IS Academy Lecture: Speaking to Global Debates with a National and Continental Lens: South African and African Social Movements in Comparative Perspective

Seminar date: 
22 October 2008
Place:   Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Perszaal). Please bring identification.
Speaker(s): Adam Habib (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation & Advancement at the University of Johannesburg)

Registration is obligatory. If you have registered but are unable to attend please inform us as soon as possible.

The seminar will reflect on empirical cases of contemporary social movements in South Africa and Africa and the debates that have emerged in the global academy. Two assertions will be addressed: firstly, that the fulcrum of social struggles for a human development agenda has shifted from the arena of production to consumption, and, secondly, that identity movements and struggles are replacing the overtly material ones, especially in post-industrial societies. These assertions are not only advanced by mainstream scholars and social movement theorists (Touraine 1981, Melucci 1989) but in recent years have also been articulated by left-wing and Marxist theorists of globalization and contemporary social struggle, the two most notable of whom are Michael Buroway (2003) and David Harvey (2003).

Studies of social movements in South Africa and Africa, however, suggest that both these assertions are too simplistic and that in reality a more nuanced interpretation is required. While the scale of social struggles have expanded in the arena of consumption, the South African and African case studies suggest that movements in the arena of production not only continue to retain vibrancy but are also crucial to the sustainability of struggles of consumption. These same case studies, moreover, claim that while identity movements and struggles are indeed on the increase, material issues are as relevant to these struggles as they were to earlier social movements. The seminar will conclude that these movements are crucial in many democratizing societies to create the substantive uncertainty that is necessary to facilitate the accountability of political elites to their marginalized citizens so that a more sustainable human-oriented development agenda can be realized.

Are South Africa and Africa appropriate reference points for these debates in the global academy? Neither are post-industrial societies, and so it may seem unfair to respond to the theoretical assertions on social movements from a context that is so socio-economically different. But is it intellectually sustainable for the global academy to develop a theory of social movements on the narrow experience of post-industrial societies? And even if it were, the South African experience would still be relevant as the country represents an interesting hybrid reflecting humanity's post-industrial and developing worlds. In addition, it is a transitional society that is in constant evolution and a state of flux, which makes it a useful social laboratory for social scientists investigating questions of collective expressions of protest, state response and societal evolution.