Imraan Buccus. Photo: Independent Newspapers
Imraan Buccus. Photo: Independent Newspapers

Protests make for interesting times ahead…

By Imraan Buccus Time of article published Jul 13, 2014

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SA remains the most protest-rich country in the world. And the results of recent research are fascinating, writes Imraan Buccus.


South Africa remains the most protest-rich country in the world and the results of recent research are fascinating. Researchers have argued that popular protest began to become an endemic feature of our political landscape in 2004.

Looking at recent years, it’s clear that popular protest has escalated considerably.

Protest is not just escalating, it is also becoming more confrontational. In some cases there have been incidents, such as attacks on a police station, that indicate that there are increasing possibilities of direct confrontation with the state. But despite this, it is also clear that protest is increasingly translating into electoral engagement.

This seems to indicate that while protest is taking ever more militant forms, it is more likely to result – in the end – in challenges to the ruling party at the polls, rather than insurrectionary activity.

Protest is a national phenomenon and there are common features of popular protest around the country. One of these is that increasing police violence is producing an increasingly violent response from below.

Another is that protest is overwhelmingly a phenomenon found in cities and smaller towns. Key demands are for land, housing, services, better wages, engagement from politicians and an end to police brutality.

Although the strikes on the platinum mines have rocked the country more than any other, it is the urban informal settlement that is the most common place from which protests are organised.

However, there are some regional particularities. One of these is that in the Western Cape protest spread to farm workers in 2012.

Marikana made it clear that the state is willing to use lethal violence to contain popular protest.

However, it is often overlooked that, in the past decade or so, more people have been killed by the police in urban street protests than died at Marikana. This is a serious problem that does not get enough attention. It is clear that police violence results in more violent forms of protests.

It is also clear that, in various parts of the country, grassroots activists are starting to arm themselves in response to police violence.

This is a dangerous situation and it is absolutely fundamental that serious steps are taken to demilitarise the police and shift the approach to policing protest back to a human-rights model.

It is equally fundamental that officials and politicians learn to be more responsive to the concerns of communities.

It is clear that, around the country, protest is usually a last resort by desperate communities.

Protests often follow months or even years of attempts to get officials and politicians to engage communities. In most cases they could be avoided if politicians and officials were willing to talk to communities when concerns were expressed and to do so honestly and respectfully.

Another fascinating aspect of our wave of popular protest, famously described as “the rebellion of the poor” by University of Johannesburg Professor Peter Alexander, is that while it is a massive and enduring phenomenon it does not, on its own, have the capacity to represent itself in electoral politics or even at the level of national civil society.

This has created openings for various formations to try to win the support of the millions of people who have engaged in popular protest in recent years.

The first formation that attempted to try to win the support of “the rebellion of the poor” was the Democratic Left Front, a small Trotskyite formation mostly rooted in universities and NGOs.

It failed dismally. The Workers and Socialist Party, also a small Trotskyite formation, but this time rooted in a long history of struggle going back to the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC, got a lot of media attention, but also failed to win popular support.

But there are two formations that are trying to ride the wave of popular protest and that are, clearly, serious political players. One of these formations is the EFF.

Media reports often take the EFF at its word that it represents the working class and the poor.

However, Steven Friedman, also a professor at the University of Johannesburg, has argued that, in fact, most of the EFF’s support comes from the ranks of the lower middle class.

Interestingly, their policy proposals do not fit neatly with the demands emerging from popular protest.

For instance, the EFF follows a long tradition of elite African nationalism and focuses on rural land reform.

However, there are no popular protests in support for rural land reform. Land is a central issue in popular protest, but it is urban land that is being subject to vigorous contestation from below.

If the EFF is not able to allow popular demands to shape its agenda from below, it will struggle to win over this constituency in the long term.

The other significant formation that has thrown its hat into the ring is, of course, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), with its proposal to form a United Front that, like the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, could lead and connect struggles on the ground.

It’s too early to have any real sense of how this united front might work in practice.

But there are some signs that the union, like the EFF, is committed to politics quite removed from the actual demands on the ground.

For instance, some Numsa activists speak about the workers’ struggle as if it was the struggle of the people as a whole.

It is not unusual to hear Numsa activists say that bourgeois democracy needs to be replaced with workers’ democracy.

This is fine if the audience for these statements is made of workers. But most people engaged in popular protest in South Africa are not unionised workers. This is a rebellion of the unemployed and informal workers.

Unless the EFF and Numsa are able to put aside their respective dogmas, one rooted in African nationalism and the other in old-fashioned socialism, it seems unlikely that either formation will be able really to win the support of the millions of people who have taken to the streets in recent years.

But our political landscape is highly dynamic.

There are rapid shifts happening at all levels and it is certainly not impossible that either formation could allow itself to be transformed from below.

If the EFF, Numsa or perhaps a new project is able to ride the wave of popular protest, we will be in for interesting times in the years ahead.


* Buccus is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and the academic director of a university study-abroad programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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