South African President Jacob Zuma delivers his address during the launch of Independent News and Media South Africa in 2014. (GCIS/Flickr)

The date Oct. 21, 2015, will be remembered as the day mainstream media became old in South Africa. It was the day the hashtags took control. We watched as student protests morphed from #FeesMustFall to #NationalShutDown (and briefly to #ZumaMustFall), and as at least fourteen campuses were shut down. Before we could catch our collective breath, students in Cape Town had left the University of Cape Town’s suburban campus and the nearby Cape Peninsula University of Technology to march on Parliament. There they demanded to see the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande. The students forced open the gates of Parliament and soon — imitating #BlackLivesMatter — were marching inside the grounds with their hands up. Police responded by firing tear gas and stun grenades at them. The students, defiant, began to sing the national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.” By nightfall, six of the main leaders — including the offspring of a prominent liberation movement figure and the son of UCT’s vice chancellor — were in custody. There were reports the students were being charged with treason. Their lawyers were quick to react and by nightfall word filtered through they would be charged with trespassing and be in court in the morning.

The protests at Parliament happened while the South African Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, went on delivering his mid-term budget speech inside. Television stations were forced to choose between broadcasting democratic business as usual, and democracy being remade outside. The split-screen coverage some TV stations opted for brought the point home with alarming clarity. While minister Nene was reciting figures about the “downward adjustment” of economic expectations, students were being choked, man-handled, and arrested outside. But the television coverage was of lesser importance, because the revolution wasn’t being televised, it was being live-tweeted. Television news only mattered if it placed a camera where the protests were and left it at that.

Around the city and around the world, people were following the protests online (initially mainstream global news channels avoided the protests) as they were unfolding. Shortly after, a local daily newspaper, the Cape Argus, announced that it would hand over the editing of its next issue to the students. This was taken by some in the industry as an indication of the media’s responsiveness to the student movement. But it was perhaps more a recognition of the opposite: South Africa’s mainstream media were becoming increasingly irrelevant to what’s going on in the streets.

Newspapers and even mainstream online news organizations struggled to keep up with what was happening. Some online news reports consisted exclusively of cut-and-pasted Twitter updates. If they did more, they often reverted to stereotypes of protesters as irrational, violent and disruptive. At one point a reporter for the public SABC News, criticized for its reticence to critically report on the ruling party, told viewers “police are firing stun grenades to calm the situation.” (In general, South African media also use Twitter, but then mainly to aggregate and amplify their news products.)

After the protests, several commentators pointed out that the protesters were on the whole very disciplined and that violent clashes occurred in response to police actions. In contrast, social media provided by-the-minute updates on situations as they developed, gave access to students’ views and experiences, helped students mobilize (even providing tips on how to deal with tear gas or to ensure your phone was charged) and, crucially, became a platform for alternative narratives to those of the mainstream to emerge.

Social media has been a growing influence in South African politics for a while: think of how former opposition party leader Helen Zille (of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, or DA) has become known for tweeting from the hip, and landed her in trouble for unguarded remarks. Zille’s twitter dominance of course reflected racial disparities (then still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa. Not for long, though. Zille and the DA were gradually deposed by the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Twitter smarts (especially that of its young MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and its leader Julius Malema) and what passes for #BlackTwitter in South Africa.

In contrast, leaders from the ruling party — the African National Congress (ANC) — seem clueless about social media. President Jacob Zuma has 392,000 followers, but last tweeted on February 12 this year and before that in Oct. 2013. In his last tweet he thanked people who sent in comments to his State of the Nation address to the country’s Parliament. And in that Oct. 2013 tweet, he announced he was attending a church service. At the same time, Zuma has been the subject of countless memes, gifs, remixes, photoshopped pictures and YouTube videos of Zuma’s apparent innumeracy. At best the ruling party views social media as the enemy. Just a few weeks ago the ANC announced it would submit some members to disciplinary procedures for discussing party business on Facebook.

