S Africa's Insurgent citizens cover.jpg

From the back cover:

Twenty years on from South Africa’s first democratic election, the post-apartheid political order is more fractured, and more fractious, than ever before. Police violence seems the order of the day - whether in response to a protest in Ficksburg or a public meeting outside a mine in Marikana. For many, this has signalled the end of the South African dream. Politics, they declare, is the preserve of the corrupt, the self-interested, the incompetent and the violence.

They are wrong.

In South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens, Julian Brown argues that a new kind of politics can be seen on the streets and in the courtrooms of the country. This politics is made by a new kind of citizen - one that is neither respectful nor passive, but instead insurgent. The collapse of the dream of a consensus politics is not a cause for despair. South Africa’s political order is fractured, and in its cracks new forms of activity, new leaders and new movements are emerging.


South Africa's Insurgent Citizens is currently available in the UK and the USA, in an edition published by Zed Books. It is published in South Africa by Jacana Media, and is currently widely available. 

See below for links to purchase the book.


"Julian Brown's book offers us a rich and intriguing account of ourselves as a country of protest. His analysis is insightful, and ultimately hopeful." 

Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa

"Julian Brown vividly analyses popular politics, insisting that the mobilisation of ordinary, insurgent citizens has and will impact on the shape of society and as yet unpredictable political outcomes." 

William Beinart, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

"South Africa's Insurgent Citizens provides an innovative understanding of rising popular protest in the country today." 

Gillian Hart, author of Rethinking the South African Crisis 

"An invaluable contribution to the literature on democratic politics ... it offers a compelling vision of the possibilities of claiming justice from below." 

Sandra Liebenberg, University of Stellenbosch

"Brown both challenges existing analytical frameworks and offers innovative ways of thinking about protests." 

Noor Nieftagodien, University of the Witwatersrand

From the Introduction:

There is one story that everybody knows about South Africa: the story of how the violent struggle against apartheid gave way to concessions, discussions, and negotiations at the end of the twentieth century, and of how the leadership of Nelson Mandela and others brought about the ‘miracle’ of a peaceful post-colonial transition. It is a story of how a civil war was averted, and of how a social consensus was built around a political project - the making of a ‘New South Africa.’

It is an unsurprisingly popular story. It has been told and retold in one medium after another. It can be found in textbooks and at least some scholarly books; in the memoirs and autobiographies of South Africa’s leaders; and in the movies - in biopics of politicians, or famous sportsmen.

It is also a dated story.

Apartheid ended in 1994: its political institutions were dismantled, and politics changed. And yet, two decades later, South Africa is once again in flux - caught in a moment in which the boundaries of politics and society are unstable, and liable to change without notice. Once again, popular protest has emerged across the country as citizens assert their ability to act outside the confines of the formal political order of elections, representation, and ‘service-delivery’. In the heart of this moment, South Africans have begun to tell new stories. Few of these stories carry the optimism of the immediate post-apartheid era. And in the past decade, a fierce debate has taken place both inside and outside the country over the present state of South African politics, and its society.

What are these stories?

On the one hand, many South Africans tell stories of complacency and decline: of a new government squandering its promise, of economic policies benefitting a few at the expense of the majority of the population, and of new social tensions - stories of a citizenry disconnecting from political engagement and sliding into apathy. Corrupt officials feature heavily in these stories, as well as the nepotistic allocation of state resources. Where malice cannot be proven, incompetence assumes its place - budgets are left unspent, policies undeveloped, and crisis management has replaced all other efforts at planning. These are the stories told in the hangover that follows the celebration: stories of the restoration of political banality after the dazzling flash of a miracle.

 And yet, on the other hand, these stories are fiercely contested. Other commentators defend the actions of the government, and tell a story of the significant strides made towards redressing the political, social, and economic inequities inherited from the apartheid period. There is a lot of evidence to support this: formal citizenship has been extended to all adults, regardless of race. Houses have been built. Water and electricity provision has been extended to hundreds of thousands of households, and millions of people. Five elections have been held - and in each, the majority of the adult population has voted, and Mandela’s party has won comfortably. Our government is legitimate, and continues to seek to improve the lives of all South Africans.

Of course, both stories are true, and neither excludes the other: it is possible for a government to be legitimate, and yet uninspiring; to strive towards reducing inequality, but not achieve it.

However, the intensity of the dispute between proponents of these two perspectives - and the volume of their debates - has obscured the fact that, as stories, they face the same shortcoming: they focus on the powerful, and locate politics and political activity in the state and its institutions. When ordinary men and women appear, they are cast either as a chorus, as a crowd carping on the sidelines, or as claimants on the state, as recipients of its largesse. The majority of South African citizens appear as a poorly-distinguished mass - and only rarely as actors with real power.

And so yet other commentators - including academics and activists - have tried to tell another story about contemporary South Africa, a story that places citizens at its centre. This is a story about a rising tide of protest in the country, and about how practices of disruptive politics are being driven by South Africa’s insurgent and activist citizens. It is a story about how citizens have become frustrated by the limits of the state’s actions, and have sought to engage with it in ways that are innovative, challenging, sometimes violent, and only rarely recognised as legitimate by elites. This story does not see apathy in citizens, but anger. It does not presume their impotence, but insists upon their potential power. And, in it the state is cast in an ambivalent role, at once interlocutor and villain - empowered both to respond to public demands, and to silence them.

In this book, I start by aligning myself with those who tell this last story - a story of protest and insurgent citizenship, of disruptive politics and intermittent repression. In the first chapters, I show how South African citizens are asserting their political agency and insisting upon a radical equality within the social order. I argue that these assertions and insistences disrupt and disturb the ordinary workings of established order, drawing attention to habitual practices, and opening up possibilities for new kinds of politics to emerge. These politics might be ‘progressive’ or they might be ‘revanchist’ or they might be - and most likely are - some ambiguous mix of the two. Regardless, in the process of struggle over the terrain of political possibility, new ideas, new identities, and unpredictable forms of politics are currently emerging in sites across South Africa...

Table of Contents


1. Country of Protest

2. Politics After Apartheid

3. Citizenship and Insurgency

4. From Discipline to Repression

5. Political Ambiguities

6. Making Politics from and in the Courtroom

Conclusion: The Possibilities of Politics