From Passive Revolution to Fractured Militancy in South Africa

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Marcel PARET, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, University of Utah, USA
In recent years, scholars have increasingly deployed Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution” to describe capitalist development and state formation in the Global South. The concept refers to a reorganization from above in which elites absorb and demobilize popular forces through limited reforms, rather than significant social transformation. What are the implications of passive revolution for subsequent patterns of popular resistance?

This paper focuses on the case of South Africa, where the democratic transition of the late 1980s and early 1990s – an instance of passive revolution – led to a re-activation of popular struggles in the 2000s. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with activists and residents living in impoverished townships and informal settlements around Johannesburg, I argue that in this instance, passive revolution lead to fractured militancy: the simultaneous proliferation and fragmentation of popular resistance.

Fractured militancy reflected two entangled dynamics. On the one hand, passive revolution preserved the fundamental features of the social structure, including widespread unemployment, poverty, and inequality. This produced popular revolt, demonstrated by numerous protests for recognition and public service delivery. On the other hand, passive revolution produced weak leadership, marked by elite pursuit of narrow interests through the state. Mirroring this scramble for scarce state resources, activists engaged in highly localized and isolated struggles, and sometimes turned inward against targets such as workers and migrants. They also pursued divergent political projects. This fragmentation undermined attempts to build a coherent and sustained left movement in the post-apartheid period.