Despite Africa's reputation as a place of political repression and limited popular agency, activism and popular mobilisation have been central to political change in colonial and post-colonial Africa. The social and cultural identity of activists has been neglected by historians, who have commonly studied activism through imposed normative frameworks (e.g. class struggle or decolonisation) that have not always been central to the motivations of activists themselves. This article identifies and analyses specific phases of popular activism. Mass mobilisation was crucial to the success of anti-colonial nationalism, but did not commonly result in governments that addressed the aspirations or grievances of activists. From the 1970s, African governments became vulnerable to popular pressure, in the form of urban riots and uprisings, but attempts to establish more institutionalised pressure groups for change were not generally successful. The pro-democracy movements of the early 1990s again utilised mass mobilisation to achieve their aims, but the advent of multi-party democracy across the continent did not translate into meaningful popular reform. Since 2000, popular movements have expressed discontent with neo-liberal economic policies and authoritarian governments. The Arab Spring has inspired new waves of activism, but it remains unclear whether this will bring about significant political change across the continent. Two underlying linked themes will be analysed in the paper. Firstly, the interaction between local activism and broader ideological movements and influences (nationalism, socialism, religious belief, etc): to what extent have these ideological frameworks, commonly introduced by external agents, assisted or hampered in the development of discourses of resistance or activism? Secondly, African activists, in contrast to their western counterparts, have commonly operated in relationship to both local state and western or international elites, including colonial governments, multinational corporations and international donors. The paper will examine the extent to which these relationships have shaped the ideas and behaviour of African movements.