South Africa’s insurgent citizens: On dissent and the possibility of politics

Author(s) Julian Brown
Publisher Zed Books
Year 2015

Coverage of the inspiring #FeesMustFall student movement across South Africa and the (altogether more reactionary) demonstrations that formed around #ZumaMustFall stripped away a little further at the rainbow nation narrative that has somehow spluttered on over the last 20 years. Taking place toward the end of 2015 in many towns and cities these outbursts of anger brought thousands to the streets in protest in what many saw as a new stage of political mobilisation for the country after the failed promises of the post apartheid years. But protest in South Africa never went away and as Julian Brown’s book makes clear has been a vital and ever present part of wider community organisation against the South African state and capital and is crucial to understanding the future.

In making a compelling case for how we can understand South Africa protest and the political climate in which it operates, this book adds to a vibrant literature on contemporary crisis in the country, particularly through providing the reader with accounts of, “how practices of disruptive politics are being driven by South Africa’s insurgent and activist citizens” (p3). It is these stories of challenging, new and at times sustained protest actions against a state that show the struggles and travails faced by a public so often ignored and deligitimised but ever present in South Africa’s “fractious, fractured and combative” (p13) political geography.

The analysis offered by Brown is predicated on the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere with his work on disruptive politics situated in the South African context. It is this analytical orientation that enables the author to offer a fresh perspective on the country’s crisis but also on wider debates about egalitarian and emancipatory politics in the current conjuncture. Brown goes on to show how ‘disruptive politics’ in all its forms provides moments in which citizens make claims for radical equality within the social order, demands for a truly democratic and equal South Africa.

Yet, as Brown shows, these political demands are rarely tolerated within a country that has defined what constitutes legitimate protest and grievance. For instance, The Regulation of Gatherings Act has severely curtailed attempts to take to the streets and protest, primarily service delivery conditions across numerous municipalities. One such example is the Thembelihle Crisis Committee. Brown goes on to show how public protest has been systemically denied through obstruction by local authorities. Using a variety of different tactics from bureaucratic inertia through to intimidation, repressive street policing and criminal proceedings, the political space to articulate a disruptive politics is being foreclosed across the country. It is a particular view of the boundaries of public, political life that I have seen during my research in Cape Town as the DA-led (as opposed to ANC in most parts of the country) state and associated agencies clamp down on all manner of protests that have failed to obtain permission from authorities, particularly if it involves township dwellers visiting the central city and threatening the image of tourist friendly Cape Town.

The book is a useful addition just for showing how protests and dissent on the streets are policed and manage to hinder the growth of emancipatory politics. However, Brown doesn’t just stop with these powerful accounts of street based forms of protest and contestation. Instead, the author draws the reader into the variety of ways in which communities, activists and civil society have found new, insurgent ways of challenging the existing order and of enacting the political. For instance, Brown describes how the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo initiated and then helped to disseminate to other social movements a Don’t Vote campaign that brought attention to the “the representativity of the system, the effectiveness of electoral politics and the perceived disconnection between an elected political elite and the struggles of communities on the ground” (p120). Another way in which these new forms of political contestation have emerged is through legal activism that uses the Constitution to hold the state to account, with the Treatment Action Campaign being used as an uplifting example of success. Yet, Brown also shows how this legal route failed for many other campaigns in the shadow of this victory and adds to the growing sense of despair in the actions of the South African state toward its people.

One of the strengths of the book is that despite the almost relentless repression, corruption and sometime ineptitude displayed by the South African state and capital to foreclose protest and to clamp down on a disruptive, vibrant civil society, the future of this young country remains open. Brown draws us to the ways in which space is created for new political possibilities through campaigner efforts to hold power to account. Whilst the future is unwritten Brown argues that this can be productive and progressive, especially if we embrace “those uncertain possibilities” (p164) that emerge from the disruptive politics of social movements and civil society.


Jonathan Silver is a research fellow at Durham University. He is an urban geographer whose work focuses on the politics of urban infrastructure. This has involved research across a number of cities in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, UK and USA and across different infrastructure systems including energy, sanitation and waste.

Photo: Protesters outside Parliament in Cape Town, during the Fees Must Fall Protests, October 21, 2015. Credit: Brendon Bosworth.

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