In contemporary society, social media platforms are usually used as a platform to express how one feels or to generate activism. This case focuses on the significant role social media played in enhancing participation amongst citizens during the #ZumaMustFall campaign.
Problem and Purpose
Social media plays a significant role in connecting the world and allowing people to have access to information[i]. South Africa has been one of the nations that use social media as a way of enhancing public participation, as a reaction to a flawed democratic system. Citizens make use of social media platforms like Twitter (now known as X), Facebook and TikTok to express their dissatisfaction in the government. One of the very first uses of social media as a tool for public participation in South Africa was the #FeesMustFall movement, where students used social media to organize protests and spread their message [ii]. Such hashtag movements birthed more movements on social media and the success of them encouraged citizens to participate on social media as a way of holding the government accountable. The economic insecurity, with increase in cost of living and widening of the inequality gap between middle class and upper class led citizens to social media to express their anger [iii]. All the rage was pointed at the former president, Jacob Zuma and for this reason the #ZumaMustFall movement started. The #ZumaMustFall campaign started in December 2015 when citizens created a petition to have the president removed from office [iv]. The petition was posted on Twitter along with the hashtag #ZumaMustFall, and it gained more than 100 000 votes [v]. Although there was a huge number of participants on social media, the first physical protest that was organized via social media for the 16th of December 2015, did not have a large turnout. However, the other protests that were organized after 2015 received a larger turnout. This case aims to look at the enhancement social media platforms like Twitter have on participatory democracy during movements like the #ZumaMustFall. As the case demonstrates that the public does participate in matters of the state on and off social media. The case also shows that social media can be used as a tool to organize protests.
Background History and Context
The #ZumaMustFall campaign began in December 2015 as a movement to have the former president, Jacob Zuma step down from public office [vi]. The motivation behind the campaign was the frustration several citizens had with the former president’s leadership. Jacob Zuma had been embroiled in many cases of corruption, including the case of upgrading his private home in Nkandla using state funds. Citizens and the state had let most of these cases slide and would only talk about them within their communities, but the appointment of Mr. David Van Rooyen as the Minister of Finance, leading to the weakening of the local currency (Rand) is what triggered the mass campaign [vii]. The president dismissed Nhlanhla Nene, who was then Minister of Finance to appoint Mr. David Van Rooyen, who was not very much known to the public. Three days later, after much criticism, the president removed David Van Rooyen and reappointed Pravin Gordhan [viii]. South Africa’s economy was already in a very fragile position and this economic insecurity, affected the working class and middle class as there was a risk of inflation, which would force the reserve bank to increase interest rates [ix]. As a developing country, South Africa’s most working-class members fall part of the lower and middle class and these people make barely enough to survive, so of course this would anger a lot of people. The spokesperson of the #ZumaMustFall campaign Msizi Cele had also added that mobilizing protests was not only to have Jacob Zuma step down but to restore honour and integrity to the presidential office and getting a leader with the best interests for the country [x]. This was said in response to the anger of citizens against an authoritarian and corrupt government. President Jacob Zuma was abusing his power when it came to cabinet decisions as he solely made these decisions by himself [xi]. Although South African presidents have authority to remove members from the cabinet, the policy requires them to first consult their party’s leadership[xii].
Before the president lost power within his party, the party was behind him all the time as they called the #ZumaMustFall campaign a racist and ‘white movement’ [xiii]. This was because the beginning of the campaign was mostly joined by the white population. The racial tension argument was built on a case that white citizens do not normally participate in movements that speak on racial inequality [xiv]. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and other individuals unaffiliated with the movement also had a lot to say about the different ways in which police treat black and white protesters after the first protest on the 16th of December 2015 [xv]. In the context of South Africa, violent protests are used to get the attention of the government, in 2016 the calculated cost for damages was more than 1 billion rand (51 510 016 US dollars) which was a result of violent protest action to state and private infrastructure [xvi]. A result of the violence often leads to the police taking action against protesters. Although, protest leaders have stated that the violence is not action by the protesters but by criminals who use the protests to conduct criminal activities and further mentioned that violent acts are usually a result of aggressive policing [xvii]. However, the 16th of December 2015 was very different from the normal violent protests, with police officers even taking pictures of white protesters.
