- Urban Revolt: state power and the rise of people's movements in the global South ed. by Trevor Ngwane, Imannuel Ness and Luke Sinwell
Marking a crucial juncture in recent South African history, in their seminal Voices of Protest, Richard Ballard and co-authors (2006:14) offer a multifaceted account of the 'reinvention of social movements in South Africa'. It was, no doubt, in the mid-2000s, that popular mobilisation against the post-apartheid state had reached a scale and intensity that gave shape to a distinct socio-political phenomenon. As the institutions of the democratic regime absorbed most major organisations of the anti-apartheid struggle and the financial and economic policies of the late-1990s translated into persistently harsh everyday realities for the majority of people in the country, a multitude of new practices and bodies of collective action emerged, demanding a fresh assessment of the South African political landscape. In productively engaging the then globally vibrant literature on 'new' social movements – deploying it as a frame of analysis but also contesting it from the perspective of contemporary South African struggles surveyed in the collection – Voices of Protest performed just that assessment.
Few would question that the police killing of 34 striking miners and injuring 78 others in Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg (North West province) represents a juncture of similar magnitude for South Africa and, most likely, beyond (Gibson 2012). It thus seems justified that, just over a decade after the publication of Voices of Protest, the editors of Urban Revolt posit Marikana as the vantage point for their own account of the current state of social movements; in this country as [End Page 162] well as others in the global South, where comparable acts of state sanctioned violence likewise have changed the conditions of organised resistance. While comparing and contrasting the case studies that the two books offer might be a very productive exercise given the difference of 11 years between them, here I want to depart instead with reflecting on the resonances and dissonances between the concepts and aims of the two book projects in their entirety, so as to foreground the question of what is at stake in conducting and sharing research on collective action against various forms of oppression.
For both volumes, the broad context of intensifying popular mobilisation is, of course, globalised capitalism and the increased influence of neoliberal ideas and modes of governance in the country and region. As Ballard et al (2006:12) note, 'South Africa serves as a textbook example of how globalization plays itself out in the semi-industrialized world', leaving labour as the primary loser and capital as the main beneficiary of privatisation, decentralisation and deregulation. It is against this backdrop that, for both editorial teams, the significance of South African social movements becomes palpable. As Trevor Ngwane, Immanuel Ness and Luke Sinwell (2017) suggest in their introduction to Urban Revolt, urban social movements are key to understanding how these processes materialise and how, in their wake, people of the global South challenge the everyday consequences of increased poverty and inequality. Indeed, the core claim of this collection is that the scope and force of popular challenge to the hegemony of capitalism and neoliberalism has amounted to a surge of uprisings in major southern cities: to a veritable global urban revolt, of which Marikana is a paradigmatic example. There are at least three arguments underlying this one, all of which deserve to be spelled out if we are to grasp the stakes of Urban Revolt as a 'political research project' (11).
There is certainly nothing controversial about the statement that 'major urban areas have become the principal sites of poor and working-class social upheaval in the early twenty-first century' (1). One does not have to question the historical role of peasant uprisings the world over to acknowledge that the past and present of working class mobilisation is bound up with the modern development of cities. Yet, the editors decided not to...