Minding the Protest: Attitudes towards different forms of protest action in contemporary South Africa

Narnia Bohler-Muller, Benjamin James Roberts, Jare Struwig, Steven Lawrence Gordon, Thobeka Radebe, Peter Alexander


Since the mid-2000s, South Africa has experienced one of the world’s highest levels of popular protest and strike action, combined with the recent resurgence of an active student protest movement. Sociological research into these protests has suggested that they represent distinct phenomena and that local protests have assumed plural forms that cut across simple violent/non-violent and orderly/disorderly binary distinctions. Despite the rapid growth of literature on South African protests, surprisingly little remains known about mass opinion relating to various forms of protest. Consequently, this paper aims to examine differences with regard to the acceptability, perceived effectiveness and participation in respect of three categories of protest action, namely orderly, disruptive and violent protests. Use is made of data from a protest module included as part of the 2016 round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), a nationally representative series conducted annually by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Apart from determining the nature and extent of variation in opinion regarding the three types of protest action on aggregate, the paper explores patterns of similarity and differentiation across societal groups, based on class, age, race, gender and geography. Finally, we analyse how and for whom perspectives on the three forms of protest have changed over the course of a generation, by drawing on functionally equivalent data collected in 1995. The paper concludes by reflecting on whether the evidence supports key hypotheses regarding the ‘rebellion of the poor’ and ‘different relationships to the means and ends of protest’ (Alexander & Pfaffe, 2014). 


South Africa; attitudes; protest; peaceful; disruptive; violent

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2413-3108/2017/v0n62a3041


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