Persistent protests might endanger the stability of young democracies because the economic legacies of the old autocratic regimes tend to outlive their political structures. This paper seeks to explore the micro-level predictors of protest potential in South Africa before and after the end of apartheid. The results of the cohort analysis reveal that the political consciousness of the anti-apartheid struggle has a lasting effect. The gap between actual income and expected returns to education explains protest potential better than comparison of one’s income with that of a reference group.
Popular protest in South Africa has increased sharply in recent years to the extent that it now seems to have pervaded the floor of parliament. In post-apartheid South Africa, economic slowdown is found to be a precursor of a rise in public protest. Young people are more ready than other age groups to take direct political action. Micro-level evidence shows that ‘unfulfilled expectations’ with respect to one’s own perceived income potential is the strongest predictor of propensity to protest. Limiting protest action to a ‘healthy’ level that does not lead to a downward spiral of instability requires framing the growth agenda as a political imperative. Medium-term remedies may include raising the quality of education, entrenching a meritocratic system of remuneration and promoting broad-based innovation.