#FeesMustFall - Is Not a Movement, It is a Swarm

2015-11-03 17:49

#FeesMustFall is now in a quandary regarding its future, its role, its purpose and the camaraderie among its diverse participants across the university sector. There is no collective clarity for the next step.

It is now clear the issue of zero university fee increment does not wholly satisfy the students. The issue of 0% fee increase was not the only issue that propelled the student protests; it was only used as a fronting of a rather varied deep seated bundles of dissatisfaction.

But whatever the future and whatever state of things currently within the grouping, there is a need for documenting the great events of the past weeks in a way that in future we can look back and derive wisdom. Important lessons needs to be drawn and ensure that those lessons are not lost or clouded by the passing of time and memory.

An attempt is made within this article to do just that; capture the key lessons and experiences on what happened, how it happened and what were the decisive driving force behind the student successes.

The first key lesson to be drawn is that the #FeesMustFall is not a movement, it is a swarm. You cannot take a taxi and say to the taxi driver, ‘Take me to #FeesMustFall headquarters where I will meet its president". There is no headquarters. There is no president. There is no board. And there is no spokesperson. So it cannot be a movement.

There have been frantic attempts to anoint Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) as the leaders of #FeesMustFall. But the attempts failed as there was no truth is imposing such kind of manufactured reality.

#FeesMustFall is a swarm.

That is the reason when university students in Cape Town decided to invade parliament they did not request permission from students from Wits University. The same with Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) students in Pretoria when they decided to shake-up things at the Union Buildings they did not ask permission or wait for nobody. They just saw the situation as it is and decided to adapt their plans. And currently University of Johannesburg students are on fire within campus - they are acting on their own.

Recently biologists and social psychologists have joined their research efforts and have made sterling discoveries with regard to the collective intelligence of insect colonies, flocks of birds and schools of fish. They provided us with new insights to use in the study of mass movements.

Swarms are individual living beings within specie working and acting collectively. No one is in charge and each individual is free to take action of her own, following certain simple guidelines that are informed by a shared purpose. What you have at the end is that staggering complex situations are mastered and benefit the collective.

Despite appearing confused and chaotic the swarm has multiple benefits. Because intelligence and decision making powers are evenly spread throughout the swarm, the swarm as a collective is highly adaptive, agile and resilient. With no leader or headquarters, a swarm such as #FeesMustFall is very difficult to destroy as it has the flexibility to react nimbly as the situation emerges.

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky writes that social media tools enables individuals to join forces and achieve things together without needing an institution to organize them.

The swarm is shaped like Twitter itself. There is no leader just a shared determination connected by tweets. What made #FeesMustFall to reach a threshold and then cross it was the massive outpouring of tweets.

A swarm is chaotic, individual members somehow stay together while at the same time apparently moving in random directions. But the core is performing simple processes that leads to startling results. This is what the great mathematician Stephen Wolfram refers to: "It is possible to make things of great complexity out of things that are very simple".

In yet another great book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, the authors Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, studies the vibrancy and currency of the swarm. They reason that swarms mutate and reproduce; that is they create spinoffs. In this context the very fact that we have spinoffs signals that the swarm is healthy.

From the swarm #FeesMustFall there has been spinoffs, such as #etollsMustFall and many other similar hashtags to address various issues.

Another book dealing with the concept of swarm is We Need You to Lead Us. The book is authored by Seth Godin and it sheds more light in our understanding of swarms.

A swarm is thrilling, it is the work of many people, and all connected, all seeking something better. The new highly leveraged social media features such as hashtags makes it easier than ever to create a swarm, to get things done in changing and shaping society for the better.

It has been well established in the realm of social psychology that, when acting within a large group, individuals often become “deindividuated”. That is they move beyond their individual and personal ways of seeing things. The individual acting within a group is simply swallowed by the group.

Starting a swarm is difficult; in fact no one knows in precise step by step manner how you can go about it. It takes a perfect storm of social conditions: economic turmoil, political corruption, social ills etc to create a confluence that will cause a swarm to form. And that is the case with #FeesMustFall, it did not burst off out of nowhere. Before the #FeesMustFall started the ground was already bubbling; there was a simmering volcano that needed an outlet in order to come to a full boil.

Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil remarks that during times of distress and collapse only a few people have the strength to look into what he calls the molten pit of human reality. Human nature always want to see good stories even in the midst of utter disaster. The students were courageous enough to rise above the notions of good stories and confronted the reality on the ground - the facts of their dire situation.

Another key lesson to draw from the success of Fees Must Fall is that it worked like a meta brand. That means that long standing organizations such as the EFF, ANC, DA did not have to be absorbed into the Fees Must Fall, they maintained their political consciuosness while acting within the realm of the Fees Must Fall swarm.

The Fees Must Fall in all its energy of churning out more spin offs will remain with us as a force that is powered by social media. It will not go away. Once you have squeezed the paste out of a toothpaste tube you cannot put it back to the tube.

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