5 badass moments of south african digital activism

February 16, 2017

In many ways South Africa’s historical architecture can be mapped by the bloodied passage of radical activism. It’s as if the land itself has always been the inhabitable blank page for people to autonomously author their own histories. Ours is a heritage born in and out of contention. It’s an almost industrial heritage permanently in flux between sites of cultural demolition and construction, one always awkwardly existing between extreme states of exclusion and inclusion, bringing on raves of inspirational patriotism only to be violently awoken to hangovers of inherited pain. This unique sociological landscape was bound to be born pregnant with the ravenous fires of politics. It’s where civil rights activism icons like Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko famously fought for equality against the soul-crushing current of a sadistically oppressive Apartheid regime. And in recent times it has become the passion lit amphitheater for a new era of activism led by the post-liberation generation of young South Africans.

This new wave of South African activism is often dismissed because its cadres grew up in far more inhabitable times than those of their forebears. Unlike their segregation age surviving parents whose lives were defined by distance, this integration age generation grew up in window shopping proximity to privilege. They became habitually intimate with the pain of being just within arm’s reach of the impenetrable worlds stolen from them before they were born. The delusions of inferiority engineered by oppression were haphazardly substituted by more soothing delusions of socio-economic emancipation and safety. Their fragility became their sword. And just as many of the Armed Struggle generation of activists were forced into exile to seek refuge from the censorship and persecution of home, many of their descendants have been exiled for similar reasons into the vast, ungovernable territory of the internet.

The internet’s major shortfall, however, is its systemic forgetfulness. Its users’ gluttonous preoccupation with novelty, their conditional willingness to engage with anything as long as it’s new, ensures that social causes have emotive expiration dates and humanitarian crises only summon our sympathy for as long as they’re trending. This is why it’s all the more important to acknowledge great moments of digitized civil valor past their social media shelf lives. In the turbulence of these post-traumatic times, it’s inspiring to witness a new wave of woke South Africans continuing the intricate lineage of social justice activism in this country. Join us as we reflect on some of the best moments in South African digital activism last year.

By Edward Kgosidintsi*, AFROPUNK contributor

1. #FeesMustFall

Like the scabbing of a wound, healing often looks ugly from the outside. The controversial #FeesMustFall2016 protests are the epitome of this sentiment. With over R600 million in damages to property, several arrests and police and private security inflicted injuries to protesters, the healing got ugly indeed. But with all the media focus hovered around sensationalized imagery of violence, it’s easy to lose sight of the justified plight of disenfranchised black students in South Africa willing to collectively raise the volume of their calls for justice until they’re heard. All they’re essentially pleading for is the opportunity to engage in the marketplace of ideas we call university without bankrupting their families in the process. To no longer have to nourish their minds on empty stomachs. #FeesMustFall is the chemical reaction to all the shared frustrations of the academically marginalized in this nation. This movement wasn’t born out of a vacuum. This is generations of distilled rage decanted by the openness of the times. The scabbing of a national wound healing itself.

2. Zulaikha Patel and The Pretoria High School for Girls hair protest

The most successful programs of colonialism manage to make the invader feel like the invaded and the invaded feel like the invader. Being black and ‘privileged’ in the new South Africa means living in a permanent state of alienation. It means always feeling like an intruder in your own street, your own neighbourhood, your own country. It means having to learn to denounce and dilute your identity in order to be accepted. Post-democratic black students attending private schools and public schools located in affluent neighbourhoods face this alienation everyday. Many of these now racially integrated institutions are styled as Eurocentric finishing schools, perpetuating colonially biased ideals of education and etiquette. Black students are treated as if they’re lucky to be there. They’re meant to take pride in a school heritage that excludes them, to play along with the flippant mispronunciations of their names and malicious misrepresentations of their history. Their educational experience is riddled with racist double standards reminding them everyday of how uninvited they are to the South African upper middle class. The Pretoria Girls High hair protests brought these paradoxes back into the national and global conversation. For this reason, they’re inciters have been rightfully heralded as heroines.

3. #RememberKhwezi

South Africa has a deeply embedded rape culture. At all points in our history, black women’s bodies have been at the mercy of misogyny and rapists with power. And to this day no black woman feels safe in a land with one of the highest rape rates in the world. They’re forced to relive their trauma and entrust their recourse to a desensitized patriarchal criminal justice system that puts the victim on trial instead of the perpetrator. They’re asked questions like what were you wearing? Where were you going? What did you think was going to happen? As if the heinous violation of their bodies was somehow invited. This is why it was so disappointingly revealing when the then deputy president of our nation’s ruling party and current president of the republic was charged and tried for rape in and those same patriarchal questions became the centerpiece of the trial, thus leading to our president’s acquittal. After the judgment, Khwezi immediately left the country with her elderly mother after the verdict and recently passed away still in exile. Before her passing, however, she was given a resuscitated glimmer of faith in our nation when a courageous group of activist women invaded a presidential press conference holding placards which read “One of Four”(the statistical proportion of women who have or will be raped in this country within their lifetimes) and the indomitable hashtag #RememberKhwezi. The overwhelming reaction was one of solidarity and support on social media with an outpour of dialogue about the rape epidemic in our nation and the millions of rape survivors who relate to Khwezi’s story and have theirs also swept under the carpet by the broom of systemic perpetrator protectionism. Thanks to her bravery and the bravery of these four women, we shall forever #RememberKhwezi.

4. Eddie Ndopu’s #OxfordEddiecated Campaign

To be black, disabled and queer in this world (more especially on the African continent) is to face a multi-layered avalanche of discrimination and adversity from the day you’re born. Eddie Ndopu is a South African civil rights activist who has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of disabled people of colour. Early last year he became Africa’s first disabled student to be accepted into Oxford University. He was accepted and awarded a scholarship to the Blatvnik School of Government’s Masters in Public Policy programme. But the scholarship didn’t include the $33 000 needed to pay for his automated wheelchair and around the clock caregiver. The scholarship itself was yet another scathing reminder of his difference. He reacted to this deflating revelation with his quintessential fighting spirit. He started the OxfordEddieCated crowd funding campaign which managed to raise enough funds to allow him to attend his first term at the renowned institution. He now needs to raise more to attend his next term whilst he seeks more sustainable avenues of funding for his study.

5. Wanelisa Xaba’s status updates

Wanelisa Xaba is a prolific black queer feminist writer, activist, and scholar at the University of Cape Town. Her academic focus is on the lived experiences of black students at historically white universities. She’s also one of the most captivating voices of the #FeesMustFall movement. What’s most astonishing about her, however, is what she’s managed to do with her Facebook page. Her posts are a profound revelation in all of our newsfeeds. She writes with a thorny incandescent candour about the plight of black women, queer and non-binary people in post-democratic South Africa. She takes on the less visible villains in our society from the patriarchal and hetero-normative tendencies of the neo-black consciousness movement to the institutional racism of contemporary white feminism. What makes her unique to most feminist voices of her age is that it’s as logically crisp and academic as it is emotive and literary. She’s the potent explosive voice for the marginalized in our generation. Her nudity clothes us all.

*Edward Kgosidintsi is an Arts and Culture writer and based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes to illuminate the nuances of the post-colonial African condition.