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If you’re South African, you often hear that “South Africa is the world’s protest capital”. There’s even a Wikipedia page that begins with this line. The origin of this statement, as far as I can tell, is from this 2010 article, with a flurry of academics jumping on the term soon thereafter (e.g. this).

However, this seems strange to me, and quite unlikely, notwithstanding the country's history, and persistent super-high economic inequality and social inequities. South Africa is the 25th biggest country by population (so not small, but also less than 5% of China’s population), such that plenty other countries might have more protests per day, say, on account of having more people. One only needs to think about the massive wave of protests in 2019 in Chile, France, Hong-Kong, even the US under Trump… South Africa has around 14 protests per day, it seems (of course, there are flare-ups, when this number increases over a short period, to say, 30 per day). Still, this doesn’t seem particularly massive to me. In other places it is argued that even with a broad reading of “protest” (which can include events as diverse as community uprisings, strikes by organised labour, or marches by churches) these figures are overstated, and is more likely around 3 per day.

So perhaps people mean “protests per capita” when they talk about South Africa being the protest capital, right? I saw that people refer to ILO data for this, but here, I found that countries like Cyprus, with a much smaller population, have more strikes and “work stoppages” (if you play along and include strikes under the broad banner of “protest”, which is risky). Still, the point is Cyprus had 0.33 protests per 1000 workers, whereas SA had 0.15 (in 2012).

Maybe “protests per capita” just as bad a metric as total protests, no? Maybe “protestors per capita” is the way to go? Anyway, no matter how I look at this claim, so casually and consistently used in local media and by public intellectuals (for 10 years now), it always sounds fishy to me.

So, does South Africa have the most protests in the world, by any metric?


[Note 1: With guidance from @Brythan and @Denis de Bernardy, I moved this from SE Politics, where I received fascinating comments, but no answer]

[Note 2: I guess this question relates to the pre-Covid-19 universe]

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    "The X Capital of the World" is a subjective judgement and it doesn't make sense to try to apply objective criteria. If someone is claiming "most protests per capita" then we can investigate that, but even then what is a protest? One guy holding a sign outside city hall? – DJClayworth May 13 at 15:17
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    Peter Alexander's article from 2010 was specifically counting "crowd management incidents" as the basis of the claim. He says "I have not yet found any other country where there is a similar level of ongoing urban unrest." He doesn't say what he looked at as points of comparison though. – Brian Z May 13 at 15:56
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    I'm South African and I'd like to protest against this question because we don't have a lot of protests around here. – Jerome Viveiros May 13 at 20:16
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    @RandomForestRanger The most useful measure is to say to myself "Some people think South Africa gets a lot of protests" and move on with my life. – DJClayworth May 14 at 12:47
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    @PCLuddite, I hear you. However, I understand that there is a branch of social science, social movement theory (and a sub-discipline, protest event analysis), that does study protests in a rigorous way. So I suspect you (& @DJClayworth) might be wrong saying this is all a matter of opinion. There are commonly agreed definitions (Tilly's is canonical). That is not my trouble. My challenge is that while I can find hard protest data for SA; I cannot find this for the rest of the world to test the claims. Hence, I think tenured academics and otherwise diligent journalists are being, well, lazy. – RandomForestRanger May 15 at 14:47
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There have been efforts made to quantify number of protests based on some benchmarks of comparison, see A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict which summarizes such an approach as follows, emphasis mine:

propose an innovative conceptualisation of journalistic epistemology in which ‘social truths’ can be identified as the basis for the journalistic remit of factual reporting. If the world cannot be accessed as it is, then it can be assembled as agreed – so long as consensus on important meanings is kept under constant review. These propositions are tested by extensive fieldwork in four countries: Australia, the Philippines, South Africa and Mexico.

Digging a bit deeper into the article by Africa Check that was provided in the question, there are important clarifications about the "service delivery" protests than what the question legitimately (in my opinion) describes as a flurry of academic interest in 2012 that did indeed resemble a superficial "cause celebre" without much investigation or follow through. I perused the second link in the question, noting that it was written by an academic specializing in the field of "Social Change", from a publication with I am unfamiliar, with an alarming article title: A massive rebellion of the poor!

