Digital Activism and #FeesMustFall

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Transcript of Digital Activism and #FeesMustFall

Word count: 34.392
Supervisor(s): Prof. Dr. Vicky Van Bockhaven
A dissertation submitted to Ghent University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in African Studies
Academic year: 2018 - 2019
First of all I would like to thank some people whose assistance was indispensable in the writing
of this thesis.
I thank my supervisor Prof. Dr. Vicky Van Bockhaven for guiding me through the process of
writing this Master thesis. She was always approachable and prepared to provide me with
feedback. Her effort is very much appreciated.
I am grateful for the funding that I received from Ghent University to travel to Cape Town for
my Africa-semester in 2017, in which I spent one semester at the University of the Western
Cape and conducted research for my Bachelor thesis.
I thank all the informants from my former research for their enthusiastic cooperation and for
sharing their opinions and knowledge with me. Especially Mthobisi Mngomezulu contributed
to this former research, as he brought me into contact with students at the University of Cape
Finally, I would like to thank my parents, sister, boyfriend, friends and fellow students from
African Studies for their infinite support, encouragement, help and offering a listening ear.
3.1 Digital activism 13
4. Methodology 33
5. Analysis 38
5.2.1 The #FeesMustFall community 43
5.2.2 The political identity 48
5.2.3 Addressed issues 55
UCT University of Cape Town
CPUT Cape Peninsula University of Technology
TUT Tshwane University of Technology
PAC Pan Africanist Congress
EFF Economic Freedom Fighters
ANC African National Congress
EFFSC Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command
SASCO South African Students Congress
DASO Democratic Alliance Student Organisation
SASO South African Students' Organisation
1. Introduction
Activism, digital technologies and social media are increasingly becoming more characteristic
of today’s societies. Dispersing and signing petitions online, engaging in political discussions
online and changing your profile picture to express solidarity are all examples of digital
activism.1 Even though not everyone will consider themselves to be an activist2, most people
will unknowingly participate in this phenomenon in which digital technologies are used for
political action. At the same time there are protest movements consciously employing these
digital platforms for their cause. Some movements are well-known for the use of digital
activism: the Arab Spring, the international Occupy movement, the Indignados in Spain and
many more have successfully adopted ICTs to strengthen their visibility and impact.
In this thesis I will look at another movement that is profoundly connected with digital
technologies, and more specifically social media: the South African #FeesMustFall movement.
What makes this movement so interesting is twofold: it is the biggest protest movement since
the dawn of democracy in South Africa and it used social media extensively.3 Despite the end
of Apartheid in 1994, the structures from that painful era are still present in the South Africa of
today. This is especially felt by black citizens, who feel dissatisfied and disillusioned with the
promise of the Rainbow Nation. Since October 2015, mostly black students demand the
abolishment of fees in tertiary education in #FeesMustFall. Still, the vision of #FeesMustFall
consists of much more than just the falling of fees; it functions as a banner for many other
demands and addresses not only the issues on campus but also in society at large. Social media
has been an indispensable aspect in the existence of this movement. Twitter, Facebook,
WhatsApp and other platforms have augmented its expansion and success, which is why it is
so important to regard it in relation to #FeesMustFall.
1 Amy Stornaiuolo and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, “Disrupting Educational Inequalities
Through Youth Digital Activism,” Review of Research in Education 41, no. 1 (March 2017):
337–57, doi: 10.3102/0091732X16687973. 2 Christina Neumayer and Jakob Svensson, “Activism and Radical Politics in the Digital Age:
Towards a Typology,” Convergence 22, no. 2 (April 2016): 131–46, doi:
10.1177/1354856514553395. 3 Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi, Chumani Mtshixa, Kathleen Diga, Nduta Mbarathi and Julian
Douglas May, “'Asijiki' and the capacity to aspire through social media: the #FeesMustFall
movement as an anti-poverty activism in South Africa,” in Proceedings of the Eighth
International Conference (June 2016): 1-11, doi: 10.1145/2909609.2909654.
My encounters with #FeesMustFall at the University of The Western Cape in Cape Town awoke
my interest for the movement. For my Bachelor thesis I researched the views of four student
parties on #FeesMustFall in both UWC and UCT: PASMA, EFFSC, SASCO and DASO. I
concluded that despite the great contrast between UWC and UCT in terms of media attention,
prestige and addressed issues in #FeesMustFall, the same student parties have the same views
regardless of the university in which they are located.
