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Taking to the tweets: South Africa’s relationship with protests and Twitter

south africa protests twitter meraj chhaya flickr

Just recently EFF leader Julius Malema criticised South Africa’s Twitter activists for thinking the platform was enough to effect change. But South Africans are leaving their houses to protest — they’re just taking their phones with them.

South Africa’s history of protests

South Africa has the highest rates of public protest in the world, and it isn’t difficult to understand why.

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It only exists as the country it is today because of protests. The ruling party was created as a form of protest, and our leaders won the country’s freedom because of it.

When apartheid ended, new issues of service delivery and education emerged and old ones of racial inequality stuck around. The government and various institutions have issues with transparency, and many accusations of corruption have been lobbied at those in power. A lack of transparency means a lack of understanding and trust in the democratic system, and so disruption seems the quickest route for change for the powerless.

#FeesMustFall: how SA students are using social to subvert traditional media

The revolution will be tweeted. It’s a refrain which first entered popular consciousness during the Arab Spring, where social media played a crucial role in the organisation of protests which rocked the Middle East and Africa in the early years of this decade. Read more…

So South Africans take to the streets to have their voices heard in a way they understand to be effective.

In 2015, UCT student Chumani Maxwele hurled faeces at a statue of colonist Cecil John Rhodes and a movement began. Students across the country called for free education, along with the “decolonisation” of the country’s leading tertiary institutions. Labelled #FeesMustFall, the movement found its footing on Twitter — becoming the first major South African protest to define itself in terms of social media.

Twitter and international protests

The first time the world understood social media as a force for political change during protests was the Arab Spring.

A protest that began in Tunisia late 2010 spread to many neighbouring countries, inciting civil wars and insurgencies. Social media allowed citizens to spread information quickly and conveniently. It was so effective that Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt, cut off the country’s access to internet.

Since then, a few studies have been done to examine the link between Twitter and protests.

In their article THIS PROTEST WILL BE TWEETED, Jennifer Earl and others hypothesised and concluded that Twitter is mainly used as an on-the-go platform for spreading information during a protest. It’s used specifically for people in protests, and users will often alert to location-specific happenings — like where police are situated or where the next mass meeting will be happening.

This seems to hold true for #FeesMustFall. According to Google Trends, the hashtag was most searched between 18 and 24 October 2015. This was the week that President Jacob Zuma announced there would be no fee increase for 2016. In 2016, interest piqued during October when the protests resurged.

Twitter and its role in South African protests

Of course, there are many pros to using Twitter during protests.

For one, it allows students an unmediated voice in telling the stories of the protests. Earl et al mention that Twitter reduces information asymmetries. Before social media, the police and journalists were the ones controlling what the public understood of protesters. Now the people in the firing line are able to tell their side of the story.

One morning in November 2016, the University of Cape Town issued a statement on a tumultuous night on its Upper Campus. It detailed destruction of various buildings, as well as how some students attacked police officers.

But Twitter told a different story.

Not only was the night before live streamed by students wishing to document the proceedings, but images emerged on Twitter showing the extent of the major destruction UCT had reported — a broken window, and marred tar roads.

By functioning as their own media, the students are also able to compile their own archive. They are able to contribute to their own history in a way that citizens of the past could never manage.

But they do this as a collective. And it’s the collective that has let #FeesMustFall down.

Richard Pithouse wrote in an essay for Africa is a Country about how social media brings about the tyranny of ‘structurelessness.’

#FeesMustFall has refused to pick a leader, someone that history can sanctify as it did Nelson Mandela. This is largely because it is a movement for the people, and picking one person to run it does not fit in with its ideology.

In a way, the hashtag has become the leader. Members of the movement no longer have to retrieve information from one source, but are able to find consensus from other members quickly and concisely.

But it’s Twitter’s brevity that highlights the movement’s biggest obstacle.

Twitter allows for a simplification of incredibly complex political issues, and as Pithouse points out, “a set of stock phrases were sometimes used to curtail discussion.”

To write out a well-rounded political view in 140 characters is tricky, and what came out of it was seen by many as too aggressive to get behind. #FeesMustFall saw a lot of active members of protests pull away from the movement because of the rhetoric that surrounded it.

While some members would welcome the loss of members who don’t support the cause strongly enough to handle Twitter’s anger, a protest succeeds when it has numbers. And #FeesMustFall has not yet succeeded.

The movement still has a long way to go to achieve its ultimate goals, but it isn’t giving up any time soon. Keep your eye on Twitter if you want to keep up.

Feature image: Meraj Chhaya via Flickr (CC 2.0, resized)

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