How the Arab Spring and social media have changed the face of student protest

In the wake of the Arab spring, and the fall of a number of government regimes, many writers and social commentators have highlighted the power that social media gives the ordinary citizen.

This sentiment seems true if we consider that students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa used Facebook to help unpaid staff members to finally be heard and renumerated. The Facebook group ‘UKZN Student Action’, rallied together recently in protest, after it was reported that more than 700 contract staff members and tutors had not been remunerated since January.

The group was started by a student called Jessica Sole, and aimed to give staff members, from all five of the university’s campuses, the opportunity to present their stories in a united fashion, and discuss the various responses (or lack thereof) received by University management.

Interestingly, this unified front also helped the local media, as they were able to keep abreast of the situation, which in turn allowed them to report the University’s case back to affected staff members.

However, due to this, and a lack of internal communication between management and staff, the group’s efforts finally culminated in an on-campus demonstration in Durban which fought toe-to-toe with the current launch of the University’s online “Inspiring Greatness” campaign — an irony not lost on some students who, when asked to comment on the issue, responded that “the promise to inspire excellence was broken the second they undervalued our tutors and staff. How do you expect us to excel without providing us our much-needed tutors?”

At the Pietermaritzburg campus, students were asked to stage a stay-away in solidarity with the Durban demonstration, with reports that they would stage their own protest the following week. However, thanks to the media attention garnered by the Facebook group, and the demonstration, it appears that matter has been resolved, and the Pietermaritzburg protest has been called off for the time being.

While this does not reflect the same magnitude of the Arab Spring, it does prove the validity of social media as a medium for the voiceless.

Overall, social media should not only be thought of as new vehicle for marketing, but more importantly about its ability to create conversation — a forum to develop relationships, and one in which is re-defining the power of the public sphere.



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