After this, I decided to continue researching about #FeesMustFall from a different angle,
and I chose social media due to its crucial role for the movement. Even though I got good
answers on my questions about social media and #FeesMustFall in my former research, it
occurred to me that there was more to be learned about it. In addition, the presence of
#FeesMustFall on the social media platform Facebook had not been the object of research yet,
which is why I felt the need to explore this further to possibly discover new knowledge about
the movement. The discourse on the Fees Must Fall Western Cape Facebook page and its role
in the movement at large will be the focus of this thesis. Through digital fieldwork I will attempt
to answer the research question: “What is the role of social media on the #FeesMustFall
movement when looking at the discourse of the Fees Must Fall Western Cape Facebook page?”
To be clear: Facebook is not the only social media medium that is used in #FeesMustFall. It is
part of a broader spectrum of communication technologies. Nevertheless, I focus on this
specific platform in order to fill a gap in the literature on #FeesMustFall and social media.
After this introduction, which also introduced my research question, I will give an overview
and explanation of the most relevant theories and concepts that fit into this research in the
conceptual-theoretical framework. This concerns the explanation of concepts and theories that
have to do with activism in general and digital activism specifically. I will also give a first
glimpse at the ideologies that characterize #FeesMustFall.
After that, the literature review and status quaestionis will present the insights on digital
activism, #FeesMustFall and its connection with social media that have been formulated by
scholars up until today. With regards to digital activism, I will explain three debates: the
positive and negative effects that digital technologies can have for activism, the ‘technological’
or ‘contextual’ view on digital activism and the debate on the ‘digital divide’. Because it is
central in my research, I will explain some theories on the role of Facebook in digital activism
in the section ‘Facebook’. In #FeesMustFall: background and contextualization I will explain
what #FeesMustFall is and where it comes from, after which I will focus on the role of social
media in this movement.
In the methodology my research methods will be outlined, which are qualitative: my
background knowledge coming from my experiences at UWC and the interviews that I
conducted for my former research, and the new digital fieldwork on the Fees Must Fall Western
Cape Facebook page that will be central in this thesis. I will explain why I chose these
approaches, how I collected the data and analysed it, and justify why this is the best method.
Following on the methodology, I will set out my findings of the interviews shortly and
elaborate on the digital fieldwork in the analysis section. The analysis of the digital fieldwork
is divided in five sections: the #FeesMustFall community, addressed issues, the political
identity, targets and protest tactics. Each of these sections will contribute to the question of the
discourse on the page and its impact on the movement at large. The section ‘protest tactics’ is
an explanation of how this discourse is enacted.
My answer to the research question coming from the insights from the literature and
analysis will be compiled in the discussion chapter. In this chapter I will also display the
possible limitations of this research and proposals for further research on the subject.
Following on the discussion, the conclusion chapter will finalize this thesis by offering
a summary of my findings.
2. Conceptual-theoretical framework
In this chapter I will explain some of the central concepts and theories that will give direction
and shape the further course of this research. The selected concepts and theories relate to
activism, digital activism and the philosophies behind #FeesMustFall. It functions both as a
framework and a preface to my literature review.
Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow formulated the concept of ‘contentious politics’, which serves
as an umbrella for all sorts of activism. The concept can be divided in three features, which are
interwoven with each other: ‘contention’, ‘collective action’, and ‘politics’. In this way,
“Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on other
actors’ interests…” (contention) “…leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests
or programs…” (collective action) “…in which governments are involved as targets, initiators
of claims, or third parties.” (politics).4 Besides, Tilly and Tarrow refer to the different protest
tactics as ‘repertoires of contention’, which are the “…different norms and accepted ways of
4 Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics, (Oxford University Press Inc, 2015),
protesting…”.5 It is crucial to regard all protests as contextual, namely as embedded in their
unique socio-political context. Part of contentious politics are social movements and digital
activism, which are the types of contention that characterizes #FeesMustFall.
A social movement is a historical, not an universal category6, which is defined as “…a
sustained campaign of claim making, using repeated performances that advertise the claim,
based on organizations, networks, traditions, and solidarities that sustain these activities.”
#FeesMusFall is more specifically a student movement: “…informal gatherings of individuals
and organizations that form a broader entity to advance a particular cause.” This has to be
distinguished from student organizations, which are formal associations with membership.7
I suggest that the #FeesMustFall movement establishes ‘imagined communities’, a term
coined by Benedict Anderson. Even though this term was originally formed in relation to
nationalism, it is applicable to #FeesMustFall as well. Just like a nation, the movement consists
of members who “… will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of
them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”8 and is therefore imagined.
