Social Media Activism
In the last quarter of 2015 in South African students participated in a protest of historical proportions for free tertiary education. The overall sentiment was favourable towards the protesting students, with some going as far as comparing the protest to those of 1976.
In 1976 young people, mostly high school pupils, in Soweto protested against the inequality of the education system for black and white learners, specifically against Afrikaans as a mandatory subject. Students in 2015, took to the streets to fight for what they believed was the lack of accessibility of education for all.
Compared to previous student protests in post-1994 South Africa, social media may have led to more peaceful protests that simultaneously received more attention than the violent protests that took place pre-social media. Could this be where most student protests have gotten it wrong previously?
Insights from the resource mobilisation theory argue that social movements succeed through effective mobilisation of resources and the political opportunities for members of any social structure. This may have been successfully achieved by those who may be referred to as the “digital” elite, through social media.
Starting a movement – #FeesMustFall
“Fees must fall” has become part of many South Africans’ political vocabulary. The movement started in the hallways of Wits University in Johannesburg and spread across the country, progressing into a national shutdown of universities. Supported by the hashtag on Twitter, #FeesMustfall, both students and the general public showed support on different social media platforms.
The issue of university fees has been part of South Africa’s public debate for some time, but has been given centre stage through social media.
Social media active citizen?
One could argue that social media sits outside of the conventional political structure. Democratic conventions of accountability and public representation has thus far been limited to the periodic National, Provincial and Municipal elections. Outside of voting, very little broad-issue structured civic participation takes place, with notable exemptions like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) HIV-AIDS treatment campaign that culminated in constitutional litigation. However, South Africa has seen an increase in local, and often illegal and violent, protest action which has mostly focused on public service delivery failures.
The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) has estimated that a service delivery protest occurs around once a day throughout South Africa, with little to no response from government. The #FeesMustFall protest action is unique as it found its way into government’s buildings quicker than any other protest, especially student protests, because of social media. It may not be the first protest campaign that used social media, but it does represent a refinement of using social media.
The #RhodesMustFall protest campaign, originally directed against a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, where students called for the removal of the statue, preceded and largely set the model on which #FeesMustFall was implemented. More importantly, #RhodesMustFall started a broader debate that led to other underlying issues and challenges faced by university students, due to its popularity online. The social-media aspect also translated to operational support, students of various universities part of #FeesMustFall were able to collect things like food, water, money and transport for marchers thanks to a broader support base, facilitated by the social media campaign.
Student protests you say; nothing new
Student protests are nothing new to the South African political landscape. Below is a list of the student protests that have taken place in 2015 alone:
None of these student protests received national support in similar magnitude of #FeesMustFall and neither did any of these receive attention and resolution in less than two weeks of taking place. This emphasises the power of social media to mobilise peaceful protests. Students at Wits University used a platform they knew their fellow students and supporters were familiar with.
To give a measure of the broad public support, #FeesMustFall grew to 300 tweets per second, which included tweets from journalists, media houses, protesters and the general public, whereas previous protests had very little national and even less international public recognition.
A hard earned victory?
On 24 October 2015, President Jacob Zuma announced that university will not increase fees for the 2016 academic year. News quickly spread through social media platforms, with students who were marching at the Union Buildings receiving this information through their peers who were online as the announcement was being made. This again showed that information was disseminated much quicker through social media than it did through formal media platforms.
The student protest succeeded in gaining international notice, proceeding mostly peacefully and getting direct response from the President, mostly thanks to the concerted social media campaign. The delayed communication from government on social media might have contributed to doubt that the state was listening. The question is whether the situation could have been resolved earlier if President Jacob Zuma responded quicker through social media platforms.
Postscript – the protests have turned ugly
Youth activism in South Africa has evolved through technological advancements. The youth of 1976 and 2015 fought for roughly the same cause; equal education for all. Following the success of the #FeesMustFall campaign in halting university fee increases for 2016, there has been a protest momentum that has not let up. Unfortunately, protests have now turned violent and have lost broad public support.
This is in part due to sustained protest actions on peripheral issues to the #FeesMustFall campaign, like university staffing and procurement policy. While more astute social media management could have given more negotiating leverage to the remaining protests, it can only do so much if the key demands of a protest is not widely supported.
Conversely, South Africa is a self-admitted violent society; protests often turn violent, but the hope is that social media can over time transform this dynamic to peaceful exchange as it did with #FeesMustFall.