The Social is Political: Media, Protest and Change in Africa


Pic: Groundup

When voting is over, we don’t exist anymore. (…) We have been protesting for the past four years, asking, making the same pleas. Last year, just prior to the elections, both parties (…) came out to address us, and the most rosiest promises were made to us: that there’s going to be development (…) We are asking, what we must we do to benefit in the same way that other communities are benefitting. I am saying that even the president of this country does not know Ennerdale. Drugs is rife here. Our children are dying. You wake up and find a dead body of your son outside and you don’t know why. And when you later come to the knowledge of why your son was killed, you find out that he was killed for a bag of tik (metamphetamines). (….)How long are we supposed to plea? How long are they going to come here and take us for a ride? We don’t love doing what we’re doing (EWN, 2017)

These are the words of a resident of the neighbourhood Ennerdale, in South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng – one of at least six neighbourhoods that were protesting on the same day early this month against what in the first instance is articulated as a frustration with the lack of basic services, housing and employment. But, as is evident from the notes of despair and frustration in her voice, this is also about being seen and heard, about being recognized as a citizen.

The latest spate of protests in Gauteng province were just the latest manifestations of what has become a daily occurrence in South Africa for at least the last decade and a half. Figures vary and are often in dispute (Davis 2015), depending on whether media reports or different types of police incident records are consulted (Runciman, Maruping & Moloto 2016). The tens of thousands of incidents reported over at least the last decade and a half has led to South African being seen as ‘a country defined by its protests’, a ‘protest nation’ (Duncan 2016:1), with protesters labelled ‘insurgent citizens’ (Brown 2015) engaged in a ‘rebellion of the poor’ (Alexander 2010)

Not all of these protests are violent – the majority are orderly with no disruption, injury or damage to property, while others merely disrupt traffic or prevent access to buildings (Runciman et al. 2016). Many of them have however turned violent, and have been met with violent responses from the police, resulting in the deaths of protesters. Among these count the protest where Andries Tatane was killed by police following a community protest in Ficksburg in the Free State province in 2011, and the massacre of 36 miners at Marikana following a labour protest (Wasserman 2015).

For some observers, this is “literally what a revolution looks like” (Poplak 2017), but then again “these were disconnected communities, unlinked to the South Africa we’re told we live in, existing far from the flow of history, and outside the parsimonious loop of the formal economy. They were just another mini-front against which the government must wage war: 30 cops, 200 rounds of rubber bullets, 15 cop cars, a Nyala. Shift change. Repeat” (Poplak 2017).


Protesters use disruption of traffic, occupation of buildings and burning barricades to make their voices heard. A community leader participating in one of these protests articulated the frustration with the poor as they struggle to be heard by the authorities, or by the media: ‘We had to close the main road because it’s the only thing that gets the attention of the authorities’ (Haffejee, 2017). Similar strategies are regularly seen to be used elsewhere in Africa, whether during the ‘bread riots’ in Mozambique (BBC 2010), anti-government protests in Guinea (SAPA 2013) or struggles over land in Ethiopia’s Oromia region (Davison 2016). Damage to property, disruptions and highly visible demonstrations are often used by activists as communicative tools to get politicians or the mainstream media to notice them (Pointer, Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman 2016) As the poor are making use of the only means at their disposal to get the ear of those in positions of power, these protests are often inchoate and disconnected compared with the more orchestrated and targeted lobbying campaigns by elites. The result is that the public sphere, which is also served and supported by the mainstream media, has become bifurcated and mirrors the inequality of post-colonial African states and other places in the Global South (Heller 2009:137). This raises the first question with regard to the media’s role in conflicts: If the mainstream media is supposed to be a tool for deepening democracy and development in Africa as it is often claimed to be, why is it necessary for protesters to resort to burning and barricading? But it also raises more general questions about media in Africa: What does this say about the role of the mainstream media in the African public sphere? What are the implications of this relationship between media and protest for theoretical understandings of the media in African democracies? And, not the least, it raises questions for scholars: how do we research the role of media, both mainstream and social media, in African societies? What are the appropriate approaches to these questions, and how do we use them to build theory in media studies?

Not all protests in Africa are led by the poorest of the poor. Student protests like the #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall movements in South Africa and at various universities in Kenya in 2014-15 (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016), the #Zuma Must Fall campaign in South Africa that attracted mostly middle-class whites, the protests by lawyers, teachers and journalists in Anglophone Cameroon (Louw-Vaudran 2017) and the #This Flag movement in Zimbabwe had a large component of their support come from ‘the middle class which had hitherto tended to steer clear of street politics’ (Economist 2016).

