The synchronicity of the shift of global economic power back to the East from the West, the galloping social inequities exacerbated in the 2007 financial crisis and the untrammelled pace of technological change present a revolutionary moment to activists around the world.
Everywhere, they are using the technology of instant communication and transmission of complex data to attack and question political and economic authority.
The prospect of universal access to information about what governments and corporations are doing with our resources is changing the nature of politics and the old social compacts.
In Africa, as elsewhere, this is upending traditional political parties and cutting across the interests of the elites that they represent.
Staking out this new territory, a plethora of single-issue campaigns have grown up to powerful effect.
Groups such as #RhodesMustFall seamlessly morphed into #FeesMustFall, signifying a shift from demanding the removal of a colonial relic to the call for the democratisation of access to education, with all its insurrectionary implications.
Not only did these campaigns push the South African government to change course, they rapidly picked up international momentum – thanks in part to the hashtags.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria – in response to the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls – exposed the complacency of the Abuja government towards its obligation to protect the citizenry.
As #BringBackOurGirls reverberated across continents, it evidently contributed to the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential elections.
Other activist groups – such as those campaigning against tax evasion and contract collusion between multinationals and corrupt government officials, environmental despoliation and for the bolstering of land rights – are eagerly exploiting the possibilities of the conjunction of a crisis among ruling elites and the power of a new popular information order.
This all points to a new era of mass mobilisation powered by tech innovation and fast-track urbanisation.
The struggles of farmworkers and land rights activists are hitting home across Africa, forcing incremental concessions from governments.
But the power of coordinated, urban protest movements in the mega-cities of Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa is taking activism to a new level.
Protests are targeting unfair property and sales taxes and failing public services.
A new sense of economic nationalism, that African countries should claim a far bigger share of the value of their mineral and hydrocarbon resources, is challenging international capital.
With this wind in their sails, this new generation of activists faces some tough strategic questions.
Can their single-issue campaigns morph into broader social movements?
Resisting the populists
There is the risk that the activists will get co-opted by opportunistic political parties.
Resource nationalism, once the clarion call of the militants in the Niger Delta fighting military regimes and their corporate allies, has been subsumed, at least rhetorically, into national government policy.
As the populist regimes in Tanzania and Zambia put their demands for hiked royalties and tax takes to mining companies, the most probable outcome will be an opaque backroom deal with little discernible gain for working people.
As established political entities try variously to capitalise on or douse the new protest energy, activists are calibrating their collaboration with traditional civic activists in the trade unions and faith groups.
The evolving landscape in South Africa shows the complexity of these relationships.
Among the most radical groups in the country, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union led an extra-parliamentary struggle against President Jacob Zuma’s government and its alliance with local mine owners.
But as Zuma’s collusion with his business allies in the Gupta family escalated to threaten the interests of national and international capital, a weird new alliance took shape.
Malema and his activists publicly confronted Zuma in ways that the mainstream of the governing African National Congress (ANC) were too scared to adopt.
Much more quietly, ANC dissidents collaborated with civic activists to investigate the depths of political and commercial corruption, primarily but not exclusively involving the Zuma and Gupta families.
Many of these investigations were financed by local corporations, keen to protect their commercial interests and latterly to trumpet their social consciences.
A great boost to this effort was the resilience of the country’s institutions, especially the office of the public protector and the constitutional court.
With the exit of Zuma and his arraignment on corruption charges this year, a new chapter has opened.
It points to a rocky political road ahead. Zuma’s followers are trying to mobilise on an ethno-nationalist agenda in KwaZulu-Natal.
Outside South Africa – with its liberal constitution and battle-tested institutions – the going is rougher still.
There are signs that the era of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations – under heavy attack in Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya – is drawing to a close. Strong and brave local sources of finance for civic activism and social movements are thin on the ground.
Yet the abiding strengths of the new activism are its resilience, innovation and ability to connect, nationally and internationally.
In 2005, the idea of a protest developed primarily online would have been impossible across much of the world, where mobile phone and internet communication was prohibitively expensive.
But the creativity of activists has changed that. From the Black Lives Matter protests in the US to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, organisers are using online platforms to organise, keep supporters informed and mobilise public sentiment.
Before this, movements relied on physical meetings and labour-intensive door-to-door campaigns to inform citizens.
Today, social movements use digital platforms like WhatsApp and Signal to disseminate information. That does not require a meeting.
These days, activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and Cameroon are finding that a protest without a hashtag is unlikely to get attention outside their countries.
A digital strategy is no guarantee of success. But the absence of one in the context of falling international attention to countries leaves activists with a Sisyphean task.
Used well, these platforms offer the activists a good way of communicating with the public.
Urban activism peaked during the Arab Spring, when in Tunisia and Egypt much of the political resistance was cultivated online.
In her 2017 book “Twitter and Tear Gas”, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki talks to activists in the region who say that without the digital revolution, their campaigns would have foundered.
Networking the activists
Farida Nabourema, a 28-year-old activist who has become the face of the Togolese protests online, explains, “I am Togo’s very first cyber activist,” she says. “I started using social media in 2009.
“I founded a blog in 2009 about Togo when I was in the US, where it was easier and cheaper than in Togo. And from 2009 and 2016, my blog was the most popular Togolese blog, focusing mostly on politics.”
Cyber activist is a broad term that Nabourema uses to refer to the thousands of activists who are using digital platforms to build movements for social change.
With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, more political organising is shifting online, and activists like Nabourema are demanding that this round of protests in Togo, unlike the many that have gone before, be seen and heard around the world.
From its origins in Missouri, Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry for African refugees in Israel protesting racism.
It inspired the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa, in which students called for the removal of iconography celebrating the racist foundations of the state.
At the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, African countries decided to retain colonial borders, triggering a shift in political outlook that persists today.
With the notable exception of the anti-racist struggles in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, political advocacy became more and more inward-looking and focused on fighting individual state struggles. The current wave of advocacy resists that, building communities of activists connected by their political outlook rather than their national identity.
Pulling the plug
Successful digital activism relies on the fundamentals of political organising as well as mastering the nuances of electronic communication. Threats to this new form of activism are as common as the opportunities.
Between 2015 and 2016, there were more than 30 internet shutdowns in Africa.
And the government switched off the internet in parts of Ethiopia for more than two years in response to anti-regime protests.
In response, hacktivists – internet activists who specialise in building tools to circumvent state or institutional control – developed internet networks that allow people to stay online. Still, for every example of a successful protest in the digital era, there are at least 10 examples of those that fail.
The most successful movements are those that use digital platforms to enhance communication while maintaining significant effort offline. – The Africa Report
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