Accepted paper:

Digital apartheid or digital democracy? The presence of "#FeesMustFall" and "Service Delivery Protests" in the streets and on the net of Cape Town


Jacob Geuder (University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

This research seeks to show, how social media in the form of online videos about protests affect and are affected by the specific context from which they merge by examining the cases of “#FeesMustFall” and “Service Delivery” protests in Cape Town.

Paper long abstract:

The translation of protests on the streets into audiovisual artifacts like YouTube videos about protests is by no means self-explanatory. It involves a variety of practices that potentially re-configure as well as re-inscribe power relations. The paper "Digital apartheid or digital democracy?" takes up a long-standing debate about how digitalization opens up or closes down democratic possibilities. I do so by inserting this discussion into the specific context of contemporary urban street protests in Cape Town. Based on a theoretical framework inspired by Henri Lefebvre, I argue that we need to understand the digitalization of urban street protests as well as the urbanization of digital networks as a dialectical process playing out in the specificity of (urban) contexts. Based on qualitative interviews with activists in Cape Town, I will look at the cases of the "#FeesMustFall" protests by students from the University of Cape Town and contrast them with "Service Delivery Protests" by residents from the Cape Flats. In doing so I make visible the specificities and invisible inequalities that affect what videos of protests appear online and how #FeesMustFall has created its massive online presence. Besides "digital divides" being re-inscribed in physical geographies throughout the post-apartheid city, algorithmic mechanisms such as personalization re-enforce tendencies of segregation. Therefore I ask what potential emancipatory practices like activists filming and sharing their own images of protests have. Is Cape Town seeing the coming of digital democratization or digital apartheid?

panel P028
Social media and the political sphere in Africa: reshaping democratic engagement?