According to Tilly and Tarrow, digital activism has recently established an evolution in
contentious politics.9 The term digital activism includes other digital practices than only social
media as well, such as other mobile phone or smartphone technologies like text messaging
(SMS) and e-mail. The term is exhaustive and exclusive, in the sense that it comprises all the
protest movements that use digital technologies for their cause and excludes those that do not
use it for their campaigns.10 There are multiple definitions for digital activism, but the one that
fits best into this research is a definition by Mary Joyce, who was the first to dedicate a whole
5 Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention, (Cambridge
University Press, 2001). Cited in: Philippe Hanna, Frank Vanclay, Esther Jean Langdon and
Jos Arts, “Conceptualizing social protest and the significance of protest actions to large
projects,” The Extractive Industries and Society 3, no.1 (2016): 218, doi:
10.1016/j.exis.2015.10.006. 6 Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics, (Oxford University Press Inc, 2015),
11. 7 Mthokozisi Emmanuel Ntuli and Damtew Teferra, "Implications of Social Media on Student
Activism: The South African Experience in a Digital Age," Journal of Higher Education in
Africa / Revue De L'enseignement Supérieur En Afrique 15, no. 2 (2017): 75, 8 Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities:reflections on the origin and spread of
nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 6-7. 9 Tilly and Tarrow, Contentious Politics, 28. 10 Mary Joyce, “Preface,” in Digital Activism Decoded, ed. Mary Joyce (New York:
International Debate Education Association, 2010), viii,
book on the subject. According to her, digital activism is “the practice of using digital
technology to increase the effectiveness of a social or political change campaign.”11 I believe
it is the most consensual definition in comparison with both broader and narrower definitions.
Nevertheless, social media will eventually predominate this research, but it is important to not
overlook other possible practices as well.
The term ‘augmented reality’ was coined by Jurgenson to refer to the simultaneous
existence of the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ and avoid a ‘digital dualism’.12 Turner’s theory of
‘liminality’ also fits into this frame, as the online and the offline world can be seen as two
liminal spaces, in which there is a ‘liminoid’, in-between state. The theories of Marichal on
micro-activism and Bosch on sub-activism are also fitting when looking at digital activism and
#FeesMustFall and will be further explained in the literature review in which I will elaborate
on digital activism, #FeesMustFall and its connection to social media. It is crucial to regard all
protests as contextual, namely as embedded in their unique socio-political context.
I would also like to draw attention to the concept of ‘civil disobedience’ coming from
an essay by philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Civil disobedience is the principle that
individuals have the duty to trust their consciences and stand up to their government, even if
they in the process of doing so have to break the rules and laws that were imposed on them by
that state.13 Civil disobedience is a form of non-violent resistance and has influenced resistance
movements ever since. The typology of online activists by Neumayer and Svensson also fits
into this framework. The typology is based on the readiness of ‘activists’14 to engage in civil
disobedience and their perspective of the ‘other’ as an adversary (agonism) or enemy
(antagonism). The final four types are the salon activist, the contentious activist, the law-abiding
activist and the Gandhian activist. Based on my analysis, I suggest that of all these types the
‘contentious activist’ fits best with the #FeesMustFall protesters because, in the words of
Neumayer and Svensson, they are ready to act in civil disobedience and regard the ‘other’ as
11 Talia Whyte and Mary Joyce, “Glossary,” in Digital Activism Decoded, ed. Mary Joyce
(New York: International Debate Education Association, 2010), 218. 12 Nathan Jurgenson, “When Atoms Meet Bits: Social Media, the Mobile Web and
Augmented Revolution,” Future Internet 4, no.1 (March 2012): 83-91, doi:
10.3390/fi4010083. 13 Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Random House Usa
Inc, 2014), 299-323. 14 I put this between quotation marks because in some cases people don’t regard their
behavior as activism.
an enemy.15 Anti-colonial, decolonial and postcolonial theories are very popular in the
contemporary South African protest movements. Decolonization is “…the removal of all unjust
systems such as patriarchy, racism and capitalism in society and the restructuring of society to
reflect African systems.”16 Decolonization often goes together with calls for Africanization,
constituting the so-called ‘decolonization-as-Africanization’ paradigm. There are different
interpretations, opinions and theories on this paradigm, but no clear definition. Ngugi Wa
Thiong’o sees Africanization in education as placing Africa at the centre of the world and
making the university a multilingual institution, as a vehicle for Black Consciousness and black
internationalism.17 Mahmood Mamdani discovered a trap in this paradigm, as it can risk a
reproduction of the exoticization of Africa.18 Frantz Fanon also took a rather critical stance
against the paradigm. Africanization according to him would lead to a kind of self-racism,
because Africanization introduces desires to get rid of the foreigner, which are other Africans
of other nations. Thus, there is a clear distinction between what decolonization of the university
is and how it should be done.
