On 9 April 2015, a statue of was toppled from its 80-year watch over the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. That afternoon, visual artist Sethembile Msezane put on a mask and a pair of striking brass-and-hair wings, climbed onto a temporary plinth, and became a memorial in her own right. the tip of her left wing seems to mesh seamlessly with the crane that’s pulling down Rhodes’s statue in the background.

The removal of the statue was the culmination of the protests. At the time, Msezane was pursuing a fine arts degree at UCT alongside many other students part of South Africa’s “Many believe that my generation doesn’t have anything to protest against,” “That is far from the truth.”

For South African protesters, Nelson Mandela’s grand vision of equality in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ had not been achieved.

In some ways, the protests were as symbolic as the statue itself,

As the student-led agitations spread around the country, demands included a reductions in the prohibitive cost of higher education, better pay for working-class university staff, increased racial diversity among faculty, and safety from sexual and gender-based violence on campuses. Fallists, as they came to be known, were protesting what they considered to be structural discrimination against black, poor, queer and female South Africans. For them, Nelson Mandela’s grand vision of equality in the “Rainbow Nation” had not been achieved.

Despite almost three decades of democracy and a progressive constitution, South Africa has some of the worst quality of life indices in the world. as well as being starkly racialised and gendered. The same can be said for violent crime, which is widespread, disproportionately targeting and Before the protests at UCT, South Africans had also been demanding government action on homelessness, and unemployment.

Movements help rebuild identity

provided many young black South Africans with an opportunity to establish a sense of identity based on community, dignity and power, rather than just shared experiences of exclusion, discrimination or violence. As fallists, the students were able to assert themselves and direct the focus of powerful institutions towards issues that most concerned them – issues that would ordinarily get little or no meaningful attention. As with most protests, their methods were confrontational, and the movement’s popularity was mostly limited to those who were directly affected.

Since movements focus on redistributing rights and social power, those who maintain or benefit from the status quo are often resistant to the agitations of protesters. Some of South Africa’s universities shut down operations completely, saying they were trying to keep protesters out. As a result, Prominent activists in the movement alleged that they were followed, spied on and intimidated by state agents. This claim was later corroborated

Significant police presence was deployed at many of the protest sites. In some cases, the police used teargas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades on protesters, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. For particularly disruptive protesters, consequences were severe. In December 2017, student activist for setting a police van alight during one of the more confrontational protests, despite no one being harmed.

Disrupting the status quo is good for everyone

Some who were against the movements asserted that including the right to freedom of expression and artistic creativity. But any effort to fight discrimination requires some level of disruption. For those who are catered to by an exclusionary status quo, the protest movement is often their only source of discomfort. So it becomes easy for them to perceive protesters, activists and other movement-makers as the “real” problem.

This sort of psychological reversal is generally present wherever protests take place. Powerful institutions and protected people do not immediately benefit from protests. As a result, Since they are largely insulated from the impacts of discrimination, it can be quite difficult for them to recognise how the advantages they enjoy are sometimes at the expense of other people’s wellbeing or survival.

But in most cases, our societies benefit from the conflict that is produced when people demand inclusion, even if there are others who insist on maintaining unjust norms. Despite strong resistance from the mainstream, South Africa has long been propelled towards political progress by movements. The political landscape is susceptible to change, and protesters are well placed to take advantage of this tendency.

South Africa has long been propelled towards political progress by movements. The political landscape is susceptible to change, and protesters take advantage of this tendency.

Joseph Overton’s shows how governments’ decisions are influenced by the actions of people outside the political establishment. According to Overton, the "window" of acceptable government policies is fairly narrow, but it shifts over time as ideas become more or less tolerable to the public.

The Fees Must Fall movement changed mainstream ideas around acceptable policies in higher education. As a result, Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, announced in 2016 that the practice of increasing university tuition every year would end. 

Zuma’s decision was or even an attempt at pacification. But it would not have been achieved without the work done by the Fees Must Fall movement to shift public opinion on how South African universities were failing working-class black students and workers.

There is no perfect social movement, and there can never be a universally acceptable way to agitate for change. Still, movements offer marginalised people a unifying and often effective way to move our societies closer to ideals of justice and inclusion.

Dig deeper

Illustration of people holding banners, together making the shape of an arrow - on a yellow background Wisdom of the crowd: four lessons from 10 years of documenting social movements From Bahrain I launched CrowdVoice, a pioneering platform to crowdsource eyewitness accounts from protests around the world, in 2009. After 10 years, here’s what we’ve learned about social movements. Read Esra’a al Shafei’s article here. Photo of a blue tube on the left, throwing a small blue ball onto a white, round platform held in place by a blue string. The blue string is whirled around three wooden circular pegs, handing in various places on a vertical, rectangular white wooden board with holes in it. The string is connected on the right to the nozzle of a blue spray bottle. The blue and white kitchen checked kitchen towel hanging to the right of the picture has a blue spray stain on it. A little less automation, a little more friction, please In the age of self-driving cars, autoplay TV shows, and beverages that contain all your nutrients, merchants of efficiency grow rich while we lose skills and control over our time. It’s time to make our lives a little less efficient. Read Sanne Blauw’s article here.