Okay, let’s be brutally honest: that title is click-bait. However, the question should raise other important questions. At first, the response is simple. Of course, South Africans should express solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, and with the protests currently rocking the United States, following the murder of numerous African Americans by law enforcers. However, I actually want to raise a spin-off question.
The list of 2020 murders are only the tip of a centuries-long trend of racist police brutality, culminating in the egregiously grotesque killing of George Floyd by a white American police officer, who sat on George’s neck in a sadistic spectacle of old-school racism, while other officers neglected their duty to protect George. The topic deserves detailed attention, but for now, I want to ask a related question. Do Americans show solidarity with social justice issues in South Africa? And, to be honest, I am using this question to ask yet another spin-off question: why are we not using social media to foster deeper, lasting, and coordinated cross-national cooperation in the service of social justice?
A 2018 article by Professor Krystal Strong at the University of Pennsylvania, explores this very question, asking why US-South African collaborations fail to gain traction. She calls attention to similarities between #BlackLivesMatter and South African movements such as #FeesMustFall. Both movements are predominantly organised and led by the youth. Both movements expose the myth that racial equality has finally been accomplished. Both movements shed light on the harsh realities of continuing racist inequities, as well as intersections between racism, sexism, homophobia and class struggles. In fact, movements from other parts of Africa, such as Occupy Nigeria, also resonate with #BlackLivesMatter and #FeesMustFall. In other words, opportunities for co-operation exist, not only between the United States and South Africa, in terms of shared concerns with social justice, shared obstacles to equity, and shared dreams for more righteous worlds. Instead, we are talking about similarities across all of Africa, and the United States, and even Europe where many racial minorities also suffer injustice.
Professor Strong details how South African activists eagerly support American movements. However, the reverse is slower, and it has been for some time. Back in 2016, “after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two unarmed black men killed by US police during traffic stops, activists in South Africa and Kenya staged solidarity protests. M4BL [Movement for Black Lives] in the United States, for our part, have not responded in kind in any coordinated fashion to social justice issues in Africa” (Strong, 2018: 277). Strong (2018) explores insightful explanations, but for this opinion piece, I would like to suggest that South African activists would do well to reflect on two questions: First, how can South African activists inspire more involvement from, and coordination with, activists in the United States, and/or across African (or even beyond)? Second, if we successfully mobilise involvement from US movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, what form should that involvement take?
Answers to the first question have a clear kick-off point. Social media has connected the world far more comprehensively and intimately than ever before. Are we optimising social media for social justice agendas? Web 2.0 technology has already driven collective actions such as #FeesMusFall protests. What about its cross-national potential?
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 lockdown has limited many South Africans’ access to data and internet communication, worsening pre-Covid economic inequalities. However, even before Covid-19, South Africa has not cultivated a consistent culture of online deliberation (as far as I can tell). Apart from a few Facebook pages that mainly operate as notice boards rather than debating sites, we are not interacting and deliberating as rigorously as we can, despite the opportunities technology offers. If I am correct, we are not using social media as wisely as we can. We are not using social media to foster critical debate about racism, sexism and related issues, nor are we interacting with activists in other contexts – such as the US – to discuss mutual co-operation or meaningful solidarity. Social media might not be the only, or the best method, but at least it offers a start. Of course, there are major contextual differences between different countries. But does this foreclose opportunities for coordination? Despite contextual differences, social media could enable mutual education, thus growing enough knowledge and understanding to facilitate more collaboration.
Answers to the second question, however, are not straightforward. How would we like to see activists from different nations interact? What would global, cross-national support look like, apart from solidarity protests here and there? I hope this quick opinion piece sparks discussion about these questions.