When citizens in the Middle East and north Africa rose up against their governments a few years ago, it was fashionable to ask if this could happen here. The answer is either no – or that it has already happened here. Both answers tell us something important about protest here.
Most people who asked the question were driven by a familiar middle-class fear – that one day the poor will rise up and take over the country, depriving the better-off of what they have. This will not happen here as long as democracy survives – people who can vote out governments do not overthrow them.
But if the question asks whether South Africans will take to the streets demanding to be heard, those who ask it are out of touch – citizens have been on the streets for more than four decades. Many people in the suburbs don't notice this because protests are bottled up in townships and shack settlements.
They affect the well-off and those who shape the national debate only rarely, when they spill over on to the main highways. There is no sign that this is about to change, so we may be in for more years of frequent protests which leave the powerful untouched.
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Part of the furniture
How common is a protest in South Africa? No one really knows, but what is clear is that protest has been a constant for decades.
From time to time, reporters or commentators announce that protest is on the rise (no one ever says it is on the decline, possibly because that would be boring). These claims can usually be taken with a bucket of salt, because no one really knows how many protests there are, so no one can know whether they are increasing.
The usual label slapped on protests – that they are about 'service delivery' – explains nothing.
Protesters do not report their protests to the authorities, so there is no reliable set of numbers. Those who claim to know use two methods to track protests – media reports and police data. But media reports tell us how many protests media thought worth reporting, not how many there were.
Police data is a better source, since we can assume the police know about most protests. But we don't know how many protests are not noticed by police. Police data reports incidents – it doesn't distinguish between parades, sports events and protests. Some researchers are drilling down deeper, but there is a limit to how far they can go. The number of incidents does not tell us how many people took part and how long the protest lasted. So police data doesn't tell us much of what we need to know.
What we do know is that protests have been happening for a lot longer than most of us imagine. Media reports claim that a new wave of protest began a few years back. But available information tells us that the current wave of protests started in 1976 in Soweto (or 1973 in Durban, if you include strikes by workers).
It has continued to today (although at lower levels during states of emergency), with the exception of a three-year period from 1994 when hopes that protest would no longer be necessary kept people off the streets.
If the frequent claim that this country is the "protest capital of the world" means that more people protest here than anywhere else, we have no idea whether this is so. But if it means that South Africans have been protesting for longer than anyone else, it could well be right.
Keeping it in the family?
Given this, we would surely expect the country to be on the verge of a great upheaval. It isn't, because protest is localised in the areas where the poor live. Why is this?
Some excellent research has told us a great deal about local protest. The dynamics are too complicated to be discussed briefly here. But the usual label slapped on protests – that they are about "service delivery" – explains nothing. People do not take to the streets because they want the government to deliver things to them – they do so because they want to be heard.
The tragedy of protest here is that it remains mostly unheard, because it is usually directed at 'power holders' who have no power to fix the problems.
Even when protest is led by local elite groups trying to win political or economic gain, the people who take to the streets are doing so because they want a voice. They feel that they are not taken seriously by the people who wield power over them, and they hope that protest will ensure that they are treated as adults with dignity and a point of view.
The reason protests remain localised is that this is a very segmented society. The apartheid-era divide between suburb and township has not disappeared: while they are linked economically, in most people's minds, they are separate worlds.
Around the world, when people feel that those who hold power are not treating them fairly, they tend to focus on the immediate sources of frustration – they will blame the mayor, or the councillor, or some other local power figure, not someone far away who may actually decide whether people live decent lives and earn livelihoods.
This is obviously far more likely when people live in separate worlds. No one who wields power beyond the township or shack settlement borders is blamed, and protest remains local.
This will change only when and if the divisions in society start breaking down, and this is a long way away. Until that happens, the tragedy of protest here is that it remains mostly unheard, because it is usually directed at "power holders" who in fact have no power to fix the problems.
And so demands remain ignored, and the protest cycle continues – a constant reminder that change has left many behind, forcing them to use the only method that gives them a voice, despite the reality that no one with real power is listening.