: Mapping women’s participation in community protests in Duncan Village, Eastern Cape - Hlengiwe Ndlovu
Chapter 6:  Rural protest against imposed development processes and environmental damage: Fishing communities in the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast - Fani Ncapayi
Chapter 7: Dying to drink: Water tenderpreneurs, community agency and protest in Mothutlung, North West - Mary Galvin
Chapter 8: Electricity contestations and infrastructural citizenship: Protest in Lamontville, Durban - Shauna Mottiar
Chapter 9: Weaponising grassroots democracy: Operation Dudula’s right-wing populism and the need for a countermovement - Luke Sinwell, Terri Maggott and Trevor Ngwane
Chapter 10: Beyond protest: Violence, looting and anarchy in July 2021 – Mary de Haas

PART III: Responses and repercussions
Chapter 11:  Transactional activism: Effect of the engagement practices of protest leaders on community protests in South Africa - Sethulego Matebesi
Chapter 12: Changing influences on the policing of public order in South Africa and the Global South - Ziyanda Stuurman
Chapter 13: Crime and punishment: Crime and policing-related protests in South Africa – David Bruce, Lizette Lancaster and Gareth NewhamChapter 14:    Rejection, reassertion, reclamation: The underpinnings of protest in South Africa - Heidi Brooks, Shauna Mottiar and Rekgotsofetse Chikane