Nevertheless, it’s been students, rightly, who have exploited social media and the internet’s full potential as a democratic sphere. Such was the power of the hashtag #feesmustfall that it was included in a court interdict by the University of Cape Town (UCT) against protesting students.

We got a glimpse earlier this year about how young people go about with social media when #RhodesMustFall #RhodesSoWhite and #TransformWits inaugurated hashtag politics in South Africa. The hashtags articulated actual events: the hashtag #RhodesMustFall amplified on an already existing movement, mostly by black students, at UCT against a colonial era statue of Cecil John Rhodes. The movement was about more than the statue’s removal as protesters called for curriculum reform and transformation of university faculty (a small minority of professors at South Africa’s top universities are black) and an end to outsourcing. (Services like cleaning, catering and campus security had been handed over to private companies, which meant the loss of benefits like tuition discount for the children of campus workers.)

When the #RhodesMustFall movement commenced, we could not foresee the internet and social media’s full potential as a news source yet in developing countries like South Africa. Old media still by and large set the agenda for discussions around heritage, the decolonization of the university and identity politics. This changed when the movement grew into a nationwide call for the cessation of fee increases, and protests erupted around the country.

And the late October protests were the death knell for old media.

We got a glimpse of when students at the University of Witswatersrand forced its Vice Chancellor Adam Habib to not only meet and listen to them, but also to suspend all fee increases for the next academic year. One anecdote was telling. Only a few days earlier, in a column in the country’s leading business newspaper, Habib railed against students’ “vanguardist” tendencies in which “theatrics replaced principled politics” and criticized them for having “the temerity to call Nelson Mandela a sell out.” As Wits students upped their protests and confronted Habib, local news channels broadcast events live, its reporters and presenters talking over the images. On Twitter, the writer and broadcaster Eusebius McKaiser was haranguing ENCA News to play the Wits students’ speeches without interruption or commentary. When he found no reward, he asked if anyone knew of a live stream. That’s when the Daily Vox, an online news site staffed by young people (most recent university graduates), announced they would stream the meeting. Responded McKaiser on Twitter: “EXCELLENT! I will watch it live on Periscope. I just downloaded the app. Traditional media no longer controls us.”

The Daily Vox reflects another key spinoff of the social media era in South Africa, with the rise of independent, online sites where students and commentators — without the mainstream’s pretensions of objectivity — gave analyses and opinion of what was happening. The Daily Vox, The Con (started by a group of former Mail & Guardian newspaper staffers) and Daily Maverick (the latter, while spotty, came into its own after it proved a corrective to the mainstream media narrative of the August 2012 Marikana mine massacre) stood out in this regard. The Cape Town-based online publication GroundUp also had good first-hand accounts from UCT student reporter Ashleigh Furlong.

We do not want to overstate how representative the student protests were. (Students make up no more than 1 million of the country’s nearly 50 million people and for the protests to have effects beyond campuses, it needs to form alliances and capture energies in trade union, housing rights and anti-crime movements in poor black neighborhoods.) But the protests show how out of touch conventional party politics have become. Protesters made a point of publicly turning away leaders from the Democratic Alliance or EFF as opportunistic. Similarly, we are not suggesting social media caused the uprising (i.e., not the naïve, ahistorical way in which some people talked about the Arab Spring, #OccupyNigeria, #WalktoWork in Uganda or the protests that unseated Senegal’s former President Abdoulaye Wade), but that social media proved more adaptable and in touch with a movement that is organic in its nature.

But most of all, the events of the past month or so have proven that social media is no longer a luxury in contemporary political activism. When police and students clashed on Nov. 11 at the University of the Western Cape — a historically black university in Cape Town, which struggles to command the same mainstream media attention as historically white, middle class UCT or Stellenbosch University (where students fight over language policy) — students called for donations of vital supplies via Facebook. The order in which these were listed, said it all:

“We at #UWCFeesMustFall are in desperate [need] of airtime, medical and food supplies…”

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Sean Jacobs is on the International Affairs Faculty of The New School and founder of Africa is a Country. Herman Wasserman is director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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