Talking Technologies of Transformation with my Students

Me: Okay, so we learn from anthropologists like Appadurai, and others, that critically speaking, globalisation isn’t a one-way street. On the other hand, people often are acutely aware that cultural imperialism is still a reality, right? What about Facebook, Twitter and Co? Aren’t the social media also a colonial encounter, a digital colonialism, so to speak?

Student: Nope. No, this is not true. Not true at all. Facebook gives us the chance to connect how we want to, with whom we want to. We can write what we like, and use it for our purposes. Like even we here in Cape Town, we use Facebook differently from how our family members and friends use it, who are staying in the Eastern Cape. Like during FeesMustFall Facebook and Twitter were very important to share information, to mobilise, also when the securities cut off the campus, the digital media allowed us to contact people outside the campus, like comrades from other universities, some of our lecturers, and the media.

Me: But are we as the people who use them really in control of the digital social media? Do they not also manipulate us with their algorithms?

Student: No, we are in control of what we do with Facebook etc. It’s only in some countries like in Zimbabwe last year where the government switched off WhatsApp, but not here (in South Africa). I think at one stage during the protests the government was listening in on our calls on WhatsApp, we could hear that, like the sound was funny, but the social media as such are great!

This vignette into classroom discussions makes for interesting thought about the ways in which university students in South Africa today think about the chances derived from digital social media. Over the past three months I have been teaching 100+ third year students at UWC, twice weekly giving lectures about popular culture, social media, and the politics of social change. The students enjoyed the class, or so they said. I certainly have learnt much from the wide-ranging conversations we had about globalization and the protests of young Africans against corrupt authoritarian postcolonial elites, and the wider postcolonial condition, including austerity and unreformed global racism. We read texts, looked at photographs, watched films and music videos, and spoke time and again about the role of popular culture expressions and social media in the popular protests that have recently seen students and youth rise up in revolt in many parts of the African continent, including South Africa.

Many of my students, now in the final year of their undergraduate studies, had been participating in, and some were leading activists in the massive South African protests of 2015 and 2016 when students across the country made their voices heard from their campuses, from the streets, from the grounds of Parliament in Cape Town, and the lawns of the Union Buildings, the seat of national government in Pretoria. At the University of Cape Town, the student movement brought down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a symbol of colonialism and exploitation, which had been sitting in a prominent position on their campus for eighty years. Everywhere at South African universities, UWC included, students initially fought against fee increases in higher education, later they demanded free education in more than one sense. They called not only for the abolition of tuition fees but insisted on new, ‘decolonised’ knowledge and institutional cultures; they battled racism and demanded an end of the neo-liberal outsourcing practices of support services at universities.

My students were thrilled to learn that they are not alone with their anger, and yearning for the possibilities of another world. From Burkina Faso, Senegal and The Gambia in the West, to South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in the southern parts of the continent, young Africans share a great desire for democracy and social justice. My brightest students expressed extraordinary passion for the messages of slain African revolutionaries of the 1970s and 1980s. Forty years after he was murdered in detention, Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness ideas associated with this student leader of the 1970s are finding again enthusiastic reception. In some very fine reflections, the activism has drawn on new, distinctive theoretical intersections combining recent theories of intersectionality with the writings of Frantz Fanon, the militant philosopher of revolutionary, anticolonial humanism.

While the UWC students knew about Biko and most had at least heard of Fanon, news to almost all of them was the legacy of Thomas Sankara. Burkina Faso’s former president from 1983 until his assassination in October 1987 had taken on vested interests internationally and locally, he had also pushed for economic self-reliance. It was especially interesting for the students to learn how Sankara’s ideas had been actively used in the 2014 and 2015 popular mobilizations of predominantly young Burkinabé, that had brought down long-time strongman Blaise Compaoré, and a year later successfully defended the new democracy against a coup attempted by the ex-President’s military allies. And how their contemporaries in Burkina had integrated the interest in the former revolutionary leader with the digital connections of the social media age towards a successful revolution.

The semester-long engagement was a vivid reminder of how across the continent a social media generation has taken to the streets with their posts and tweets and cellphone videos, with their blogs and rap music. For the students in my class, it was obvious that, politically and culturally, their struggles draw on those of earlier generations. There are continuities, they say, in the battles for free education, which they argued was especially important for a university like UWC, where students often come from desperately poor backgrounds. There are continuities too with the struggles against racism, and demands for a decolonized education. Political ideologies and practices of disruption, embarked upon by the recent movements have drawn on antecedents of South African student protest going back to the early 1970s. Where popular culture expressions are concerned, there are continuities as well as discontinuities in the high-stepping toyi-toyi dances, and especially the songs that rang out during the recent student protests. Older songs from the days of the anti-apartheid struggle were sung, at other times new lyrics were made up to time-honoured melodies, sometimes new lines to the rhythms of contemporary sounds, including those from the commercial music industry.

The students were resolutely convinced however that there was one significant innovation, which set their cohort apart from previous generations of youth and student activists: the vital role digital social media has played in the recent movements. On numerous occasions they told me that this was what made their battles different from those that had been fought previously. Not only in relation to protests and movements though, also in their everyday do these young South Africans regard their lives as markedly different from their parents’ due to digitalization, and especially social media, particularly Facebook. Undoubtedly, my students are strong believers in the possibilities of the communication commons they experience as being provided in the digital world. To return to the vignette, with which I opened this piece: The question they haven’t yet asked is, how far their smartphones, the internet in general, and digital social media in particular, can carry the social change about which they feel so passionate.