New Year, New Questions: SJ Cooper-Knock

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To kick off 2015, we at DiA are launching the ‘New Year, New Questions’ series. In this collection of blogs, we will be asking people in a few hundred words to tell us what questions they think need more academic attention in the coming year. These may be truly new questions, or they may be old questions that need a fresh perspective: the only criteria is that they impact upon politics in Africa. To kick start the series, our co-editor Sarah Jane Cooper-Knock, argues that we need to pay more attention to individuals in our study of social movements, and to their relationships with state actors and institutions.

My work is predominantly based in South Africa, so my new question for the new year grows out of the literature on politics in South Africa. That said, I think that the question resonates far beyond the country’s borders.

A great deal of academic attention has been given to post-apartheid social movements in South Africa, since they emerged in the late 1990s. This rich and fruitful field has long acknowledged the diversity of movements that have materialised. As Richard Ballard, Adam Habib and Imraam Valodia highlighted about ten years ago, there have been movements that tackled “distributional issues” like the lack of basic services; movements opposing evictions and seeking land tenure security; unions and labour movements; pollution and environmental groups and finally, those representing the rights of vulnerable groups and minorities. Altogether, these movements have lacked ‘a common counter-hegemonic political project with a focus on state capture‘ and have drawn on a mix of apartheid and post-apartheid experiences, approaches, and grievances.

One of the key questions that has resonated throughout this literature is: how do post-apartheid social movements interact with the South African state? There have now been many case studies that investigate the extent to which particular movements cooperate with the state or adopt a more antagonistic stance. A few analysts have also looked closer at the extent to which movements can cultivate or capitalise upon relationships with specific state actors or departments. Their work reminds us that what we refer to as ‘the state’ is, in practice, a collection of individuals and institutions that are often diverse and fragmented, if not in active conflict with each other.

Put together, this body of studies have helped us to gain a more nuanced grasp of South Africa’s political landscape and the nature of statehood and citizenship within it. But there is a question in this field that remains largely unaddressed: what relationships do individuals hold with state actors and institutions as they traverse between these social movements and ‘societies in movement’ in the midst of everyday life? It is this question that I am currently starting to consider in my work, and I would love to see, and hear of, this question being tackled in other studies within this field in South Africa, and beyond.

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