Raymond Joseph: Activism reawakens in South Africa’s students

Holding a dustbin in front of his chest the young bare-chested student stands defiantly in the middle of a dusty road, facing down a squad of heavily-armed riot police.

Suddenly his body begins jerking crazily like a puppet on a string as bullets fired by a police marksman armed with a high-powered FN rifle smash through his useless shield and thud into his body. Almost four decades later this deadly tableau that played out on an Alexandra Township street a few days after the 16 June 1976 student uprising against the use of Afrikaans began in Soweto is still etched into my memory.

As a young reporter, I had been assigned that day to cover the unrest that had spread to Alex, as the flames of insurrection raced across apartheid South Africa like wildfire.

Over the weeks that followed, I regularly witnessed how police reacted with deadly brute force against student protesters armed only with rocks and anti-apartheid songs.

I also remember the mass meetings and marches in the early 70s against harsh apartheid laws by students at Johannesburg’s Wits University, which were inevitably broken up by police with vicious dogs and armed with whips, batons and tear gas.

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I sat and watched on television almost two decades into South Africa’s young democracy as riot police used rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas to break up country-wide protests by students against above-inflation university fees hikes. They were also demanding that universities end the outsourcing of campus cleaning and maintenance jobs and for the people who do them to become full-time employees.

The fees protests came against a backdrop of a decrease in government subsidies leading to a growing dependency on student fees to make up shortfalls. But they also point to a much deeper problem at South African universities.

What South Africa has been witnessing is a reawakening of activism among students after a hiatus of almost two decades. For a week, campuses across the country embarked on the biggest nationwide student protests since the birth of the new democratic society in 1994.

But student and youth-led activism in South Africa is not new. It was pressure by the ANC Youth League leaders, including Nelson Mandela, which forced the organisation’s leadership to adopt a programme of action in 1949, including mass resistance tactics like strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. It was also pressure on the leadership by youth that resulted in the 1952 launch of the Defiance Campaign against unjust apartheid laws.

But one big difference in these latest protests was the harnessing of social media as a rallying and activism tool. Powered by the #FeesMustFall hashtag the issue went viral with over half a million tweets and counting as Twitter became a powerful tool in the hands of the protestors.

With the ubiquity of smartphones among the students, Twitter became the go-to source to keep up with the rapidly unfolding story as the protests spread to 18 university campuses in eight of the country’s nine provinces, forcing the suspension of lectures and the cancelation of exams.

In the early days of the protests, some callers to radio shows at first dismissed the students’ actions as hooliganism.

But sentiments quickly turned in favour of the students as social media posts captured the unfolding drama in real time as the gloves came off and police moved against students who forced their way into the Parliamentary precinct in Cape Town.

Having evicted students, many holding their hands in the air as a sign of non-violence, the protest continued on the streets around Parliament–but once again police reacted with a heavy-handed response.

The growing anger and public support for the students were also fueled by the ANC-dominated Parliament carrying on with business as usual, even as the sound of stun grenades and rounds being fired rang through the chamber. Anger mounted as reports emerged that police were considering charging some of those arrested with high treason.

But Twitter also captured some poignant lump-in-the-throat moments as social media showed students of all races and political persuasions joining hands, and white students forming a human shield around black students in the belief that police were less likely to act against them.

The country-wide demonstrations culminated in a mass protest at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of South Africa’s government.

As demonstrators on the lawns outside chanted and sang, President Jacob Zuma met with university chancellors and students leaders, before his government capitulated to student demands. As the protests continued outside, Zuma appeared live on national TV and announced that there would be a 0% increase in university fees in 2016.

The news immediately spawned the jubilant new hashtag #FeesHaveFallen with some protesters saying that the suspension of 2016 fees was just the beginning of their struggle and vowed to continue the fight for free university education.

One thing is clear: after a week of protests by South Africa’s future generation of leaders, the country’s democracy was far stronger than when it began – and the high toll paid by the young man with the dustbin lid and others had not been in vain.

This column was posted on 27 October 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

South Africa: ANC ahead in media coverage as country votes

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has received an overwhelming majority of media coverage ahead of the country’s fifth democratic election which is it expected to win. Media Monitoring Africa, a non-profit watchdog, revealed 39% of all reporting across 50 print, broadcast and online sources referred to the ANC, whether by name or by using a party source up to April 30.

Although the current government has the ability to control a significant part of the election message primarily through the state broadcaster, the SABC, the ANC’s share of the pre-poll media space has been helped by their competitors. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the next most media-prevalent party the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), have structured their campaigns on attacking Jacob Zuma’s party ahead of promoting their own aims, despite the ANC’s attempts to silence them.

While more than half the media coverage is dedicated to party campaigning and politics, the next highest covered topic is corruption, specifically Zuma’s homestead, Nkandla. The residence received a R246 million (£13.85 million) state-funded upgrade over two years which South Africa’s public protector Thuli Madonsela declared as an undue benefit to Zuma and his family in a report released six weeks before the elections.