#FeesMustFall in particular is part of the so-called Fallism philosophy along #RhodesMustFall
and consists of “…the reinvigorated process in which the decolonisation project has been
renewed in the higher education system and in society at large.”19 Part of this decolonization
project is the intersectionality of ideologies such as Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness and
Black Radical Feminism, the three pillars on which Fallism is built.20
Pan-Africanism is a political ideology which awakened during independence struggles
and aims at the unification of the African continent. In the strict political sense, Pan-Africanism
15 Christina Neumayer and Jakob Svensson. “Activism and Radical Politics in the Digital
Age: Towards a Typology.” Convergence 22, no. 2 (April 2016): 140.
doi:10.1177/1354856514553395. 16 Susan Booysen, “Appendix 2: Student Protest Glossary of Terms,” in #FeesMustFall:
Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa, ed. Susan Booysen (South
Africa: Wits University Press, 2016), 328. 17 Achille Mbembe, “Decolonizing the university: New directions,” Arts & Humanities in
Higher Education 15, no.1 (2016): 29-45. doi: 10.1177/1474022215618513. 18 Saleem Badat, “Deciphering the meanings & explaining the South African Higher
Education Student Protests of 2015–16,” Pax Academica nos. 1&2 (January 2015): 81-82,
rican_Universities. 19 Gillian Godsell and Rekgotsofetse Chikane, “The Roots of the Revolution,” in
#FeesMustFall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa, ed. Susan
Booysen (South Africa: Wits University Press, 2016), 58-59. 20 Interview with Athabile Nonxuba, PASMA, UCT SRC offices, 11/12/2017.
“shared culture and subjectivity and spiritual essence that stretches across the divisions of
nations as political entities.”22 Essentially, Pan-Africanism is an anti-globalist viewpoint23, in
the sense that it criticizes the Western-dominated world system which is characterized by
capitalism and neoliberalism. Therefore, next to Pan-Africanism, socialist ideologies and
systems like Marxism, communism and African nationalism are also highly valued in the
movement. Marx’ concept of ‘false consciousness’ is applicable here, relating to black South
Africans who have been served the idea of a Rainbow Nation, which exists in theory, but isn’t
reflected in reality.24
Black Consciousness25 is a “philosophy of psychological liberation for black
people…”26 It relates to the liberation from oppression and taking pride in your history and
cultural values. After black political parties like the ANC and PAC were banned by the white-
dominated Apartheid government, the SASO student party was found in the late 1960s. This
party, led by Steve Biko27, introduced the Black Consciousness ideology, who is regarded the
father of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. South African Black
Consciousness is also heavily influenced by aforementioned theorist Frantz Fanon, who is one
of the most influential postcolonial intellectuals and whose theories have greatly influenced the
#FeesMustFall movement. Psychiatrist and philosopher Fanon analyzed in Wretched of the
21 Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, 1998. The Dictionary of Global Culture
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Cited in: Herman Wasserman, “The possibilities of ICTs
for social activism in Africa,” (2011).
activism_in_Africa_an. 22 Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998) in Herman
Wasserman, “The possibilities of ICTs for social activism in Africa,” (2011).
activism_in_Africa_an. 23 Herman Wasserman, “The possibilities of ICTs for social activism in Africa,” (2011): 1.
activism_in_Africa_an. 24 Rekgotsofetse Chikane, “Young People and the #Hashtags That Broke the Rainbow
Nation,” in Young People Re-Generating Politics in Times of Crises, ed. Sarah Pickard and
Judith Bessant (SpringerLink, 2018), 20, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-58250-4_2. 25 In the US, the ideology of Black Consciousness is influenced by notions from American
critical race theory and is organized in the Black Consciousness Movement and the Black
Lives Matter movement 26 “Glossary,” in Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond
Soweto ’76, ed. Anne Heffernan and Noor Nieftagodien (Johannesburg: Wits University
Press, 2016), x. 27 Biko’s death was a consequence of the Apartheid system.
Earth the psychological consequences of settler colonialism on the colonized. He argues that
colonization by whites gives blacks an inferiority complex and a mind dominated by fear. Fanon
believed that when blacks freed themselves psychologically,…