South Africa’s twin rebellions: bifurcated protest

Although there were no city-centre protests of the kind seen in Cairo, in 2012, using protests per capita as a measure, South Africa was possibly the ‘protest capital of the world’.

Peter Alexander
6 October 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Painted on sculpture of Jan van Riebeck in Cape Town, 2014.

Painted on sculpture of Jan van Riebeck in Cape Town, 2014. Demotix/Sue Kramer. All rights reserved.Over the past ten years, South Africa has experienced one of the highest levels of popular protest in the world and probably more strike days per capita than in any other country. But these are distinct phenomena. Insurrectionary protests mobilise poor people, while workers participate in strikes. Why does this separation exist, and what is its theoretical and political significance? My response involves the notion ’different relationships to the means of protest’.[1]

While this conceptualisation was developed in response to a specifically South African conundrum, it has broader applicability. Bettina Engels has deployed it as part of her analysis of the ambivalent relationship between organized labour and food riots in Burkina Faso in 2007/8. Perhaps, it could also have utility in explaining recent mobilizations in Egypt, Ukraine and elsewhere, where popular protests evolved separately from workers’ struggles, eventually to the detriment of both.

My argument is not fatalist. On the contrary, as Engels recognized, that separation is conditional and a matter of degree. This can be captured through the metaphor of a ‘hinge’, which has two wings linked at a single (capitalist) core and, depending on circumstance, the wings can be more or less apart.

Different relations to the means of protest aligns as an idea to the notion that major class divisions arise from conflicting relations to the means of production. While different forms of protest, and their targets and ends, are linked to different relations to production (employed workers, the unemployed and so on), in South Africa the longer-term interests of the poor are bound up with those of workers. Most workers reside in urban townships designed, under apartheid, for black people, and they benefit from community protests that lead to improved services. Meanwhile, the survival of the poor is bound up with income from workers, most importantly through family transfers, but also by purchases, gifts and taxation. In other countries, however, analysis of different relations to means of protest might reveal more significant class divisions, and this is something the concept is designed to explore.

Theoretical foundations

While mainstream social movement studies have tended to ignore ‘class’ in recent decades, it has been a key theme in the Alternative Futures and Popular Protests conference held annually in Manchester over the past 20 years. In the South African context it was an important strand in a 2012 collection edited by Marcelle Dawson and Luke Sinwell. But if we return to the late 1970s and early 1980s we find three texts relevant for the present account.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward pointed to contrasts that have particular relevance to contemporary South Africa. In a sense, they were extending an insight present in ‘resource mobilisation theory’, adding ‘disruption’ to ‘money and time’ as a discretionary resource. I quote them from Piven and Cloward’s celebrated 1979 book (Poor People’s Movements): ‘workers protest by striking. They are able to do so because they are drawn together in the factory setting, and their protests consist mainly in defying the rules and authorities associated with the workplace. The unemployed do not and cannot strike, even when they perceive that those who own the factories and businesses are to blame for their troubles. Instead, they riot in the streets where they are forced to linger ... and it is difficult to imagine them doing otherwise.’

In 1981 Ira Katznelson opened possibilities for a broader theorisation. In US history he distinguished between ‘work and community based conflict’, showing that ‘links between [them] have been unusually tenuous’. He continued: ‘Each kind of conflict has had its own separate vocabulary and set of institutions ... Class, in short, has been lived and fought as a series of partial relationships.’ Expanding, he argued: The ‘patterning of class’ varies from country to country, shaped, in particular, by different histories of class formation and class culture. He uses Antonio Gramsci’s metaphor of First World War ‘trenches’ (from which an ongoing ‘war of position’ was fought) to argue that the ‘trenches’ of workplaces, the streets and ‘normal’ political channels provide a base for different kinds of anti-systemic resistance. The configuration of these trenches ‘defines the terrain of battle and thus imparts a logic to the war itself’.