Similar to the #FeesMustFall movement, social media platforms played significant role in spreading the #ZumaMustFall campaign. Twitter and Facebook were used by citizens to gain traction and to assist in organizing national protests. The public platforms gave the movement a wider reach on social media as the public was able to engage with the campaign both online and on the streets, in forms of protests. The public was able to share live updates during the protests in forms of live footage for those who could not attend, so they could engage on social media. The first protest was held on the 16th of December 2015 and the campaign gained traction and saw a national march taking place on the 7th of April 2017 [xviii]. The conversations on social media platforms before and after protests enhanced public participation as there was quite a lot of engagement with the matter. This assisted in creating a sense of cohesion amongst the participants from different races and classes. There has always been a link of cybersphere and South African democratic politics, where social media plays a significant role in South African protests [xix]. In the modern day, mostly in Western countries social media platforms have been used as a digital protesting space [xx].
This case is significant because it allows for researcher and reader to look at the role social media plays in today’s movements and campaigns. The case also allows us to look at the influence social media has on public participation and social activism. This is an important case because it looks at how South African citizens were able to use their voices to participate in democracy and to address issues that were affecting them.
Organizing, Supporting and Funding Entities
The #ZumaMustFall campaign did not have one set organizer, but it had different organizations support the cause. The event organizer for the Cape Town marches was Miles Giljam, who was part of the Unite against Corruption organization. Giljam, as an event organizer stated that these marches were for citizens to speak out against the system of corruption that undermines the governance of the country [xxi]. These marches were to include different non-governmental organizations, churches and unions as organizers.
However, in early 2016 on a Cape Town building, and anonymous person rented out an advertising space worth R500 000 ($ 26 446) with the words Zuma Must Fall [xxii]. The #ZumaMustFall campaign claimed they had nothing to do with the banner but were happy that their campaign had received more support[xxiii]. This banner did spark a lot of conversation on and off social media, where everyone was wondering who erected the banner. The erection and removal of the banner became the most note-worthy incident during the campaign.
Figure 1. The massive “Zuma Must Fall” banner erected in Cape Town[xxiv]
Although the protests and movement initially labelled by allies of the African National Congress and other citizens as a racial tactic, it later saw most political parties being involved in the organizing and mobilizing of protests. The second phase of the movement and protests which was held on the 7th of April 2017, saw support from parties like the United Democratic Movement (UDM), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The political parties called this the National Day of Action where the parties were marching for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the president [xxv]. The political parties showed solidarity with the citizens, and not only did they use social media to participate in the organization of protests, but they were seen participating in the actual protests.
Participating Recruitment and Selection
The #ZumaMustFall movement was open to all who wanted to participate in the political system and bring back good governance. However, many authors had stated that the first phase of the campaign was white-led, and it only involved the upper and middle class that use social media, forgetting the marginalized that suffered from the decision that the president made [xxvi]. The first phase of the movement took place in December 2015, and the first protest only saw about 1 500 protesters in Johannesburg[xxvii]. The Cape Town march had about 10 000 protesters, who were mostly white[xxviii]. These statistics further cemented that the campaign was a ‘white movement’ and that it was a racial tactic.
Figure 2. First Phase of Zuma Must fall protests. [xxix]
However, after the state of capture report by former public protector, Thuli Madonsela was released, which painted the president as corrupt with patron networks with the Gupta brothers, the movement gained traction from a lot of people. The second phase of the movement gained momentum from different people as dialogues on social media platforms like Twitter opened a room for conversation between political parties and citizens [xxx]. The second phase of the movement allowed for ordinary citizens to gain power and thus put pressure on political parties to participate in organizing offline protests[xxxi]. One can say that the Twitter space assisted in raising awareness and enhancing participation amongst citizens. Connection between people of colour and the movement grew massively as participants were empowered because of the way Twitter is so accessible [xxxii].
The National Shutdown on the 7th of April 2017, which formed part of the second phase had a larger protester turnout. The Union Buildings in Pretoria saw about 100 000 protesters gathered to protest for the removal of the president [xxxiii]. The protesters included citizens from different walks of life and politicians from other parties. During the second phase there were no longer calls on racial division, but the dialogue and debates were open for all and because Twitter allows access to different people, the online activism was quite inclusive. The participants were all protesting for the same cause, with no division of race or class.
