Reconsidering the origins of protest in South Africa: some lessons from Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg

07 Mar 2013

Protest politics in South Africa has a long history and has been deployed differentially in different historical moments. Whereas protests formed an important vehicle during the fight against apartheid, their rebirth and propulsion to the centre of the struggles in the post-apartheid dispensation have come as a surprise to many. A majority of these protests, so-called ‘service delivery protests’, are reported as emanating from communities’ dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery as well as problems relating to lack of communication between council and councillors on the one hand and citizens on the other. In this article, we interrogate data from five study sites located in Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. While we found support for the importance of service delivery, our data contradicts many widely held assertions as regards what causes these protests. We were able to show, for example, that these so-called ‘service delivery protests’ may actually emanate from reasons that extend beyond service delivery. Since our data indicates that levels of participation in Cape Town are higher than in Pietermaritzburg on the one hand, illustrating perhaps the different provincial contexts, there is also variation between the relatively high participation rates of the ‘black African’ sites of Langa and Khayelitsha, on the one hand, and the lower rates of the ‘coloured’ site of Bonteheuwel, on the other, which we ascribe to the disengagement of the community in Cape Town, from both local and national politics.