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Student protests and postapartheid South Africa’s negative moment 0

The political theorist Achille Mbembe, from the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, describes South Africa as experiencing a “negative moment.”

Though protest and dissatisfaction with the terms of the “new” South Africa have been brewing for some time, there is a strong sense that the black majority is losing patience with the ruling African National Congress. The student protests, which engulfed campuses for much of 2015, while limited by its narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.

South Africa’s democratic system is twenty-two years old. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), once a liberation movement, has been transformed into an ordinary political party encumbered by an election cycle mentality, and the largesse of the state. The party also presents a paradox: Dissatisfaction with it and government are at all time highs. Much of the rancor is reserved for the country’s president, Jacob Zuma (2009-), whose regime is associated with the widespread corruption of state institutions and party structures. Yet, the ANC continues to command electoral majorities nationally, and holds executive power in eight of the nine provinces. The exception is the Western Cape, governed by an opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. The ANC also controls all major metros, i.e. large cities, except for one (Cape Town, also run by the DA).

Because of the relative weakness of opposition parties, the fragmentation of the opposition landscape more generally, and the ANC’s continued national dominance, the preferred forms of political opposition are street protests, including wildcat strikes, by workers.

Protests and disruptions are not new in the “new” South Africa.  But after an initial honeymoon period (which concluded with the retirement of Nelson Mandela from elected office), protests become synonymous with democratic politics in South African politics.

Between 1999 and 2003, those protests took the form of either service delivery protests or more well organized “social movements.” The former were very local, often spontaneous, mostly parochial, short-lived struggles over housing, electricity and housing evictions. The latter were more planned, media savvy, drew on the language of struggle, allied to the ANC, brought back the language of the antiapartheid struggle and asserted new constitutional rights. The movement for access to affordable AIDS drugs and treatment, led by the Treatment Action Campaign is the best example. The TAC produced what was South Africa first post-apartheid, progressive—and crucially multiracial and national—movement outside the ANC and the trade unions, and forced concessions from the state through the court system.

By the mid to late 2000s, more sporadic, and very violent protests, characterized by retaliatory police violence became ubiquitous. Police violence against protesters were commonplace, so was the security services spying on activists.

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by Sean Jacobs

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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