Figure 3. Thousands outside the Union buildings[xxxiv].
Methods and Tools Used
The main tool that was used during the #ZumaMustFall movement was social media. The different public platforms played a huge role in both dialogue and organizing offline activism. The method that will be highlighted are digital activism and social mobilization.
Digital activism is a form of activism that makes use of the internet and digital media as a platform to encourage mass mobilization and political action[xxxv]. Digital activism is also known as cyberactivism where people are given the platform to participate and engage with movements by using internet tools like social media [xxxvi]. Digital activism is also used as method of sharing information, especially about social issues as it has a large capacity that can reach a massive audience. It can also be used to enhance public participation in campaigns for social and political change, this exact case is an example of this. The hashtag #ZumaMustFall campaign is an example of an online activism campaign that took place on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Figure 4. Example of tweets that show digital activism. [xxxvii]
Digital activism assists in organizing offline protests, Earl and Kimport explain this phenomenon as online organizing where campaigns and movements can be arranged online[xxxviii]. Organizing protests and campaigns has quite a few benefits, as it is cost-effective because most of the planning takes place online, instead of booking of venues for dialogues. Social media is also very accessible and flexible, as one can be involved in digital activism from anywhere[xxxix]. With social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook individuals do not have to add a post with their opinion they can just repost, like or retweet to show that they are in solidarity, or they agree with the post, this just shows how flexible social media is in the modern world.
Social mobilization is the act of bringing together allies to raise awareness or to ask for assistance in certain services or programmes, this strengthens community participation for sustainability [xl]. More definitions of social mobilization are explained by Dunu and Uzochukwo as “the process of dialogue, negotiation and consensus building for action by people, communities, and organizations, to identify, address and solve a problem” [xli]. Both definitions are similar as they speak about public participation and coming together to discuss a common cause. Social mobilization can take place on social media where participants have dialogues online about the socio-economic issues that they want to solve. In the context of this case, social media played a significant role in facilitating social mobilization. The end goal in social mobilization can be achieved through self-reliant efforts where all participants involved bring about solutions on how to go about the problem.
What Went On: Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
As mentioned above the primary tool was social media and the methods in which the participants participated in the #ZumaMustFall movement included both digital activism and social mobilization. Digital activism as a method was used to share information and spread awareness on the matter to participants. Twitter as a social space allows for online networks to form through engagement involving hashtags, retweeting and mentions. For this reason, this platform saw a very high number of tweets and posts using the hashtag #ZumaMustFall to conduct dialogues and conversations on the crisis the country was going through. Participants were using the platform to engage directly with social movement groups, politicians, journalists and NGOs to empower them by providing a space to dictate the discourse [xlii]. With this we can say that social platforms are ideal on digital activism as they provide access to entities in power.
Figure 5. Tweets of deliberation between ordinary citizens and politicians. [xliii]
The second phase of the #ZumaMustFall was received well in the digital activism world as participants were engaging more with the hashtag, increasing tweets directed at news media and international politicians to receive awareness on the matter [xliv]. These engagements can be seen as a form of participatory democracy, as participants participate in the movement by informing policy choice. Participants (ordinary citizens) did not rely on politicians, social movement groups and NGOs to organize offline protests, but they did that on their own, posting dates on Twitter and relying on each other to repost to reach a wider audience. The 7th of April 2017 National Shutdown was the biggest and although it did not achieve what the people wanted immediately, which was to get the president to step down, it did put pressure on the president and the African National Congress.