Several of these can be typified as ‘hashtag protests’, where ‘hashtag publics’ were constituted around social media memes and catchphrases (Bosch 2016). Facebook and Twitter have been especially central to the student protests (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016). The participants in these protests therefore used media in other ways than those burning tyres in the hope of securing a photograph in a mainstream newspaper. For these ‘hashtag publics’ digital media has provided a way to form activist publics and to organise and mobilise protest action, both on- and offline. Given the inequalities in access to digital media in Africa, the potential for social media platforms to enhance protest action is higher among middle class and affluent publics than among the poor. Social movements aimed at attracting support from international audiences have also shown to be more likely to use the globalizing potential of digital technologies to greater effect (Wasserman 2007). Even without factoring in the inequalities of access, the potential for digital technologies to effect social change is a highly contested issue in media scholarship – a point we will return to later. Nevertheless, digital media have played an important role in many of these protests, especially those involving the youth, as a vehicle for mobilisation, organisation and group identity construction.

Protests of various kinds in Africa have therefore thus to a large extent become mediated events, albeit in different degrees and in different ways. Conflicts that erupt in violence tend to be covered in the mainstream media, while protests involving the youth, the middle class or global networks tend to rely more on digital technologies. The media do however not only provide support for protests by giving them wider exposure or amplifying mobilisation and organisation efforts. The media has also been criticised for impacting negatively on activist movements and limiting the possibilities of social change, by reporting on protests as ‘riot porn’ (Duncan 2016:147). The media’s preference for a ‘fourth estate’ or ‘watchdog’ role that monitors conflict rather than facilitate solutions to it, can also exacerbate tensions and conflicts, especially in transitional contexts where historical social polarisations remain in place. In post-colonial societies, a fierce defence of freedom of the media is often seen as important to avoid lapsing into the authoritarianism of the past. The risk of such an aggressive normative stance is that it can increase political polarization in contexts that are only starting to emerge from violent conflict and strengthen intolerance towards minorities or those that find themselves outside of the group represented by the media (Voltmer & Wasserman 2014:187). The antagonism between the media and government generated by overly aggressive watchdog journalism can also work in favour of authoritarian governments who could turn their supporters against the media, or invoke culturalist or nationalist values to dismiss criticism as un-African, as has happened in several African countries in the post-colonial era.

How then, given the increasingly mediated nature of protests in Africa as well as the contested nature of media coverage and the complex ways in which media are appropriated for mobilisation, should we understand the relationship between media, protest and social change in African societies?

I would like to make four broad points that might serve as guidelines for approaching this question and hopefully provide us with an entry point into more, and broader, questions about the media, society and change in Africa.

Questioning the media-democracy link

  1. Point number one is that the mainstream media coverage of protests prompts us to question the link between media, democracy and participation in African contexts. In many African countries, the mainstream print and broadcast media are either captured by the state or by elites. This means that protests are likely to be presented as threatening to the political or economic status quo. Duncan (2016:147) highlights five patterns of negative coverage of protests:
  • The use of news frames that emphasise criminality or theatrical elements
  • The reliance on official sources to give reports authority but steers the focus away from protesters that challenge that authority
  • Presenting public opinion in a way that marginalises protests as unrepresentative
  • De-legitimising the political validity of protests by portraying them as ‘irrational’ or ‘irrelevant’
  • Demonising protests as a threat to public safety, feeding into a moral panic about protest action


Findings from a recent content analysis (Wasserman, Chuma & Bosch forthcoming) of coverage of protests in mainstream South African media (the high-end paper Business Day, the weekly investigative paper Mail and Guardian, the pro-government New Age and the tabloid the Daily Sun) confirm the dominance of this ‘protest paradigm’. Most reports in this sample were action-oriented and focused on the violent nature of conflicts. The voices of protesters were largely absent or muted in this coverage and the language of emotion is usually not recognised as legitimate political expression. Overall, this led newspapers to view the state of democracy in the country as quite low. Tabloid media, with their orientation towards working-class and poor audiences (Wasserman 2010), had the highest number of reports on community protests of all these papers but were also the most negative about the state of democracy. If protests are considered legitimate expressions of democratic dissent, this problematic relationship between the mainstream media and protests prompts us to revisit the direct link between media, democratisation and civic participation that we often find in discourses about deliberative democracy in post-colonial African contexts.


The social is political, and contested

Perhaps because of the compromised nature of mainstream media reporting on protests, or because of the optimism attached to the advent of new technologies, much hope has been put in the possibility of digital media platforms, especially social media, to support social activism. For some, the relative ease of communication, accessibility, speed and reach of digital media, especially delivered via mobile phones, enables activists to mobilise supporters, spread information about their cause cheaply to a wide, potentially global audience and produce alternative news discourses. Not everyone shares this optimism however, and this brings us to the second point: The social is political, and contested.

