The work on South Africa aims to understand the complexities of democracy since 1994 through research on different cycles of protest undertaken by social and community movements; attitudes to and experiences of electoral and representative politics; changing ‘movement landscapes’; and corruption. Investigating the changing movement landscape in South Africa is a key part of understanding how popular politics is being shaped. It places diverse movements across the landscape in relation with each other – for example, trade unions, community organisations, student movements, popular mobilisations and so on, which allows for an analysis of patterns and trends across the landscape. Furthermore, it places at the centre of analysis questions of history – of founding moments, of enduring repertoires, continuities and discontinuities, reproduction and change – contributing to a sense of movement trajectories.

On electoral and representative politics the programme has looked at the relationship between electoral politics and popular politics, particularly as it relates to protest. This part of the programme aims to critically engage with electoral politics and alternatives to the current modes of engaging in the formal democratic processes. It also takes representative politics beyond the act of voting, or not voting, and engages critically with reflections on democracy and the democratic experience.

The South African popular politics programme currently has a sub-project looking at the ‘July Days’ in 2021 that saw unrest in parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng. These unprecedented events and mobilisations, sparked by a campaign around the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma but growing far beyond this focus, signified a distinct moment in South African popular politics. While it been diversely characterised – by the mainstream media, politicians, opposition parties, activists and commentators – as anything from food riots, to a moment of popular revolt, or a continuation of ANC factional politics in the form of an attempted coup or insurrection, our research is doing empirical work into the multiple layers of popular, factional and other movements and networks, including consideration of ethnic and racial dimensions, that is simultaneously grounded in a broad reading of conceptual issues. This research is being undertaken at multiple levels – firstly at the community level for a fine-grained analysis and secondly, at a national/regional level in order to understand the broader political dynamics that played out. This will allow for a richer and fuller discussion of how to characterise the unrest, and how to think about the implications of this on the South African movement landscape and popular politics more broadly.