Occupy Wall Street: Lessons from South African Civil Society


As Occupy Wall Street has gained momentum, international commentary has grappled — mostly unsuccessfully — with the comparative context of the increasingly global social movement. Seeking to articulate the nature of the movement’s organizing strategy, tactics, messaging, and impact, OWS observers have drawn from a variety of historical and contemporary case studies. The movement comparisons have ranged from familiar social justice movements (the civil rights era, the Arab Spring, peace movements in the 1960s) to the less accessible, but equally important (Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption effort in India, France’s 1871 Paris Commune).

As with many historical comparisons, such commentary has failed to unveil the unique cultural, political, and social dynamics of the global OWS protesters as well as the particular historical circumstances that underline the movement’s emergence. Comparisons to past movements can, however, yield valuable insights into specific fragments of the OWS movement, including the roughly horizontal structure of movement leadership, the challenges and opportunities of OWS’ small-scale deliberative-democratic experiments, and interactive relationships between movement participants and other like-minded components of U.S. civil society.

In addition to providing a glimpse into the organizational limits of the OWS movement, such comparative analyses can provide a critical perspective on the movement’s “theory of change” — in non-organizing-speak, OWS’ strategy for social mobilization, the relationship between social and political outcomes, and movement action. As the movement’s name might suggest, OWS’ theory of change relies on the mass occupation of public space as a driver for political and social reform. OWS is also a change-making mechanism in and of itself; as the movement’s consensus-focused General Assemblies have demonstrated, the process of deliberative democracy is as integral to the OWS’ concept of social change as the implementation of stricter financial reforms. 

A comparative perspective from African civil society, however, illuminates the shortcomings of OWS’ strategic definition of social change. Not the romanticized, clichéd civil society of pre-colonial Africa, though; rather, the dynamic, emerging Africa, seven of whose GDP-growth percentages top The Economist’s “fastest-growing economies” list. Economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa, generated primarily through natural-resource extraction, has provided an optimistic future for political and economic development throughout the continent. At the same time, economic inequality has persisted, with more than 50% of the continent’s population living under the poverty line.

The resilience of economic inequality in sub-Saharan Africa has caused significant social disaffection with African governance, particularly as growth has continued. In South Africa, for example, the economy has picked up in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with heightened levels of economic diversification and investment. At the same time, unemployment remains astronomical, with nearly a quarter of the population out of work.

The OWS movement has made small inroads into South Africa, seizing on the social disaffection of a largely white, middle-class constituency in the country. A lack of improvement in the country’s economic situation has challenged the integrity of South Africa’s democracy, with citizen patience with democratic governance declining precipitously, according to public polling data. South Africa’s democracy, under the leadership of the African National Congress, has consistently marginalized impoverished communities, creating vast, undemocratic divisions between class and racial constituencies in South African society.

At the same time, however, South Africa’s civil society has proven a model for social mobilization around economic and social inequality, particularly in the two decades since the fall of the apartheid regime. South African conceptions of democratic governance continue to emphasize economic equality and social responsibility, eschewing the Western, liberal-democratic prioritization of civic rights. However, in conceiving of a robust, equal society, South African civil society groups have remained engaged in national politics as a force for economic and social change — 77% of the voting population participated in the country’s 2009 elections.

OWS would do well, moving forward, to consider the strategic benefit of political mobilization, rather than the disengagement that has characterized the movement thus far. As contemporary South African civil society and a historical compendium of U.S. social movements have demonstrated, political action and an inclusive, democratic vision of society needn’t be mutually exclusive. Indeed, sustained social change will rely on a common ground between OWS’ deliberative democracy and the complex, often-unsavory nature of Washington’s representative politics. In order to ensure its survival as a social movement, OWS will need to recognize this fact and inject its vision of an inclusive society into the national political discourse.

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