Protests over land or services – what researchers have dubbed "a rebellion of the poor" – usually enter mainstream media as a traffic problem. If the protest is significant, like the one in the Siqalo informal settlement in Mitchells Plain, it might enter the evening television news bulletins or the next day's newspaper. Then it is usually reported as an orgy of violence with images of burning, looting and barricading.
Until recently, mainstream media would have largely set the agenda for the public understanding of these events. One characteristic of such coverage was that the voices of poor people would be mostly absent from reporting, when they're not reduced to soundbytes.
Social media, however, and especially WhatsApp, have increasingly emerged as an additional role-player in the media discourse around protests and to some extent are shaping public perceptions of events away from mainstream media.
#Siqalo, #Siqaloprotest and #MitchellsPlain quickly became hashtags on Twitter last week as the violence over lack of services and counter protests became a flashpoint. Random Twitter users uploaded video clips, pictures and offered opinion – often fired from the hip. But this was no surprise.
There is symbiosis between Twitter and mainstream journalism. Most journalists are on Twitter and "breaking news" happens there; so do most public figures maintain accounts (Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, for example, is infamous for her activity on Twitter).
It is not unusual to find researchers parching tweets to get a sense of the public mood – like this recent analysis of tweets about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death – or for journalists to just cut and paste a series of tweets into a story, present it as evidence of public opinion or the national mood, and offer little further narrative or context.
On television news clips (often reposted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube), community representatives and political parties tried to play down the racial dynamics of this conflict – even though coloured residents of Mitchells Plain violently reacted to the protest by their Siqalo neighbours.
The latter were protesting the City of Cape Town's slow response to supply basic services to the area. Protesters from Siqalo blocked roads and damaged property, and when the protests turned violent, police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades in the area.
Mitchells Plain residents drew on a form of "coloured" nationalism (claiming primacy over the land and manifest as "Khoisan" identity politics) to denounce the "Africans" who were all deemed to be recent arrivals from the Eastern Cape.
In a now infamous clip, one Mitchells Plain resident told a TV journalist: "We have been here thousands of years." It escaped him that Mitchells Plain was founded in 1977.
It may shock some coloureds that contrary to popular opinion Langa was the first place in Cape Town where people of colour were moved to after Xhosa speakers were forcibly removed from Pinelands and Maitland. Or that places like Retreat and Simon's Town had significant African populations with deep roots in the area before the Group Areas Act.
Crude racism circulated on social networks
Racism between coloureds and Africans in Cape Town isn't news. What is new, is that many of these ideas – including in its crudest forms – are widely circulated on social networks, especially, on WhatsApp. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, WhatsApp is both private and more accessible to working class people of all age groups – the same people who often have very few chances of making their voices heard in the mainstream news, now have a channel where they can have their say, unfiltered directly to community groups and familial networks.
WhatsApp is also more difficult to track and analyse. Like Twitter, it is chaotic and direct, but unlike Twitter, much of WhatsApp happens away from the public eye, in chat groups that require invitation. It also happens to be the platform where some of the most incendiary messages around the Siqalo protests have been circulating last week.
In a message that was circulating online about Siqalo, a male voice implores "my fellow coloured people" to "stand up" and "fight back" against "the black people", who the speaker deems to all be from the Eastern Cape. He encourages people to "pass this message on to every mosque, every church, every neighbour" and ends with a chilling request in Afrikaans: "Laat ons hierdie mense vermorsel, laat ons hulle verpletter en vertrap." [Let us crush these people, let us quash and trample them.]
In another series of "voice notes", three men identifying themselves in turn as Xhosa, coloured and a "Boer" take turns to make the most vile, violent threats against each other (and by extension their communities), including rape. These messages have been widely circulating on the Flats as "voice notes". They have also been widely discussed away from mainstream media. You wouldn't hear about them in the news.
Complexity sacrificed for clicks
This kind of use of social media is not unique however. WhatsApp rumours were also involved in the most recent xenophobic riots. And South Africa is no different than elsewhere. Right-wing groups, especially, find WhatsApp useful to spread lies and cast aspersions on their enemies.
The impact of social media on recent elections or referendums in the United States and the UK, or in the developing world (Mexico, Brazil and Malaysia) come to mind.
In August 2017, Kenyan police arrested the administrators of two WhatsApp chat groups for sharing hate messages "that threatened national security and face an additional charge of spreading alarming propaganda on social media".
One of the byproducts of social media is that while it lowers the entry costs for ordinary people to be involved in the public sphere, it does mean that complexity or veracity are sacrificed in order to attract as many clicks as fast as possible. As the anthropologist Hussein Badat lamented (on Twitter no less): "Following posts on #MitchellsPlainProtests is one of the most depressing online experiences. The lack of any grasp of history, the total absence of class solidarity, and the 'us' vs [versus] 'them' on all sides is so indicative of the familiar of the 'new' South Africa."
The conflict in Siqalo and Mitchells Plain, for example, over land and services has deep historical roots that can't be explained in a tweet, less so in ahistorical WhatsApp voice notes. The WhatsApp messages foregrounded the racial and ethnic fault lines in Cape Town society, which in themselves are ways in which deeper social and economic tensions born of historic forces – including how political parties exploit tensions between coloureds and Africans – are articulated. In this case, it goes beyond the formation of the community of Siqalo, to the longer apartheid history of a divided city.
Siqalo is a reminder of how the unfinished business of the South African transition and continued socio-economic disparities are at the root of what is articulated (and often reported in the media) as an ethnic or racial conflict. The result is that local (and national) government is let off the hook.
One of the ironies of Siqalo is that Mitchells Plain residents turned on their neighbours, who are equally deprived as them, rather than also directing their anger at the City or the provincial government who carry the responsibility to supply Capetonians of housing and services and who seem impotent to deal with white racism in the city. (Few journalists, for example, have reminded their readers or listeners that Premier Zille, who styled herself as a referee between Mitchells Plain and Siqalo, has a reputation of referring to Xhosa-speaking Capetonians as refugees from the Eastern Cape.)
One disturbing outcome of all this smoke and noise around the protest is that news media again missed an opportunity to uncover the roots of the political crisis in the city.
The writer Sisonke Msimang was frustrated enough to plead: "With #SiqaloProtest and #MitchellsPlain taking place, media friends please don't just cover violence. We want to understand root causes and context. Not just 'service delivery' and pictures of smoke and flames."
The real, often uncomfortable, discussion moved to mobile phones, while the mainstream media remained obsessed with violence and traffic disruptions.
- Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is founder and editor of Africa is a Country. Herman Wasserman is professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town.