Beyond the smoke and flames of protest

Reporting on protests in poor communities where the mainstream media lacks, social media picks up the slack. This isn't always a good thing.

Siqalo Protest, 2 May 2018. Image credit Ashraf Hendricks via Ground Up.

Protests over land or services — what researchers have dubbed “a rebellion of the poor” in South Africa — usually enter mainstream media as a traffic problem. If the protest is significant, like the one in the Siqalo informal settlement in Mitchells Plain last week, it might make the evening television news bulletins or the next day’s newspapers. Then it is usually reported as an orgy of violence with images of burning, looting and barricading. Until recently, mainstream media has set the agenda for the public understanding of these events. One characteristic of such coverage is that the voices of poor people are mostly absent from reporting, or reduced to sound bytes. Increasingly, however, social media — especially Whatsapp — emerge as additional role-players in the media discourse around protests and to a large extent shaping public perceptions of events away from mainstream media.

#Siqalo, #Siqaloprotest and #MitchellsPlain quickly became hashtags on Twitter last week as the violence over lack of services and counter protests became a flashpoint. Random Twitter users uploaded video clips, pictures and offered opinion, often fired from the hip. But this is no surprise. There is symbiosis between Twitter and mainstream journalism. Most journalists are on Twitter and “breaking news” happens there; so do most public figures maintain accounts (Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, for example, is infamous for her activity on Twitter). It is not unusual to find researchers parching tweets to get a sense of the public mood (like this recent analysis of tweets about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death) or for journalists to simply cut and paste a series of tweets into a story, present it as evidence of public opinion and offer little further narrative or context.

On television news clips (often reposted on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube), community representatives and political parties tried to play down the racial dynamics of this conflict, despite the fact that colored residents of Mitchell’s Plain violently reacted to the protest by their mainly African Siqalo neighbors. The latter were protesting against the City of Cape Town’s slow response to supply basic services to the area. Protesters from Siqalo blocked roads and damaged property, and when the protests turned violent, police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades in the area. Mitchell’s Plain residents drew on a form of “colored” nationalism (claiming primacy over the land and manifest as “Khoisan” identity politics) to denounce the Africans who were all deemed to be recent arrivals from the Eastern Cape. In a now infamous clip, one Mitchell’s Plain resident told a TV journalist, “we have been here thousands of years.” It escaped him that Mitchell’s Plain was founded in 1977.

It may shock some coloreds that contrary to popular opinion Langa was the first place in Cape Town where people of color were moved to after Xhosa speakers were forcibly removed from Pinelands and Maitland or that places like Retreat and Simon’s Town had significant African populations with deep roots in the area before the Group Areas Act.

Racism between coloureds and Africans in Cape Town isn’t news. What is new, is that many of these ideas — including in their crudest forms — are widely circulated on social networks, especially, on Whatsapp. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Whatsapp is both private and more accessible to working class people of all age groups. These same people, who have few chances of making their voices heard in the mainstream news, now have a channel where they can have their say, unfiltered directly to community groups and familial networks. Whatsapp is also more difficult to track and analyze. Like Twitter, Whatsapp is chaotic and direct, but unlike Twitter, much of Whatsapp happens away from the public eye, in chat groups that require invitation. It also happens to be the platform where some of the most incendiary messages around the Siqalo protests are circulating.

In one message about Siqalo, a male voice implores “my fellow coloured people” to “stand up” and “fight back” against “the black people,” who the speaker deems to all be from the Eastern Cape. He encourages people to “pass this message onto every mosque, every church, every neighbour” and ends with a chilling request in Afrikaans:  “Laat ons hierdie mense vermorsel, laat ons hulle verpletter en vertrap” [Let us crush these people, let us quash and trample them”]. In another series of “voice notes,” three men identifying themselves in turn as Xhosa, a colored and a “Boer,” take turns to make the most vile, violent threats against each other (and by extension their communities), including rape. These messages have been widely circulating on the Flats as “voice notes.” They have been also discussed away from mainstream media. You wouldn’t hear about them in the news.

This kind of use of social media is not unique. Whatsapp rumors were also involved in the most recent xenophobic riots. South Africa is no different than elsewhere. Rightwing groups, especially, find Whatsapp useful to spread lies and cast aspersions on their enemies. The impact of social media on recent elections or referendums in the United States and the UK, or in the developing world (Mexico, Brazil and Malaysia) come to mind. In August 2017, Kenyan police arrested the administrators of two Whatsapp chat groups for sharing hate messages on WhatsApp “that threatened national security and face an additional charge of spreading alarming propaganda on social media.”

One of the byproducts of social media is that while it lowers the entry costs for ordinary people to be involved in the public sphere, it means that complexity or veracity are sacrificed in order to attract as many clicks as fast as possible. As the anthropologist Hussein Badat lamented (on Twitter no less): “Following posts on #MitchellsPlainProtests is one of the most depressing online experiences. The lack of any grasp of history, the total absence of class solidarity, and the ‘us’ vs [versus] ‘them’ on all sides is so indicative of the familiar of the ‘new’ South Africa.”

The conflict in Siqalo and Mitchell’s Plain, for example, over land and services has deep historical roots that can’t be explained in a tweet, less so in ahistorical Whatsapp voice notes. The Whatsapp messages foreground the racial and ethnic fault lines in Cape Town society, which in themselves are ways in which deeper social and economic tensions born of historic forces — including how political parties exploit tensions between coloreds and Africans — are articulated. In this case, it goes beyond the formation of the community of Siqalo, to the protracted history of Apartheid in Cape Town. Siqalo is a reminder of how the unfinished business of the South African transition, and how the continued socio-economic disparities are at the root of what is articulated (and often reported in the media) as an ethnic or racial conflict.

The result is that local (and national) government is let off  the hook. One of the ironies of Siqalo is that Mitchell’s Plain residents turned on their neighbors, who are equally deprived, rather than also direct their anger at the city or the provincial government who carry the responsibility to supply Capetonians of housing and services, and who seem impotent to deal with white racism in the city. Few journalists, for example, have reminded their readers or listeners that Premier Zille, who styled herself as a referee between Mitchell’s Plain and Siqalo, has a reputation of referring to Xhosa-speaking Capetonians as refugees from the Eastern Cape.

One disturbing outcome of all this smoke and noise around the protest is that news media again missed an opportunity to uncover the roots of the political crisis in the city. The writer Sisonke Msimang was frustrated enough to plead: “With #SiqaloProtest and #MitchellsPlain taking place, media friends please don’t just cover violence. We want to understand root causes and context. Not just ‘service delivery’ and pictures of smoke and flames.” The real, often uncomfortable, discussion moved to mobile phones, while the mainstream media remained obsessed with violence and traffic disruptions.

Further Reading