Protests and Populism: The Mobilization of Discontent in South Africa

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Michael BRAUN, University of Toronto, Canada
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is a populist political party which emerged to challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2013, and has found particular appeal among disenfranchised youth in urban areas. The party has attempted to position themselves as the institutional expression of South Africa's 'protest culture', promising economic redistribution, nationalization, and land reform to redress the persisting inequalities in South African society. In doing so they have sought to build and appropriate sites of mobilization typically used by social movements, while drawing in members from these organizations. This paper draws upon electoral data as well as interviews and participant observation conducted in Johannesburg, eThekweni, Rustenburg, and Ekurhuleni municipalities during the 2016 local government elections to explain how the party mobilizes at the grassroots level. Drawing upon social movement theories, I argue that the EFF has used populist framing to attract former members from the ANC Youth League, unions, social movements, and other civic organizations to build structures for electoral campaigning. This was made possible by the political opportunity structure in which generational and factional struggles created divisions within the ANC. During the elections, the party’s performance in each of the four research sites can be explained by looking at the mobilizing resources possessed by the grassroots activists that joined from these different organizations. To conclude, I propose that social movement theories may be fruitfully applied to understand the mobilization of political parties, particularly those using populist strategies to compete against the dominant ruling parties that are common in Africa's democracies. In these contexts the distinction between political parties and movements may be eroding as political actors and activists both make use 'invented' and 'invited' spaces to challenge the status quo.