Last spring semester, I had the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. I was constantly surrounded by beautiful landscapes, met amazing individuals, and perhaps most importantly, got to experience life as a university student outside of America. One of the defining events was a massive student protest that occurred about a month into classes.
We have previously discussed how social media was utilized as a tool for political revolution in the case of Arab Spring. With that in mind, this blog post will explore how social media is being used by South African university students to achieve social reform through protest. I will focus on two major events: #RhodesMustFall and the piggybacked #FeesMustFall campaign.
Overlooking the Mother City as it is known, this commemorative statue sat at the base of the university’s Upper Campus for 82 years. It honored one of the country’s most controversial figures: Cecil John Rhodes. In his lifetime, Rhodes was a successful entrepreneur and powerful statesman. He later donated the land on the slopes of Devil’s Peak which would make up the university.
Charitable philanthropist? History also views him as one of the leaders of white colonial oppression. For many students, this image represented the still prevalent effects of white oppression in a country where Apartheid still existed during our lifetimes.
The anger and injustice felt by many students reached a climax during my time at the university. In early March, a protester struck a chord with the university populace by defacing the statue, which many viewed as part of the ongoing hypocrisy of the predominantly white administration. Amazed by the whirlwind of collaborative dissent, I was equally shocked that UCT responded by agreeing to remove the statue from campus. All of this occurred in only the period of roughly one month.
What struck me was how quickly the entire process occurred, and how alive the student consciousness felt during the period. Fellow students immediately took to social media to defend the actions of the fledgling protest movement, criticize university policy, and demand change. #RhodesMustFall hashtag became a unifying rally cry. The Twitter account reached 4,990 followers and the Facebook page reached 14,079 likes, out of a total student population of around 26,000. Facebook events sprung up to organize events on campus about the most effective ways to protest. The new face of the Rhodes statue became this:
While the removal of the statue was heralded as a symbolic victory, most students seemed in agreement that the path to justice at UCT was just beginning.
Only a few weeks ago, I saw my Facebook and Instagram feeds blowing up from my friends living in South Africa. Inspired by the #RhodesMustFall movement, university students from Johannesburg began to protest proposed tuition increases of up to 40% across national universities. Students at most of these major South African universities, including UCT, quickly followed suit. The new rallying turned into #FeesMustFall.
I was able to follow the events of the protest on Twitter and Instagram. Open letters to the university were penned and shared on Facebook, echoing the backlash here at BC last winter stemming from the disciplinary actions against Black Lives Matter protesters. Again, thousands of students united through nonviolent protest to demand a halting of tuition hikes. As the movement gathered traction, other causes were added, such as removing outsourcing university employee staff, and granting them better working conditions. Unfortunately for the administration, these demonstrations occurred right into finals week.
One of the most noticeable factors of this renewed protest was the medium of communication by the administration. The Official News Feed of UCT began posting daily, and often hourly status updates regarding university decisions and that began to recognize student demands. Many of these tweets were official media statements from the University Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price. Good news came two days before Halloween, as the University announced that they would not increase tuition for the academic year.
For South Africa, the struggle for racial and economic justice has been and will continue to be a difficult one. Our generation’s peers in South Africa have shown a vibrant political activism from which we as BC students stand to learn. Social media platforms became major tools for organizing these protests and informing the public about the issues being raised. At schools like UCT, Twitter solidified a shift in how education reform is conducted via communication between administration and students.
One final thought is that social media is not a stand-in for activism. In order to reform or restructure our social institutions striving towards a just society, the tools of social media will continue to play major roles. However, these protests succeeded because of the passion and energies brought by individuals who were risking to face serious consequences. No amount of Facebook likes and Twitter replies will ever tear down a statue in the real-world. I find myself facing a dilemma when I see these events all over my newsfeed…I can stay informed across the world via Facebook, and am tempted to show some type of support and solidarity with my friends. After experiencing the #RhodesMustFall in person, I feel that this type of activism lacks any substance without taking direct action.