Minding the Protest: Attitudes towards different forms of protest action in contemporary South Africa


  • Narnia Bohler-Muller Human Sciences Research Council
  • Benjamin James Roberts Human Sciences Research Council
  • Jare Struwig Human Sciences Research Council
  • Steven Lawrence Gordon Human Sciences Research Council
  • Thobeka Radebe Human Sciences Research Council
  • Peter Alexander University of Johannesburg




This article focuses on providing new insights into the nature of public opinion about protest action in South Africa. Since the mid-2000s the country has experienced one of the world’s highest levels of popular protest and strike action, combined with the recent resurgence of an active student protest movement. Sociological research into these protests has suggested that they represent distinct phenomena and that local protests have assumed plural forms that cut across simple violent/non-violent and orderly/disorderly binary distinctions. Despite the rapid growth of literature on South African protests, surprisingly little is known about public opinion relating to various forms of protest. Consequently, this article aims to examine differences with regard to the acceptability, perceived effectiveness and participation in respect of three categories of protest action, namely orderly, disruptive and violent protests. The article uses data from a protest module included as part of the 2016 round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey, a nationally representative series conducted annually by the Human Sciences Research Council. Apart from determining the nature and extent of variation in opinion regarding the three types of protest action on aggregate, the article explores patterns of similarity and differentiation across societal groups, based on class, age, race, gender and geography. Finally, we analyse how and for whom perspectives on the three forms of protest have changed over the course of a generation by drawing on functionally equivalent data collected in 1995. The article concludes by reflecting on whether the evidence supports key hypotheses regarding the ‘rebellion of the poor’1 in the country.


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Author Biographies

Narnia Bohler-Muller, Human Sciences Research Council

Executive Director: Democracy, Governance & Service Delivery (DGSD) Research Programme

Benjamin James Roberts, Human Sciences Research Council

Senior Research Manager: Democracy, Governance & Service Delivery (DGSD) Research Programme

Jare Struwig, Human Sciences Research Council

Chief Research Manager: Democracy, Governance & Service Delivery (DGSD) Research Programme

Steven Lawrence Gordon, Human Sciences Research Council

Post-doctoral Researcher: Democracy, Governance & Service Delivery (DGSD) Research Programme

Thobeka Radebe, Human Sciences Research Council

Master's Intern: Democracy, Governance & Service Delivery (DGSD) Research Programme

Peter Alexander, University of Johannesburg

South African Research Chair in Social Change, Director: Social Change Research Unit






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