We often think of change in theoretical ways, many times understanding it to be something that only someone else is capable of handling or doing. We see it as a big and elusive task that requires big, concerted efforts beyond us. I think this is just how we are conditioned, especially when it comes to societal issues such as food insecurity, unemployment, homophobia, poverty, wage inequality, misogyny, and many more issues alike. This is not to disqualify the severity of work it takes to eradicate these issues due to how many intersections present themselves when dealing with any type of structural inequality. We often find ourselves afraid to speak up or take any type of stand because of the fear of being silenced or even being ostracised.
Globally, Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global pandemic that affects 1 in 3 women in their lifetime. The numbers are staggering: 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence, 7% of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner, and as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.
In South Africa specifically, the statistics are incredibly daunting, a country where every 3 hours a woman is murdered. South Africa has high levels of violence against women and children whilst having among the highest rape incidences in the world. This level of violence has a long history, and alongside it, people have also long sought for change to happen. From lobbying and mobilising to petitions and even mass marches.
The call for a stop to the staggering numbers of Sexual-Gender Based Violence is well documented and known. What many activists and survivors are often faced with is the aftermath of calling truth to power, especially when perpetrators have more social power than them. The fear of what happens when you utilise your voice and speak up was what I was faced with in 2021 when I started writing my minor dissertation for my master’s degree in political communication at the University of Cape Town. I had spent months compiling data from Instagram about Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and Femicide activism in South Africa specifically. The idea for my dissertation topic came as I was sitting with my aunt watching the news during the first Level 5 Lockdown due to COVID-19, while aimlessly scrolling on my phone I heard the South African Minister of Police, Bheki Cele state that “SAPS received 87 000 gender-based violence calls during the first week of lockdown”.
I started paying attention and listening to what he was saying during this media briefing. After he spoke, I went back to looking at my phone and as I was scrolling Instagram, I saw a page I had followed during the murder trial of Uyinene Mrwetyana, called Keep The Energy, which was created in 2019 by a UCT student named Michael van Niekerk in order to fight gender-based violence against women, children and LGBTQIA+ persons. I scrolled down this Instagram page to see that in the few days that we had been in Level-5 Lockdown, they had posted more than 5 pictures of women that had been brutally murdered by their intimate partners. This sent a chill down my spine, especially when considering that every three hours a woman is killed in South Africa.
I then decided to research the use of Social Networking Sites (SNS) for activism, specifically in Africa. I had studied Gender Studies during my undergrad degree and done multiple research papers on the intersections of gender and traditional media, but I had never explored the digital sphere, so I had my work cut out for me. Many papers had a focus on Twitter and Facebook, they would reference movements such as the Arab Spring and #FeesMustFall. With every article speaking on the power of the internet and collaboration to spark change. I searched wide and far with no avail to find any mentions of Instagram alongside the word “activism”, but I was certain that I would write a paper on how activists in South Africa were coming together to use Instagram to participate in Citizen Journalism by sharing information, raising awareness, organising, mobilising, and advocating for change. Furthermore, utilising Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism through things such as sharing information and having calls to action while utilising hashtags to gain momentum and attention.
The findings of the paper suggested that these hashtags utilised alongside their posts were able to cultivate a community of activists all around the country while also making sure to encourage more participation. Furthermore, ensuring that the antagonisation of victims is limited due to the use of anonymous Instagram pages. The analysis also showed how such activism was incredibly important when movement is restricted due to national Lockdowns implemented to curb COVID-19, as many victims of SGBV found themselves at home and trapped with their abusers.
Through this study and research, I was presented with the thought that perhaps through the exploration of new ways of activism, we can ensure that no voice is ever left behind and that no efforts are ever in vain. Because who would ever think or imagine that people posting about SGBV on Instagram could gain so much traction that marches are organised across the country and petitions are signed to be taken to the Government? Not me. I saw Instagram as an SNS that was best utilised for its filters and posting about sunsets. This entire study changed my perception.
This process made me think of our perceptions of change and transformation, and how we often think we are not well-equipped to be the change we want to see. When in fact, the small efforts lead to bigger ones. How all it takes is for one person to stand up and give every other person the courage to do the same. Toni Morrison once said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” We are all faced with many decisions in this life, many of which require us to apply our moral principles to decide, but my one hope is that with this new year, we start becoming the change we want to see in the world we live in. That we become the changemakers of today.
Written by Nwabisa Mazana
Marketing Specialist at Digital Frontiers