On 9 March 2015, UCT student Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes which had stood on the campus since 1934. As Maxwele, together with a dozen-or-so other students, toyi-toyi’d around the contentious colonialist they could not have known that they were at the vanguard of a movement that would change the face of South African politics for good.
At the start of 2015, few observers would have guessed this would be the case. At that stage it seemed that the country’s political direction would be determined by parliament. It was, after all, livelier than ever before. At the State of the Nation Address in February, members of the newly founded opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were ejected for demanding that President Jacob Zuma pay back the money that had been spent on his extensive Nkandla compound. The Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s official opposition party, then walked out — angered at what they perceived to be a violation of South Africa’s democratic principles. Add in the use of a signal jamming device which prevented journalists from live-tweeting proceedings a you had a night of high drama that looked likely to set the tone for 2015.
As it turned out, it would be the people of South Africa — armed with a powerful meme and myriad hashtags — who would set the year’s agenda.
In the wake of Mexwele’s protest, the hashtag #RhodesMustFall gained traction on social media. The hashtag sparked a national conversation (which has since gone international), birthed a formal movement, which has spent much of the year flirting with controversy.
On 9 April, after a growing number of #RhodesMustFall protests and meetings of the University Senate, the statue of Rhodes was removed. In its wake students at other universities around the country began their own protests, agitating for the renaming of Rhodes University, and a shift in language policy at Stellenbosch, among other issues.
Unsurprisingly, politicians latched onto the protests too. On 22 March, EFFs president, Julius Malema, called for all other symbols of colonialism and apartheid symbols to be removed. Following this, a number of colonial era statues were vandalised across the country, including the statue of King George V at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Within weeks though, things appeared to have quietened down. Students across the country returned to class, the country’s statues resumed their unceasing vigil, and the media’s attention turned elsewhere.
But perhaps they should have been paying closer attention to a sign held up a the removal of the Rhodes statue. The poster read: “We’re Not Done Yet”.
The Cost of Education
The next chapter in the #MustFall saga would also be written by students. Moreover, they would show just how strong the #MustFall meme had become as it self-replicated, mutated, and responded to selective pressures.
The protests which characterised the #FeesMustFall protests kicked off at the University of the Witwatersrand in mid October. Initially, the protests focused on a proposed 11% in increase in tuition fees but quickly spread to more than 18 university campuses around the country and grew to encompass a number of other causes including access to education, the outsourcing of university labour, and institutionalised patriarchy.
Throughout, it was also clear that the students were in charge, forcing first the university leaders and then leaders within the ANC and government to listen to their demands.
They even controlled the flow of information, subverting traditional media narratives. In fact, when the protests kicked off at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, those closest to the protests were the only real source of information as big media houses scrambled to get reporters to a town where they have no physical presence.
Those in power were clearly afraid too. When students marched on Parliament, they were shot at with rubber bullets and tear-gas in scenes that would be repeated on a smaller scale across the country.
But the students held firm and made sure that their voices were heard. While they didn’t achieve their ultimate goal of free university tuition, they were able to achieve a freeze on fee increases for the coming year.
While it helped that the majority of South Africans were broadly sympathetic to the #FeesMustFall cause, there can be little doubt about the meme’s power to show South Africans a way of achieving social change outside of the ballot box.
Beyond the students
As evidence of that, you only have to look to the #ZumaMustFall protests which took place across South Africa in early December.
Spurred by Jacob Zuma’s firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene (replaced by unknown MP David Des van Rooyen) and the subsequent collapse of the Rand, the protests were largely made up of people from South Africa’s middle classes.
While that opened #ZumaMustFall up to criticism — some felt that many of the protesters were only concerned about the value that had been wiped from their own share portfolios — it was noteworthy that a group of people often accused of complacency felt compelled to take to the streets under a variation of the #MustFall banner.
By the time the protests took place, van Rooyen had already been redeployed, with the experienced hand of Pravin Gordhan back in charge of the Treasury.
While that calmed things down, and probably allowed Zuma to retain his grasp on power, it had become clear that South Africans have limits and that he would no longer be able to do as he pleased.
There have been other protests too. In the midst of #FeesMustFall, for instance, protesters occupied a Shoprite store in Khayelitsha under the banner #BreadPricesMustFall.
Even then Springbok Rugby coach Heyneke Meyer found himself the subject of a #MustFall campaign after the team suffered a shock defeat to Japan during the World Cup.
A citizenry awakes
Heyneke Meyer aside, the #MustFall protests all addressed incredibly important subjects. And while none of them have achieved everything they set out to, they all represent a new South African consciousness.
You see, #MustFall (in whatever guise) isn’t just a hasthag, it’s an incredibly potent meme. It’s an awakening to the fact that democracy isn’t just about casting a vote every couple of years. It’s about being an active citizen and holding those in power accountable.
#MustFall isn’t just the South African meme of the year, it’ll most likely be the South African meme of the next few years.