Debates between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, or techno-utopians and techno-dystopians (Christensen 2011: 156) have become a feature of media studies in recent years. Those who celebrate the potential of social media to mobilize support for activism often take their cue from the Arab Spring protests. These have popularly been referred to as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ (Christensen 2011). Campaigns such as #BringbackourGirls, #Kony2012 and #FeesmustFall have provided further support to optimistic accounts of the hashtag as a central rallying point of global activism. As mentioned above, hashtags on Twitter, Facebook pages or Whatsapp groups can provide protesters with the means to mobilise, organise and construct group identities, also transnationally and among diasporic networks. Social media have also made it possible to enlist the participation of citizens in campaigns and in the co-production of alternative news discourses. The mobile phone has proved an invaluable tool in this regard. User-generated videos are spread not only online but also reach mainstream media agendas, as has been the case for instance in the 2013 murder of the Mozambican immigrant Mido Macia at the hands of South African police, that was shot on a mobile phone and sent to the tabloid Daily Sun. From there, it went viral and was picked up by mainstream media, leading to protests against the police and eventually to the conviction of eight police officers. Mobilisation via mobile phones does not have to be hi-tech either – sometimes a simple text message like the one sent to Maputo residents in the Mozambican ‘bread riots’ in 2010 simply read “enjoy the great day of the strike” and encourage recipients to “protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices” (Jacobs & Duarte 2010).

Most recently, social media sites have played an important role in the South African student protests in 2015 and 2016. Twitter was the most used social media platform during the Fees Must Fall protests (much more than Facebook) and afforded young people an opportunity to participate in political discussions from which they otherwise often feel excluded (Bosch 2016). Twitter also allowed the protests to evolve into a wider ‘social drama’ that extended beyond the immediate group of users, and helped to set mainstream news agendas (Bosch 2016). The mainstream news often had to play catch-up with social media, as they were out of touch with the student movement and had to rely on Twitter to follow the action. The result was that online news reports often consisted of little more than a series of screengrabs from Twitter. Several hashtags were coined, such as #FeesMustFall, #PatriarchyMustFall, #UCTshutdown, #Asinamali (we don’t have money in Xhosa and Zulu) and served as mobilising tools and identity markers of an imagined community (Bosch 2016), to the extent that the University of Cape Town even anthropomorphised the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall by including them as respondents in an interdict obtained against protesting students in 2015.

The potential of social media to support protest in such a way that it leads to meaningful social change has however also been called into question by techno-pessimists. These critics point to the weak ties that prevent sustainable organisation-bulding and low-risk participation that has little impact or may wither in the face of pressure. ‘Slacktivism’ by means of online clicks on a screen is seen as a poor substitute for real activism in the streets (Morozov 2009). Digital technologies can also be used by the opponents of social change, by employing them for surveillance, disinformation and repression (Christensen 2011:155). Facebook’s Free Basics campaign in Africa, which has been rejected in India, has been criticized for handing control over African’s social media use to a corporate entity. Moreover, it provides a tool for African governments partnering with Facebook to strengthen control and surveillance over online dissidents. Several African countries, like Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa have in recent years shown that they are willing and capable of shutting down the Internet or blocking mobile signals to stifle unfavorable content (Nyabola 2016). Social media can, and are, often also used as a retrogressive tool to spread hate speech and racism or to oppose movements for change, as has also been particularly evident in South Africa where racist tweets have created several high-profile controversies in recent years. In African contexts specifically, the severe inequalities in access to digital and online media is often pointed out as a factor that should dampen enthusiasm over the revolutionary potential of social media, even though levels of access to the Internet via mobile phones keep improving at a phenomenal pace (see Willems & Mano 2017:1).

It would be a mistake, however, to perpetuate techno-optimism and techno-pessimism as two sides of a binary. Instead, the question is how online and offline action are both related to broader social and political dynamics, how the affordances of social media measure up against structural and historical determinants and, especially how social media becomes integrated in the daily lived experiences of Africans. This brings me to my third point.

Social media amplify rather than determine

Instead of debating whether social media do or do not facilitate protests, or whether tweets are or are not less powerful than toyi-toying, we should rather direct our focus to the society within which these protests and the concomitant media use are taking place. In other words, we should avoid a media-centric approach and rather adopt a social-centric approach. Social media amplify existing political forces and facilitate or amplify them rather than determine an outcome. Social media are also deeply embedded in power relations and social dynamics which may differ considerably not only between different political contexts on the continent, but also between different political actors, social movements and media users. One way in which social media may amplify existing power relations relates to the point already mentioned about access – unequal gender relations and income disparities may be mirrored by the differential levels of access and use of social media, both in terms of who gets to tweet, text and post as well as who gets to read and respond to those messages.

Instead of seeing social media as being inserted into African societies with the potential of determining social and political outcomes they should rather be seen as being embedded in those societies.

