We're protesting injustice more than ever before, but is it bringing meaningful change?
The virtually limitless electronic platforms that enable us to share our ideas have made digital activism in South Africa the new normal. Increased civic consciousness and activism is a democrat’s ideal and deserves applause, but it is fruitless when the general norm in society remains the same.
GlobalWebIndex’s data reveal that people’s digital uses have changed dramatically because of the coronavirus-related lockdowns; with South Africa being amongst the countries that report the highest increases in social media activity. Domestically, multiple digital platforms are being used to express, among others, our disgust at the high levels of gender-based violence; our fear of the spread of Covid-19; our cautions about job losses; and our frustrations with corruption. Webinars, articles and broadcasts on these issues are so pervasive that idleness has become a luxury, and information fatigue is high.
The digital activism is paying off. The South African government is being responsive. On June 17, President Ramaphosa made yet another of his motivational speeches. Interventions to stimulate the economy have intensified. A ministerial advisory committee on social change has been established. Capacity in the Department of Social Development is being augmented. And the National Prosecuting Authority has finally decided to prosecute the VBS wrongdoers, even though this action is but a drop in the ocean considering the pile of corruption cases.
Yes, we are succeeding in getting government to act. More commissions are emerging, and monitoring and policing are even reaching suffocating levels. But beyond that, the same perverse social patterns remain. The interventions by government, while necessary, are not sustainable. We need to find a way to effect behavioural change in society.
Changing behaviour is difficult. Theories to explain our society’s suicidal inertia are abundant. Marxists call it a crisis of social reproduction. The argument is that behaviour reflects the economic system, which enables exploitation and breeds class-based and gender-biased inequalities, unemployment, and poverty. The crises in society will inevitably increase as the crisis in capitalism increases. Accordingly, a change in behaviour requires a change of economic system.
Some schools in psychology would attribute this self-destructiveness to ‘learned helplessness’. When people are subjected to conditions of oppression for too long, they internalise their oppression (oppressiveness in the case of the oppressor) and become complicit in entrenching and sustaining the oppressive system. Accordingly, therapy to heal past wounds is viewed as one way to change behaviour.
Some sociologists would argue that behaviour is a consequence of socialisation. Those who are raised in patriarchal environments; whose parents display disdain for rules; and who witness reward for socially inappropriate behaviour, are likely to emulate it. Likewise, those who are raised in alternative environments are likely to display more socially constructive behaviours. Accordingly, it is assumed that regular exposure to good role models will assist to change behaviour.
There is no shortage of intellectual depth to aid us in unravelling our societal proclivity towards affliction. But one must wonder when these crises will reach a saturation point that will drive a critical mass to want something better for themselves so strongly that it evokes behavioural change at a societal level.
Historically, June 26, 1955, was one such moment. It was a moment when the tolerance for racial oppression had reached saturation levels, compelling people to demand change. Thousands of representatives from across the country gathered in Kliptown, after months of comprehensive, grassroots-based consultation (despite pass laws, states of emergencies and threats of detention, all which made movement almost impossible) and crafted a document that was to fundamentally influence South Africa’s future. The Freedom Charter captured the hopes and aspirations for a new South Africa, spelling out ten clauses related to participatory governance; freedom and equality; economic and social security; and international solidarity.
The Freedom Charter served as the unifying document of the congress alliance structures in the 1960s, shifting the African National Congress (ANC) to become non-racial. It represented the minimal programme of action between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and South African Congress of Trade Unions. And in the 1980s, it was the key document that united the many affiliates of the United Democratic Front.
Another such pivotal moment in our history that demonstrates the determination by the South African collective that things in this country must change, was the democratic break-through and our first election based on equal, non-partisan, universal suffrage. We saw the emergence of a ground-breaking, globally acclaimed rights-based and people-centred constitution.
Currently, we are experiencing simmers of social transformation. The resurgence of activism currently brewing in our country is resulting in pockets of societal progressiveness becoming visible and vocal. Formations of men and women are loudly condemning patriarchy and its destructive manifestations. Initiatives around candle-lighting to create awareness and support for the Covid-19 affected, are finding traction. Thousands of volunteers are coming forward to provide food parcels and other forms of food security. We are seeing so much individual goodwill, yet sadly, no societal epiphany that something is seriously amiss.
How much longer must we wait before men in this country have a deep awakening that killing women and raping babies are acts of barbarism? How many more deaths of loved ones will it take before our people, in general, realise that Covid-19 is not a conspiratorial myth? When will company bosses realise that the losses for their workers are far greater than their current personal discomforts and do everything in their power to save jobs? When will people who already have so much, stop stealing money that is meant for the public good? Surely, the crises before us have reached levels that require South Africans as a collective to say, “Enough is enough” and to propel a fundamental shift in behaviour once again?
We advocate for an end to global tyranny. South Africa is the championing voice for a just and peaceful world. But the change that we seek to create will not happen until we experience a change within. Our history testifies that we can make systemic shifts of cosmic proportions. Others view us as the ‘miracle country’. Once we were even the pride of Africa and the symbol of hope for the oppressed all over the world. We have a responsibility to self-correct, not only in honour of all those who died for our liberation; but also, in gratitude for the sacrifices of those in the international community who supported our fight against apartheid.
Fidel Castro, when addressing our Parliament in 1998, said: “Let South Africa become a model of a more just, humane, future world. If you can achieve it, all of us will be able to.” These prophetic words must be realised. When we personally commit to living the change that we wish to see, and we re-embrace the cultures of “each one, teach one” and “criticism and self-criticism” by boldly reprimanding those, when they do wrong; cataclysmic change will transpire. Let us once again become the country that others admire, and to which they proudly wish to aspire.
* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.