Long Walks to Where? The Limits of Popular Protest as an Anticorruption Tool in South Africa

Anticorruption popular protests seem to be having a moment.  From Brazil to Guatemala to Malaysia, citizens have taken to the streets in response to allegations of bribery and graft. Now, a group of South Africans is hoping to add their home to the list of countries where direct action has taken hold.  A loosely knit coalition of groups calling itself Unite Against Corruption has scheduled marches in Cape Town and Pretoria next week, on September 30.

The group has good reason to believe that South Africa is ready for this kind of popular movement, given the country’s many recent corruption scandals: despite the Public Protector’s best efforts and significant initial public outcry, the “security upgrades” at President Zuma’s home in Nkandla have been brushed off (though the Constitutional Court has agreed to take up the issue); a 1990s arms deal continues to have spillover effects; the Public Protector recently released a report highlighting widespread corruption and improper conduct at the nation’s rail agency.  The list could go on and on.

Nevertheless, even if high-profile events like these may have primed the general South African public to be open to a popular anticorruption movement, there are reasons to be doubtful that these marches will have meaningful long-term effects. The obstacles that Unite Against Corruption and its marches are likely to face are not necessarily unique to South Africa, but worth noting in an attempt to analyze this particular situation:

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