Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Late Notes on Swailand I

 fotocred: AP

First up is a comment on the Swaziland protests that were held last month. In case you missed that background info is here. For one of the first times ever since the wave of uprisings across Africa and the Middle East one South African paper, the Daily Maverick, had a live blog giving timely, informative accounts from the ground. However, made a curious remark by Manxoba Nxumalo (who has done a good job of covering the Swaziland protests) in an otherwise worthy post-protest analysis:

Facebook has done what would have taken years to achieve in Swaziland had the pro-democracy groups used older and more orthodox forms of mobilisation. The Facebook group spoke to a new generation of youth that is more militant and angry; it galvanised them to action.”

Packaging this latest series of protests as the act of a tech-savvy generation, might be trendy but it is erroneous. Less than 1% of 1.4 million Swazis have access to the the internet. On the morning of the protest, the April 12 Uprising had just over 1600 members – many of whom had been added by friends and were not Swathi or in Swaziland and for some of those that were, they conscripted without consent as some commentors on the group's wall wondered how they were added to the group and even one girl, in a spirited defence of the divine right of kings called the group the 'work of Satan'. It might be en vogue, sexy and radical to write protest movements into 'a social media generation' narrative, but the truth is more complex and contradictory than what the media wants it to be. Its doubtful that the 7000 trade unionists, teachers, youth and veteran activists who marched on 18 March and the 1000 teachers prevented from marching in Mbabane, the capital on April 13 were a majority of young, avid Facebook users. Social media sites are great for garnering media attention for a cause, but it's important that journalists resist taking the easy way out and mythologizing revolutions and uprisings to construct the same image over and over again as if repetition and familiarity would make the cause more worthy. Living in an era with a 24hour news cycle where there is little time to pause and seek to present more complete pictures of these complex, ongoing processes it may seem convenient to attach a pre-existing label to something so 'it fits in with the rest' but truth is there's more to it. Instead of crediting Facebook for making it possible, credit Mohamed Bouazizi and the Tunisians and Egyptians for doing what seemed damn-near impossible. I'm sure Swazi trade unionists and teachers (plenty non-Facebookers among them) were probably more influenced by what they saw and read of north Africa's revolutions.

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