Watch PEN SA’s Dialogue on #FeesMustFall and the Media

10 Nov 2016
Watch PEN SA’s Dialogue on #FeesMustFall and the Media

In response to the first months of the student protests in 2015 PEN South Africa ran the PEN SA Student Writing Prize and commissioned research into the relationship between the student protesters and the media, as well as the way in which the protests were represented in the media. This research, conducted by academic Selina Mudavanhu is detailed in her paper “Comrades, Students, Baboons and Criminals: An analysis of the discursive construction of the #RhodesMustFall/#FeesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town on Facebook”, which is currently being reviewed.

There has been much written about the student protests and related topics, with the following pieces offering insight into a complex issue: “Making sense of the student protests” by Shuaib Manjra, “Fees Must Fall 2016: Where to from here?” by Sumeya Gasa and Leila Dougan, “Why have university protests been so violent?” by Guy Lamb and “Academics and the Fallist movement” by Dennis Davis. The following pieces looked at the increasing violence towards journalists: “Protesters Use the Media, But They and the Police Turn on Journalists” by Glenda Daniels and “‘We don’t want News24 here. We will kill them here’” by Adriaan Basson. Also of interest is PEN America’s recent report on diversity, inclusion and free speech at U.S. universities.

In October PEN SA held a dialogue in association with Wits Journalism on the #FeesMustFall movement and media representation. Chaired by Oratile Mashazi, who was the PEN SA Advocacy and Projects Manager at the time, the event featured a talk by journalist Sarin Drew and Mudavanhu’s presentation of her research.

Watch a video of the dialogue and read Mashazi’s reflections on it below:

By Oratile Mashazi

As the call for free education disrupted South African universities, South African students tabled an important discussion for the greater society to consider. On Tuesday 4 October, in the midst of the shutdown of several university campuses, PEN South Africa (PEN SA) and the Wits School of Journalism, held a dialogue on the issue of media representation of the #FeesMustFall movement. A cross section of civil society, journalism students and lecturers along with students, Fallists and concerned citizens came out to listen and talk to one another. The speakers for the evening were journalist Sarin Drew and Selina Mudavanhu, an academic commissioned by PEN SA to research the aforementioned issue of media representation and the Fallist movement.

Held at the Keleketla Library in Johannesburg’s eastern suburb of Troyeville, I chaired the discussion in my capacity as advocacy manager for PEN SA and Drew, opened the evening’s discussion with her presentation entitled “A return to black dissemination of knowledge”. Drew spoke about her experience as a black journalist working within traditional media during the protests by clarifying the limitations of the traditional media. Drew plotted a way forward for decolonizing the media space to represent black people, black protests and the decolonial struggle in positive and empowering ways, while also addressing the overarching institutions that contribute to the oppression of people of colour.

“Our agenda is to not have people starving, homeless, landless, resource-less, education-less and landless in this world. It’s a very broad statement but it represents a shift in society that the youth are currently grappling with,” Drew said.

Drew offered insight into how international movements like #BlackLivesMatter and Decolonizing Minds have a similar message to the Fallists and she closed with the following statement on the current psycho-political state of blackness: “We are sick of institutionalized repression, we are black people that are suffering under these systems that do not benefit us and we want to bring about change; in healthcare, in systems of the economy, in capitalism that is failing and patriarchy that is failing.”

The audience brought up challenges of economics and language to Drew, with Siya Mnyanda, asking “How do we make black business and blackness attractive in an anti-black hegemony?”

“In portraying ourselves as we are, authentically, and that is enough,” Drew replied.

Mudavanhu followed Drew with a presentation titled “Comrades, Students, Baboons and Criminals: an analysis of the discursive construction of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements”. The presentation covered Mudavanhu’s research on the representations of the #FeesMustFall and the #RhodesMustFall movements on Facebook.

“There is a conspicuous absence of empirial research around #FMF and #RMF,” said Mudavanhu. She proceeded to contextualize her work as the beginning of an academic record around the Fallist movement. Her research focusing on the frames used by Facebook users to describe the movement, analyzing the language and descriptors used to reveal prevailing attitudes towards #RMF and #FMF respectively.

“The language used was not unique these protests, it was used in Apartheid. The activists appropriated some of the terms and the struggle songs, and the detractors used words like baboons and monkeys just as in Apartheid,” Mudavanhu explained.

Mudavanhu’s analysis concluded that the frames used by Facebook users held real life implications for the Fallists: “In Apartheid South Africa protesters and activists were called criminals and thugs. In rehearsing the same colonial, racist stereotypes detractors strip activists of their humanity and justify any form of violence against them by the police and state machinery.”

Mudavanhu revealed the role a colonial and Apartheid history has to play in how the movement is framing itself and how the media frames them. She closed with the following observation: “The myth that South Africa is a rainbow nation that has been unified has imploded, the undercurrents of racism have come to the forefront; revealing a very troubled, traumatized nation.”

This collective effort to discuss pertinent issues with frankness and civility was a powerful opportunity to discuss the socio-political struggles of South Africa in an open space. It was an inspiring and educational evening for all present.