The People’s Parliament: Disaggregating Popular Participation and Protest in Thembelihle, South Africa

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Thembelihle, an informal settlement to the south-west of Johannesburg, South Africa has experienced a wave of popular protest and grassroots democracy since the African National Congress (ANC) attempted to evict residents in 2002. Drawing from original in-depth interviews and observation, the article highlights the process through which the struggle waged by the Thembelihle Crisis Committee alongside the community has brought state concessions leading to material changes in poor people’s living conditions. In contrast to conventional approaches to the study of protest and popular participation, which focus on organisations as well as the frequency and intensity of protest, this study investigates their politics through the lens of a series of mass meetings: in Thembelihle, residents call these the People’s Parliament. There is ongoing contestation within the community regarding the extent to which the struggle is for the people of Thembelihle only (for housing and electricity) or for the working class more generally. The article argues that social and historical contexts are central for unpacking the meaning of participatory spaces. The conclusion suggests that in the midst of the declining hegemony and crisis of the ANC, it is necessary for both scholars and activists to reimagine the relationship between grassroots politics and the state.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-208
Number of pages16
JournalSouth African Review of Sociology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Participatory governance
  • informal settlements
  • mass meeting
  • participatory development
  • popular mobilisation
  • service delivery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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