Madonsela’s findings provided a springboard for the DA’s primary electioneering strategy. In late March, the party sent out a text message to more than 1.5 million people in the Gauteng province, where the country’s capital Pretoria and economic hub Johannesburg are located, which in part read: “The Nkandla report shows how Zuma stole your money… Vote DA on 7 May to beat corruption.”

The ANC launched an urgent court application to stop the message from being sent out. It took issue with the word “stole”, which Madonesela had not used it in her report and called the contents of the DA’s text a “deliberate lie”. Acting judge Mike Hellens ruled the DA’s actions as fair comment because he said their conclusion could have been made by a reasonable person.

That has not meant the DA has been successful in attacking the ANC on other platforms, specifically the SABC. A DA television advert was pulled off air after three showings on 8 and 9 April because the broadcaster said it would not screen messages which incited violence, contained false information, went against the Advertising Standards Authority’s guidelines which do not permit promotion of one product by attacking another or which contain a personal attack on any party member by another.

The 44-second commercial featured the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane calling “Jacob Zuma’s ANC corrupt” and, when talking over a visual of a policeman aiming a firearm at civilians saying: “We have seen a police force killing our own people.” The latter is reference to the Marikana massacre in 2012 when police and striking workers were involved in a violent exchange which resulted in the deaths of 44 people.

At first ICASA overturned the SABC’s ban but when the South African police force approached them and said the images could endanger its officers, the ban was upheld. South Africa’s freedom of expression right, contained in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, prohibits, amongst other things, incitement of violence.

The DA then launched a second television advert which began with Maimane saying the words, “They tried to silence us…” before going into a narrative about the changes the DA will enforce. The SABC refused to air this as well because of the opening line which it said was untrue since ICASA had upheld the initial ban. The DA called the decision “censorship, plain and simple”.

They are not alone in making that accusation. The EFF’s leader Julius Malema said the SABC were guilty of “suppressing democracy” because it banned one of his party’s adverts. The commercial in question also referred to “Nkandla corruption” and ended with Malema’s face on a poster which reads: “Destroy e-tolls physically.” E-tolls are the new electronic tolling system installed on highways in the Gauteng province which have caused public outrage because of their costs.

The SABC took issue with the call to commit vandalism, which it said was included in the limitation of the right to free speech. Malema defended the poster, arguing it conveyed the message that if the EFF came into power they would “destroy e-tolls physically because we can’t destroy them emotionally” ICASA sided with the SABC, agreeing that the message “could be perceived as condoning… unlawful acts”.

Despite what has been seen as the public broadcaster toeing the ruling party line, other outlets have been vocal against the ANC. Last Friday, the Mail and Guardian, a weekly paper which has traditionally supported the left-wing, published an editorial urging readers to dilute the ANC’s power by voting against it. “Never before has the M&G urged readers to oppose the ANC. But we do so now because the aim is to make the ANC more effective and responsive,” read their piece. But even that would have counted as coverage for the ruling party.

This article was published on May 6, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

After court appeal ANC decides to allow Zuma no confidence vote — but in February

South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, last week agreed to hear an application about a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. A High Court judge’s findings suggested that “the public are entitled to hear the debate” as the Constitution enjoins South Africans to prevent the suppression of “the dignity of even a single voice expressing a different perspective”.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) in November used its parliamentary majority to shut down a no confidence debate assessing ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s continued suitability for the job of president of South Africa. Section 102 of South Africa’s Constitution allows for a vote on a motion of no confidence in parliament’s National Assembly. If, after debate, the motion is passed, the president, cabinet and deputy ministers have to resign.

Jordi Matas - Demotix

No confidence debate will discuss Zuma’s suitability as president (Jordi Matas – Demotix)

In its rejection of opposition parties’ proposal, the ANC argued that the motion would be “frivolous” as its aim was “to try the President in a court of public opinion and tarnish his image and that of the ANC in the media”.

Eight of the eleven opposition parties in parliament, led by the official opposition Democratic Alliance, brought an urgent application in the Western Cape High Court to instruct the speaker of parliament to allow the motion. Judge Dennis Davis could not find in the applicants’ favour, as the rules of parliament do not make provision for no confidence motions.

However, he added that “when political parties, who represent approximately a third of the electorate, decide to initiate a motion, and to seek wider support for the motion on matters of such importance, that too is their right.

“The […] people are entitled, as citizens of South Africa, to hear what our national representatives have to say about a matter of such pressing importance. Of course, once the debate takes place and reasoned voices across the floor are heard, the majority may well vote the matter down and that would be the end of it.  But what cannot be justified is that the debate should not be allowed to take place.”

Meanwhile, the ANC changed its position and “welcomed” the debate, but proposed that it only takes place during the next parliamentary session in February 2013.

The party is currently engaged in a bruising jockeying for positions in the run-up to its elective conference in December, where Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, may challenge him. The opposition to the debate suggested that Zuma’s hold on the party may be more tenuous than his allies want others to believe. His parliamentary lieutenants seem to have realised this, prompting their volte-face on the debate. Their insistence on scheduling the debate next year nevertheless still suggests fear that it may worsen intra-party divisions.

Opposition parties’ application to the Constitutional Court will be heard in March next year.