This embeddeness of social media in political and social histories means that these platforms are appropriated, adopted and adapted within cultural contexts where other forms of political expression pre-exist. For instance, social media may be used alongside a repertoire of communication methods which may include door-to-door visits, telephone calls, loudhailing or distribution of leaflets, or in combination with other informal, small-scale communications methods that have been referred to as ‘nanomedia’ (Pajnik and Downing, 2008). In African contests, these may include singing, marching, dancing (toyi-toying), displaying of placards, graffiti and conspicuous wearing of T-shirts and caps that provide additional symbolic resources for activists to draw on. Given the mainstream media’s frequent marginalisation of protests as discussed above, these informal, often highly visual expressions and performances are then in turn used to influence or impact on mainstream media agendas by attracting the attention of journalists (Dawson 2012; Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman forthcoming)

How social media are used in relation to other forms of nanomedia would depend on various factors, including the resources available, the intended audience and the kind of issue at stake. Depending on their agenda and constituencies, social movements may therefore decide to prioritise different kinds of communication, and combine traditional forms of communication with social media in different ways (Wasserman 2007). What is needed therefore is an understanding of the use of social media in protests, and the impact thereof on social change, that avoids technological determinism. Rather, the amplification of social histories and power relations through social media has to be understood from the vantage point of their users, adopting a perspective informed by the specific textures of their everyday lives. This brings me to my final point.

The challenges for research

An understanding of the relationship between media and protests in Africa that takes its point of departure in the everyday lives of media users and that sees social media as embedded in specifics of local contexts, raises several challenges for researchers.

  • In the first instance, research into media and protests in Africa has to avoid treating Africa as a monolith. To reiterate the point made right at the start, research should allow for differences within and across African movements, societies and countries even as it recognises the importance of comparative work across African contexts and between Africa and other parts of the Global South.
  • Focusing on Africa as the context of study should avoid repetition of the familiar approaches to African media studies that treat Africa as an exception or a case study to illustrate theories developed in the Global North, but allow for theory-building from the ground up. Nor should Africa be seen as an isolated area for study, but as a ‘set of vantage points onto the wider world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:5) which could shed light on other protest practices and mediations globally.
  • The dominant macro-analyses of social media in Africa, for instance connection rates, usage figures and costing, should be complemented by a much wider and deeper engagement with the social and cultural dimensions of adoption, appropriation and amplification taking place through social media in local contexts. The relationship between social media and mainstream media in terms of how protests are mediated needs careful exploration against the background of local power dynamics. The challenge here is not to succumb to the simplistic binaries of techno-utopianism vs techno-dystopianism, or -optimism vs -pessimism, which invariable pit limitations against affordances, but to see the mediation of protests as multi-facetted social phenomena that require sensitivity to context and complexity.
  • Instead of fetishizing technology in terms of its ‘impact’, or dismissing it as irrelevant compared to more established, direct forms of action, we need approaches to social media as forms of technology-in-relation, that is, technology as always already embedded in the everyday lives of people, and where technology mediates between actual people in actually existing historical and political realities. While on the one hand this assumes an understanding of African societies as not only defined by conflict, protest and violence, but also as ‘a place where people live their lives, critically engage with media and increasingly use digital media to participate in a virtual world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:7).
  • Most of all, understanding the link between media, protest and social change in Africa poses the challenge to researchers to suspend their assumptions about the relationship between media, politics and society, especially when these assumptions have either been based on theories developed in the Global North or based on overarching structural factors alone, and to engage in critical listening. A listening approach to media studies (Wasserman 2013) entails spending time immersed in specific localities, actively seeking out lesser-heard voices and hearing people rather than merely protesters, media users or even as citizens. The concept of listening is one that has already been developed in the areas of politics and citizenship (Bickford 1996) and applied to studies of the media in multicultural societies (Dreher 2009). In an earlier article (Ward & Wasserman 2015) we argued that the Internet can be used to facilitate an ethics of listening across global borders. The central point of such an approach is that the media is used in the first instance not as a platform to express voice, but a space for receptivity and openness to other voices, heard across the divides of difference. This would apply within nations and regions where ethnic or class differences often harden into opposing positions in the media. But this approach can also guide researchers in a global context to suspend their assumptions and certainties that are grounded on realities in the North, to listen and try and understand how media in African settings might require different theoretizations. Moreover, knowledge produced in this way in the South may then again also inform and illuminate practices and theories in the North, in a true dialectical fashion

Such an openness and receptivity is a challenge that, if taken up properly, will yield rich and nuanced understandings of the relationship between media, protest and social change in Africa and further afield.

(Keynote address: ICA Preconference, African Media in a Digital Age. Stanford University, May 2017)


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