Precarity, Protest and Possibilities: Analysing South Africa’s ‘Rebellion of the Poor’

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 18:15
Oral Presentation
Peter ALEXANDER, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Unemployment has remained steady at 35% and half the population survives on $2.20 a day. At the same time, South Africa has been described as the ‘protest capital of the world’, with an average of 2,000 protests occurring a year in recent years. Community protests emanate from black townships and informal settlements in response to the lack or neglect of basic services from the state that the unemployed, in particular, rely upon for survival. However, community protests reflect more than just a battle for basic goods but also a much wider contestation over the quality of post-apartheid democracy. South Africa’s protest wave mirrors elsewhere in the world where the forces of neoliberalism have forcibly excluded the most precarious sections of the working class from the post-1994 democratic gains. What is perhaps different about the South African case is the degree to which community protest action remains fragmented both internal to itself and to other arenas of working class mobilisation, such as the labour movement. This paper seeks to put the politics of South Africa’s so-called ‘rebellion of the poor’ into perspective. The paper begins by using data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project in order to make comparisons about protest across the African continent. The paper then goes on to analyse the politics of the rebellion through analysing the particular players and arenas in which protest unfolds. In so doing, this paper considers how protest and its politics are shaped not only by the underlying structures of capital but also the contingent local arenas in which protest plays out. This provides insight into both the fragmentation of the working class and current political struggles but also suggest avenues in which this may be overcome.