South Africa is sometimes referred to as the “protest capital of the world”, because of our affinity for taking to the streets. This is both a weakness and a strength. On the one hand, it underscores just how much is wrong with our country and the leaders who govern it; on the other hand, it highlights how committed our citizens are to standing up for their rights and effecting positive change.
But, even a cursory glance at international news headlines will reveal that this double-edged distinction is under threat as the world becomes increasingly restless.
This month alone, there have been massive, unprecedented anti-government protests in Chile and Lebanon; countrywide protests in Iraq in which 149 people were killed by police; pro-independence protests in Spain’s restive Catalonia region; continuing anti-China protests in Hong Kong; continuing gilets jaune (yellow vest) protests in Paris, dispersed by riot police; climate crisis protests in the United Kingdom, during which 1 828 people were arrested; protests by indigenous groups in Ecuador which forced the government to temporarily relocate from the capital, Quito; opposition-led protests against constitutional amendments in Guinea, in which at least two people were killed; and protests across four Ethiopian cities in support of a leading activist, coming just weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel peace prize.
This list is not exhaustive: it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up.
Of course, each protest action is unique, with its own underlying causes. In Santiago a hike in the cost of public transport was the immediate spark; in Hong Kong it was an attempt to pass a controversial new extradition law.
But the sheer volume of such protests suggests that there may be common themes that run through them. So too does the fact that they are occurring not just against the backdrop of poverty and under-development, but in some of the world’s most prosperous cities (per capita income in Paris is more than $60 000, whereas in Hong Kong it’s $40 000).
As the economist Jeffrey Sachs observed in a recent column for Project Syndicate: “Each protest has its distinct local factors, but, taken together, they tell a larger story of what can happen when a sense of unfairness combines with a widespread perception of low social mobility.”
In South Africa, protest capital of the world, the resonance of that argument is impossible to ignore.