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Reviewed by:
  • Contesting Transformation: popular resistance in twenty-first-century South Africa ed. by Marcelle C Dawson and Luke Sinwell
  • Elke Zuern (bio)
Marcelle C Dawson and Luke Sinwell (eds) (2012) Contesting Transformation: popular resistance in twenty-first-century South Africa. London: Pluto Press

Dawson and Sinwell’s edited volume provides an important addition to the literature on social movement organisations in South Africa. The editors note in their introduction that they aim to provide a corrective to scholarship that has at times been out of touch with reality on the ground. The contributions together offer critical and sympathetic insights into the challenges and shortcomings of existing movement organisations, as well as the actions of external actors from state agents to NGOs to researchers. The chapters address a wide range of questions, but three themes stood out to this reader: the prospects for a united left, the role of the ANC in encouraging and repressing protest, and strategic choices for SMOs and protesters ranging from rights based approaches to more disruptive action.

Chapters by McKinley, Ceruti and Ngwane most directly address the challenges for a united left. McKinley argues the ANC has effectively constrained the left through its Alliance partners (COSATU and the SACP), which have, in turn, strategically worked to undermine new left leaning actors. Ceruti adds an additional layer of complexity by probing the interactions between the ANC and unions and between union leaders and ordinary members. By comparing the public sector strikes in 2007 and 2010, she demonstrates the contradictory views that strikers have of government as well as their shifting perceptions of service delivery protests. This, she argues, provides an opportunity for greater solidarity between community-based actions and organised workers. Ngwane probes this potential relationship between worker and community-based struggles through his [End Page 103] analysis of the APF (Anti-Privatisation Forum). He demonstrates that the fracturing of a short-term alliance in the APF was a product both of the forces outlined by McKinley but also different perspectives among organisations and leaders, paralleling Ceruti’s arguments. Ngwane’s sober assessment underlines the considerable challenges to any broader umbrella organisation such as the more recently formed Democratic Left Front which Sinwell and Dawson note in their conclusion has struggled to fully ‘embed itself’ into community-based structures and to build strong alliances with workers (265).

A second theme that has often failed to receive the attention it deserves in the study of social movements is the relationship between movement actors and political parties and state agencies. In the case of South Africa, the ANC is the central player in this analysis. Alexander poses a significant question: how is it that South Africa has such high rates of protest, high unemployment and income inequality but the governing party continues to win elections with a dominant majority? He challenges the argument that people protest as an act of voice but then loyally vote for the dominant party, by stressing that those who register to vote and actually vote are not necessarily the same people who go to the streets to protest. The youth, who dominate so-called service delivery protests, have low rates of registration and voter turnout. The question then, is how youth might impact on politics beyond their community. Alexander argues that protesters have employed a range of strategies aside from protest, including: boycotting local elections, spoiling ballots, supporting independent candidates, and, in a few cases, forming new local parties. While the impact of these actions is often quite significant in local areas, as Alexander demonstrates, it has not translated into a significant challenge to ANC dominance overall.

In contrast to Alexander’s argument concerning the possibilities for alternatives to ANC hegemony, the chapter by Langa and von Holdt looks at the dual nature of protest actions which include not just people discontented with local politics and policymaking but also local elites and would be elites. The struggle, as these authors see it, is less against the ANC as over power within the ANC and its networks. Contrary to Alexander’s argument that these protests represent a weakening of ANC power, Langa and von Holdt view the ANC as fractured but nevertheless hegemonic. They...


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pp. 103-106
Launched on MUSE
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