Guest Column

Post-modern protests: an interplay between cyber- and public space

2017-04-19 09:30
The march in  Cape Town. Photo: Twitter

The march in Cape Town. Photo: Twitter

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Nadia Krige

Since time immemorial, public squares and streets have provided spaces for people to gather in solidarity - whether it be in celebration, in mourning or in protest.

Over the past two weeks South Africans all across the country took to the streets en masse to raise a collective voice against President Jacob Zuma and his corrupt regime.

The #ZumaMustGo/#ZumaMustFall marches inspired unprecedented participation with an estimated  50 000 to 80 000 people flooding the Grand Parade, Roeland Street, Plein Street and surrounds in Cape Town; approximately 30 000 people occupying Church Square and the Union Building lawns in Pretoria; 5 000 marching along Matthews Meyiwa Road in Durban; and 10 000 protesting in western Johannesburg, to name just a few.

While these marches may have sparked a fair amount of scrutiny and ultimately didn't succeed in their goal to topple Zuma, they certainly did manage to prove one important thing: our public spaces are still ours and they're still doing the all-important job of providing a communal arena for people to gather.

But what is it that actually gets the masses to mobilise in this post-modern era of staunch individualism? Unsurprisingly, it all starts with a screen.

Women's march

It was shortly after the US election results were tallied and the American people woke up to the strange reality of Donald Trump as their new president that Hawaiian retiree Teresa Shook wrote one simple line in a private political Facebook group she belongs to: "I think we should march."

After one woman responded positively, Shook decided to create an event and invited a few dozen friends to participate before going to sleep. By the time she logged back onto Facebook the next morning, her event had taken on a life of its own with thousands of people having indicated their interest to join. Within days, the number had grown to 300 000 and women from all corners of the states started contacting Shook to help guide the event.

Shook's simple invitation ended up sparking the historical Women's March on 21 January 2017, the day after Trump's inauguration. Apart from the first planned protest that took place in Washington D.C. and drew at least 500 000 people, another 673 marches took place worldwide, collectively mobilising more than 5 million participants on all seven continents.

Home-grown hashtags

Locally, the protest culture we've been cultivating seems largely hashtag-driven, which points clearly to the central role the internet plays in getting marches off the ground and, perhaps more importantly, keeping them going.

The origins can, of course, be traced back to #RhodesMustFall, followed a short while later by #FeesMustFall. Unsurprisingly, both these movements were organised by a millennial contingent, most of whom would also qualify as digital natives. The hashtag-mustfall naming convention has proven so successful in creating online hype and spreading the word that it has now been widely adopted across all sectors of South African resistance movements, much to the dismay of 'fallists' who feel their original cause is being tainted by the bandwagon.

A far cry from slacktivism

What sets these online-driven protests apart from limp-limbed slacktivism, where you are encouraged to 'make a difference' by simply clicking "Like" or "Share", is the fact that they actually succeed in getting people off their cushy couches (or office chairs) and out into the streets, the squares, the sidewalks and the commons.

In other words, while the origin of these movements may ultimately be private, their execution is public and doubly so, as real-time images, videos and thoughts are shared across social media platforms. Once shared, these posts instantly start forming an organic, searchable and unmediated archive, offering raw and unfiltered insights by those taking part.

So, while cyberspace is often seen as a replacement for public space, it's clear that the two seem to work best when overlapping. Especially when it comes to the mobilisation of a nation.

- Nadia Krige is the digital editor at Cape Town Partnership. You can follow her on Twitter

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