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Grassroots Struggles for Dignity and Democratization in Africa

Toussaint Losier
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

On the morning of May 22, 2010, South African President Jacob Zuma made a second unannounced visit to the small mining town of Balfour in Mpumalanga province. About ten months ago, over a thousand residents of Balfour's impoverished Siyathemba township took to the streets for several days, blockading roads with burning tires over the continued failure of municipal officials to meet their most basic needs like clean water, street lighting, and paved roads.

When police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, residents fought back with rocks and bottles, while others looted small shops owned by African immigrants, prompting Zuma's first visit. When promises made by government officials failed to materialize, thousands rebelled for several days in February 2010, calling for the Mayor's resignation and burning the township's library and municipal building to the ground during running battles with the police. 

Balfour was only the latest in a wave of what have come to be known as "service delivery" protests that has been growing in intensity since the start of former African National Congress (ANC) President Thabo Mbeki's second term (2004-2009). Official statistics recorded more than ten labor demonstrations or community protests per week during this period. At the end of Mbeki's second term, Zuma drew on this increasing frustration with the government's neoliberal economic policies to unseat Mbeki in an intra-ANC struggle in 2009. Rather than a decline, there have been more protests in the first seven months of Zuma's presidency than the last three years of the Mbeki's.

A veritable rebellion of the poor, these "service delivery" protests have been driven by the persistent underdevelopment of urban townships as well as endemic corruption, mass unemployment, and top-down decision-making. President Zuma's recent visit to Balfour was intended to serve as a report back on the government's efforts to quiet residents' demands. Reflecting the mood not only of their country, but also of Africans across the continent, Siyathemba residents greeted Zuma coldly, brandishing signs like "Usathane ungcono kune MP" (Satan is better than Mpumalanga) and wildly heckling Zuma's speech by shouting, "Nothing has been done."

50 Years of Decolonization

While few countries in Africa have witnessed the pace and intensity of grassroots struggles in South Africa, the world's most unequal country, its example has been far from exceptional. When rising food prices sparked mass protests throughout the world in early 2008, some of the largest were in Africa, the world's poorest continent. From Cameroon to Egypt, thousands of protestors targeted wage and price controls required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Just like those in South Africa, these "food riots" offered an implicit indictment of the continent's hollow democracy and neo-colonial political economy, but lacked the language of an alternative political project.

With the continued application of these failed neoliberal policies, many African countries have suffered a decline in living standards since the early 1990s, occupying the lower end of the increasing global division of wealth between the super rich and the desperately poor. While the past two decades has brought the end to various civil wars, often with the intervention of women-led peace movements, the resulting "governments of national unity" have rarely offered much beyond a new distribution of the spoils between local elites.

Whether the primary goods are gold from Tanzania, coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or crude oil from Angola, the economies of extraction and foreign intervention that have looted Africa of its natural resources since the days of colonial mercantilism remain firmly in tact, with China's rising role marking only a slight alteration. The neoliberal withdrawal of the state has hollowed out democracy of its substantial meaning, while other entities like international NGOs, evangelical missionaries, and criminal syndicates have in some places taken control of governance.

In this vacuum, the masses of Africans have been left to fend for themselves by reinventing the means of their own survival. Millions, no longer able to make a living through small-scale agriculture, have swelled their nation's urban slums. Along the way, they have creatively reworked their cultural traditions, social institutions, and political authorities to meet these new circumstances.

At times, this creativity has been marked by its harsh violence and stark exploitation, but more often than not it has laid the foundations for grassroots struggles drawing on age-old traditions of solidarity, and justice. Although lacking a vision of social revolution, it is these grassroots struggles that have been serving as the building blocks for the creation of movements like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the Western Cape Anti-Evticion Campaign (AE), and perhaps some that in time can complete the decolonization of Africa.

is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and an organizer based in Chicago.