For Manuel Castells book The City and the Grassroots published in 1983 about ‘the largest ... urban movement in Europe since 1945’, that in Spain in the 1970s, the two components were the labour movement and neighbourhood associations. Providing a similar assessment to Katznelson, he writes: the two ‘fought separate battles, even if they often clashed with the same police and exchanged messages of solidarity ... [T]hey were allies not comrades’. He reached the conclusion - echoed in many mass protests around the globe in recent years - that the Citizen Movement, which co-ordinated the neighbourhood associations, was a ‘non-class social movement challenging the structure of a class society.’ Like Katznelson, Castells recognised that the labour/neighbourhood relationship plays out differently in different settings, but he placed greater weight on the structure of capitalism.

In light of this scholarship, our South African case appears as yet another species within the same genus as the US and Spanish examples. In each case the ‘hinge’ is clearly apparent. The logic encourages us to consider the specificities of the South African rebellions – their character as anti-systemic movements within particular patterns of capitalism and class.

South Africa

In 1994, South Africa experienced an incomplete transition to democracy. Apartheid rule was overthrown and replaced by a popularly elected government dominated by the African National Congress (ANC). But the ANC’s iconic Freedom Charter, its first election manifesto, and the new Constitution’s Bill of Rights promised more than high-level political change. They proposed the transformation of people’s lives through economic uplift and grassroots democracy. Twenty one years later the rate of unemployment and the Gini co-efficient are higher than in 1994. A 2015 official report showed 37.0% of the population living below the ‘Lower Bound Poverty Line’ where, by definition, they are ‘forced to sacrifice food to obtain essential food and non-food items’. At the same time there is widespread concern about corruption, which is extensive, and the imposition of political representatives and political practice by the top leadership of the governing party. The ANC’s failure is rooted in the effects of a ‘double transition’ (see Webster and Adler’s 1999 article on this): neo-liberal reforms initiated alongside formal democracy. At the same time, the overthrow of apartheid was a consequence, primarily, of internal resistance, and urban workers and residents of townships and informal slums retain a strong degree of confidence that they can bring further change.

This provides the background to the emergence of the twin rebellions: by the ‘poor’ and by workers. There were rumblings of these in the late 1990s; the early 2000s saw the growth of new social movements; and from 2004 there were insurrectionary community protests and a rising level of strike action (signaled, in 2007, by the highest number of days lost in any year in South African history).

In the wake of the 2007/8 crash there was a noticeable shift upwards, with an even greater number of strike days in 2010. Writers and activist organisations (including the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU) began speaking of a Rebellion of the Poor in 2010, and after the Marikana Massacre of 2012, and the ensuing wildcat strikes, people began commenting on the existence of a parallel Rebellion of the Workers. In 2014 a platinum industry strike, was the biggest in the history of South Africa’s large and wealthy mining sector

By international standards these were substantial movements. Although there have not been any city-centre protests of the kind seen in Cairo and elsewhere, in early 2012 I used data for 2004/5 to 2011/12 to assert that, using protests per capita as a measure, South Africa was possibly the ‘protest capital of the world’. The level of police-recorded unrest has increased since then, with an average of 4.8 incidents per day for 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, it is likely that over the same period South Africa experienced more strike days per capita than any other country.

However, although communities sometimes involve workers in stay-aways (which must be distinguished from worker-led strikes), and notwithstanding rare incidents of genuine solidarity action, the two rebellions have occurred separately. A longer presentation of my argument focused on the small town of Balfour, where a 2009 insurrection by township residents lasted three days and nights. A week after the uprising, I observed municipal workers protesting about pay outside the town hall, while, inside the building, oblivious to this action, residents met government ministers about issues raised in the unrest. One shop steward from a fruit factory, who was sympathetic to community resistance, told us: ‘If they [residents’ leaders] would contact us [the union] we would get involved’. On the other side, one of leaders of the uprising commented that ‘different ways of organising was a stumbling block’, explaining that unions follow legal procedures, and that he and his comrades wanted maximum impact with minimum delay, and, besides, their protest would not be authorized.

