This article argues that social movements have been largely neglected in the field of African studies, especially concerning their historical dimensions. Consequently, the number of relevant studies is limited. A few collective volumes and special journal issues provide useful introductions, but mainly or exclusively focus on social movements in independent Africa, with an emphasis on developments after 1990. The volume African Studies in Social Movements and Democracy, edited by Mahmood Mamdani and Ernest Wamba-dia Wamba and published in 1995 by the Dakar-based think tank CODESRIA, warns against the conflation of social movements with civil society, and argues that social movements in Africa may include initiatives such as NGOs that are non-governmental and formally apolitical, but may equally comprise initiatives that are explicitly anti-governmental and overtly political. The editors further argue that no distinction should be made between ‘political’ and ‘social’ movement.
It took 14 more years for the next relevant volume on social movements to see the light of day: Stephen Ellis and Ineke van Kessel (eds), Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2009) comprises eight case studies covering a wide range of social movements and underlining their great diversity. One of the insights of the volume is that movements in Africa never did fit into the sketch of a neat chronological succession from working-class to middle-class activism, and that recently, especially in Southern Africa (South Africa and Zimbabwe), trade unions and labour movements played a crucial role. Two special journal issues further summarize the state of the art and conclude that social movements remain largely under-researched and under-theorized: Nikolai Brandes and Bettina Engels (eds), Social Movements in Africa (Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien 20 (2011)); and Miles Larmer et al. (eds), Social Movement Struggles in Africa (Review of African Political Economy 37 (125), (2010)). One recent monograph attempts to put social movements at the centre of contemporary African history and argues with fervour that social movements—defined as popular movements of the working class, the poor, and other oppressed and marginalized sections of African society—have played a central role in shaping Africa’s history since independence: Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig, African Struggles Today: Social Movements since Independence (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
There is a growing number of case studies on contemporary social movements in Africa, especially on South Africa. Steve Robbins, From Revolutions to Rights in South Africa. Social Movements, NGOs & Popular Politics after Apartheid (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2008) shows that innovative and NGO–social movement collaborations in post-Apartheid South Africa mainly developed in the political margins, beyond national organizations such as COSATU, one of the most politically influential and largest social movements in South Africa. Ercüment Celik, Street Traders. A Bridge Between Trade Unions and Social Movements in Contemporary South Africa (Baden Baden: Nomos, 2010) adopts a rather optimistic tone in arguing that the mobilization of street traders’ struggles brought together social movements with trade unions, emphatically signalling the potential reactivation of social movement unionism in South Africa. General volumes on social movements such as Lisa Thompson and Chris Tapscott (eds), Citizenship and Social Movements. Perspectives from the Global South (London: Zed Books, 2010) include African examples, again mainly from South Africa. There are also some instructive comparative studies including South Africa, most notably Gay W. Seidman, Manufacturing Militance: Workers’ Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). And one may refer to a number of articles that focus on specific movements in different parts of Africa, albeit usually without substantial contextualization within broader theories of social movements. See e.g. Aili Mari Tripp, ‘The Politics of Autonomy and Cooptation in Africa: The Case of the Uganda Women’s Movements’, Journal of Modern African Studies 1 (2001), pp. 101–128.
Finally, some studies recently employed a longer historical perspective on social movements in Africa and included the late colonial period, but remained on a rather general level. See Miles Larmer, ‘Historicizing Activism in Late Colonial and Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of Historical Sociology 1 (2015), pp. 67–89; Peter Dwyer et al., ‘An Epoch of Uprisings: Social Movements in Africa since 1945’, Socialist History Journal 40 (2012), pp. 1–23. There is some excellent work on labour and labour movements in late colonial Africa, most notably Frederick Cooper, Deceolonization and African Society. The Labour Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), but again there is very little systematic discussion of social movement theory and approaches. This also applies to an excellent case study of a strike in West Africa a few years after the Second World War that shows the complexity of strike activities and the various layers of workers’ movements: Frederick Cooper, ‘“Our Strike”’: Equality, Anticolonial Politics and the 1947–1948 Railway Strike in French West Africa, Journal of African History 1 (1996), pp. 81–118.