Social mobilization in this context also took place on social media as participants formed allies and discussed the socio-economic issues on Twitter and Facebook. The social mobilization online also assisted in informing participants of when protests would take place and where they would take place. Social mobilization and digital activism were quite significant in the #ZumaMustFall campaigns as they took the movement from social media and brought it to the streets which is what led to the desired results of the campaign, which was to have the president removed from office. Participants on online platforms discussed the #ZumaMustFall campaign in depth and how the issues surrounding it were affecting the most vulnerable in society. There were dialogues between ordinary citizens and politicians and how keeping the former president in office was not showing good governance. As representatives, the politicians engaged with the citizens leading to majority of the political parties joined in on the National Shutdown, to show solidarity.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The intention of the #ZumaMustFall campaign was to get President Jacob Zuma to step down as president of the country and leave public office. This call was not easy even after the protests the president carried on with his public office duties. The #ZumaMustFall campaigners did not give up on their cry as they continued on social media and offline. The president had numerous encounters where he was booed while delivering speeches at events, like the May Day rally that was held in the Free State with union workers [xlv]. The union workers demanded that his speech be called off and so their demands were met. The second time he was booed while addressing learners at a Youth Day event, and some of the learners started chanting “Zuma Must Fall” [xlvi].
The campaign’s influence was great at this point as participants were still in unison and addressing this issue almost two years into the beginning of the movement. The president being booed by school children meant that the movement was growing and even the youth was catching on. This also showed that the issues were not just affecting the working class, but the youth also felt effects of the socio-economic issues that were allegedly created during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
Almost three years later after the #ZumaMustFall had begun there was finally a positive outcome for the movement. On the 14th of February 2018, the president finally resigned, even though he did not do this willingly this was positive news for #ZumaMustFall participants. At the end of his speech that was aired on national television the former president added that “I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the Republic with immediate effect, even though I disagree with the decision of the leadership of my organization,” [xlvii]. This was coming after the president had stated that he was being mistreated and victimized and he believes that he should not be taken out of public office because he had done nothing wrong. Many would disagree with the sentiments shared by the president because he left the economy of the country very weak, with the country moving into a recession in 2017 due to a 0,7% decrease in the GDP [xlviii].
The resignation had a positive impact on participatory democracy as citizens were able to come together to influence decision making in the state. This also proved that democracy does work when used to its fullest capacity. There is also positivity in digital activism as issues raised on social media can have a positive outcome when the right channels are used.
Analysis and Lesson Learned
To analyze this case, the theory of participatory democracy will be used. This theory will be looked at from Dacombe and Parvin perspective from their journal ‘Participatory Democracy in an Age of Inequality’. Dacombe and Parvin explain participatory democracy as a direct involvement of citizens in democratic theory, making suggestions that a democratic system that is centered around democratic theory can be legitimate and provide more effective governance[xlix]. This definition gives a broader definition to participation as it does not just account for voting but political action and formal activities [l].
The theory of participatory democracy provides a framework to look at participation, by studying the different ways in which participation exists. The authors talk on both accountability and control during participation and the value of participation to democratic life, which will be used to analyze this case. The value of democracy can be seen when citizens directly participate in the political system rather than through actions of their representatives[li]. Barber also adds that when a democracy is opened up to many voices, it could lead to a greater quality of democratic decision making, where new perspectives on policy problems and resolutions can be identified[lii]. Lastly, participation does not only add value to democracy, but it also contributes to a broader system of human self-realization.
Participatory democracy also allows for a greater degree of control over actions of public officials and representatives [liii]. This part of participatory democracy allows for citizens to hold government and the state accountable for any actions that seem to not represent democracy. Participation provides citizens with a voice to scrutinize actions of public officials, by increasing avenues for participation so that officials can account for their actions and policy failure can be brought to the public[liv].
The methods digital activism and social mobilization closely link with participatory democracy as it allows for ordinary citizens to participate in the political system. This case study has shown that participatory democracy allows for a greater degree of control over actions of state officials. The presence of participatory democracy being exercised to its fullest capacity worked well.
The #ZumaMustFall campaign was a success and there was no violent action during protests, and social media was used for a great initiative. The use of the hashtag assisted in mobilizing people and not only did the citizens participate online but offline too. The promotion of the marches was a great success as citizens showed up in great numbers which gave their movement traction, not only nationally but internationally too.
The lesson learnt from doing this case study is that social media can be used to enhance participatory democracy and it can indeed be used for the greater good. It can also be noted that even though in the beginning there were not as many people joining the offline protests because of different reasons, but later a lot of people saw that they were affected by the problem and therefore social mobilization came into play. It is clear that if people come together, with new resolutions for problems faced in a democracy, they can be resolved. Participatory democracy in a world where everyone wants the same result can be a success.
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