This anecdote exemplifies broader problems. When workers protest against their conditions, they organize at work, engage in strike action, build unions, and, perhaps, develop a federation that provides a political voice. None of this involves the workless and underemployed, who are neither needed nor, in most cases, wanted. The poor, especially poor youth, have other sources of strength. They have time to organize and the ability to mobilize in the name of a community as a whole; they have the capacity to win backing from workers and to mount dramatic protests that threaten the rule of the state; and they can unseat politicians and undermine the legitimacy of established politics.

In the uprisings, workers are marginal and sometimes disparaged. In immediate terms, the poor can be victims of strikes or excluded from jobs by workers from other areas, and workers might be worried that a stay-away will lead to their dismissal or loss of pay. Moreover, the rhythms of struggle are different, with workers, at least in South Africa, tending to follow time-consuming statutory procedures, while community action is determined with little or no formality and enacted without delay.

While strikes often cover many workplaces, sometimes across the country, and may be sustained for weeks, perhaps months, community protests have been local in their scope and, with a few exceptions, limited in duration (usually a day and rarely more than three). While community protests target the state (normally the local state), demanding what it can deliver (mostly services), the focus of workers’ actions are employers, usually capitalists (though sometimes the state), demanding what these can provide (critically higher pay).


Four points can be made by way of conclusion. The first two provide a response to Katznelson. National variation is significant and, regarding South Africa, can be understood geographically and sociologically. Geographically, townships and informal settlements remain physically separate - not only from formerly white suburbs and city centres, but also from most industrial workplaces (mines being an interesting exception). Especially in major cities, workers spend a large part of their day travelling to/from workplaces, and, together with time at work, this leaves them with little time and energy to participate in community activities.

On the other side, the poor (whether unemployed, underemployed or outside the labour force) lack the resources for travel to city centres. This geographical separation is matched by a social one. Linked with massive inequality, South Africa’s middling class of professionals and business owners is relatively smaller than in many other countries. Clearly these gulfs are linked with the country’s racially divided past. While they make huge, multi-class city-centre protests less likely than in other countries, they also add to socio-economic instability and, to some degree, weaken populist responses to economic and political crises.

Secondly, Katznelson’s trenches include politics, as well as workplaces and streets. In South Africa, two new political formations were born out of the Marikana Massacre and its aftermath. These were the Economic Freedom Fighters, founded by Julius Malema and other former leaders of the ANC’s Youth League, and the United Front, seen as a step towards forming a workers’ party, initiated by the National Union of Metalworkers, the largest union in Africa, which was recently expelled by COSATU. The main social base of these two organizations reflects the division between the two rebellions: respectively, poverty-stricken youth and organized workers. Despite this, at least on paper, both organizations are committed to uniting people across the social divide, so carry the potential to draw the two wings of the hinge together.

My ‘relationships to the means of protest’ rest on dynamics similar to those summarised by Piven and Cloward, but I am attempting to broaden our understanding of factors that divide workers from the poor. By urging that attention be given to researching the link between these relationships and relations to the means of production, I propose a way of investigating the complicated class dynamics of protest and political transformation, and how these vary from one country to another.

Lastly, by linking my ‘two rebellions’ to a ‘hinge’ I am offering a dynamic approach, impacted by politics as well as social structure, thus opening the possibility that the hinge may close. The implication is, to re-phrase Castells, that there is a possibility that allies become comrades.

[1] This article summarises and slightly expands arguments advanced in Peter Alexander and Peter Pfaffe (2014). This longer version includes full references to most work cited here. 

How to cite:
Alexander P. (2015) «South Africa’s twin rebellions: bifurcated protest», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 6 October. https://opendemocracy.net/peter-alexander/south-africa's-twin-rebellions-bifurcated-protest


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