In contrast, Africa Check seems more well-balanced to me. It is not lightweight like Snopes, nor an obvious mouthpiece of the ruling government of South Africa. Subsequent articles (right up through 2018) are quite critical of official leadership, cross-comparing protest frequency over time, and underlying causes, as well as identifying data reporting issues that tend to overestimate protest frequency and seriousness, see summary in SONA: More key claims fact checked.

The "30 protests a day" claim (as of approximately 2010 to 2012) in South Africa was incorrect. It was a gross overstatement over the next few years as well, see Police records ‘not a protest database’:

South Africa’s police service does not record “service-delivery” protests. When the police are called out to monitor and control crowds, the incidents are logged as “crowd-related incidents”. This category is very wide and covers situations varying from sport matches to electoral campaigns. Crowd-related incidents are furthermore divided into “peaceful” or “unrest-related” events. However, this depends on whether the police had to intervene and not on the crowd’s intention or behaviour.

In the years 2012/3 2013/4 and 2014/5, peaceful incidents were 10,517/ 11,668/ 12,451. Unrest-related incidents were 1,882/ 1,907/ 2,289

The unrest-related incidents were nowhere near 30 per day in frequency! These findings were confirmed by the Crime and Justice Information and Analysis Hub at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The errors were likely due to news media confusing all crowd-related incidents that were recorded as being for protests:

"The ISS said their data, compiled from media reports between January 2013 and December 2015, showed that “the average was about 3 protests and labour strikes a day”. But this referred to all kinds of protest, not just those related to service delivery."


It does seem intuitive that protests are more frequent in South Africa than many other countries. "Events such as community uprisings, strikes by organised labour, and marches by churches" are not necessarily "diverse causes", but rather, plausible expressions of dissatisfaction and frustration due to the same root causes.

Note that many protests in South Africa are driven by vitally important concerns to those who participate, namely,

  1. increasing concern about corruption and crime,

According to Statistics South Africa’s 2013/14 Victims of Crime Survey, which was published in December: “More than 70% of households believed that corruption had increased during the period 2010–2013. Over three-quarters of households thought people were involved in corruption to get rich quickly (76.9%). Bribes were commonly paid in order to speed up procedures (37.9%), followed by receiving better treatment (23%) and to avoid traffic fines.” There are at least eleven agencies in South Africa that have a mandate to investigate corruption but a number of key anti-corruption institutions are in turmoil.

  1. unrest over labor and severe structural lack of jobs for those wanting to work, via Unemployment in South Africa, Explained (October 2017):

South Africa’s youth are in a dire situation. Recently released data from Stats SA shows that nearly half (48.8%) of all people aged 15 to 24 are unemployed according to the narrow definition of unemployment. According to the broad definition of unemployment (which includes people that want to work but are not actively searching for a job as they have lost hope, want to work but can’t find jobs in the area or are unable to find work that requires their skills) 63.6% are unemployed.

  1. diminishing living standards for many citizens (via WorldBank research, 2018, page xv):

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and that inequality has increased since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Also reason for protest, as of 2015, South Africa had the lowest life expectancy in the world:

South Africa’s life expectancy at birth was only 49.7 years of age in 2015. While South African men are expected to live a little longer (50.7 years), women fare worse, at 48.7 years. [The OECD estimated life expectancy of 58 years on average, still the lowest in the OECD and much lower than the average of 80 years in comparably wealthy countries].

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  • I can't see an answer in here. Am I missing it? – Oddthinking May 27 at 22:10
  • I answered the comment about the 30 protests per day, and responded to why it would be possible to do make a country level protest count comparison. I spent like three hours on this, so give me a chance to copy it if you decide it doesn't answer the question adequately and delete it. Thanks, @Oddthinking – Ellie Kesselman May 28 at 3:00
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    The question is "Is South Africa the “protest capital of the world?”" or equivalently "does South Africa have the most protests in the world, by any metric?" You answer is "Some people do measure this. I like this source. A claim that doesn't appear in the question is wrong. My political opinion on the protests is that they are justified." None of that seems to answer the question. Please edit it to answer the question or perhaps delete it yourself. [You can see your own deleted questions, so that's not an issue.] – Oddthinking May 28 at 8:36

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