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04 DECEMBER 2018
Can a younger generation breathe new life into SA activism?
by Clint Maggott
In October 2018, it was announced that Fasiha Hassan was awarded the internationally prestigious Student Peace Prize for her role as one of the leaders in the FeesMustFall (FMF) campaign. She was commended for her “non-violent efforts to gaining equal access to higher education” and recognised for her involvement in encouraging peace, human rights and democracy.

The #FeesMustFall campaign began in 2015 in protest against high student fees at tertiary institutions and to petition government for free university education. Despite disruptions, violence and damage to property, the protest resulted in no tuition fee increases for 2016 and limited increases for 2017, and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that the movement did bring awareness to the need for transformation of higher education.

One of the reasons for the success of the movement may be the involvement of young leaders like Hassan – a law student at Wits who has since found a job on the ANC’s communication team – who are bringing new energy and vision to South Africa’s flagging activism sector.

Activism in South Africa has a rich history with strong roots in the apartheid struggle. Many activists stem from this era of fighting to change the system of oppression. It gave rise to iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu.

Following political freedom, the activism tradition was continued through NGOs and social movements, with some very successful examples being the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), led by Zackie Achmat, who was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his efforts in improving access to antiretroviral drugs for those with HIV/Aids. But in recent years, some of this momentum has been lost.

Research from the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) finds that more than 20 years since the end of apartheid, there is a sense of disillusionment and fatigue especially among older activists, many of whom also describe a shift in focus on fighting for rights, to fighting for the delivery of those rights. The research, which surveyed 16 activists in post-apartheid South Africa, found that many of them lament the lack of a clear and unifying enemy or cause and yearn for the “hero leaders” of the past.

There is hope however that a new generation of young activists will bring new energy and enthusiasm to the challenges at hand.

Little is known about activist leadership; activism is most often understood from an economic, political or other perspective, and not a leadership and/or organisational perspective. The GSB research set out to plug this gap. It found that good activist leaders have much of the same qualities as other leaders – charisma, empathy and the ability to truly understand the experience of others – there are subtle differences too. There is often a personal motivation and a public expectation, for example, for activist leaders to be selfless and moved by the desire to help others, which can lead to conflict within individuals. This conflict is the result of guilt arising from the activists’ relative power or privilege in relation to those they are trying to uplift.

Nevertheless, younger activists are approaching leadership in fresh and energetic ways, the research found. They are more independent and are able to act without having to wait for guidance; they have more of a “can do” attitude, not needing much direction – or even permission to act. Unlike traditional leadership, in which the leader/follower roles are clearly defined, it appears as though there is a shift away towards more collective leadership in South African activism. The focus is more on shared learning, on fluidity of roles rather than fixed hierarchical roles.

Some of this can be seen in the FMF campaign, which at times did not appear to have clear leaders and yet had a strong groundswell of support, driven in part by social media – the tool kit of the younger generation. Social media also plays a big role in activism worldwide – a notable example being the Arab Spring.

The future of activism in South Africa is likely to see more of this kind of collaboration and partnerships - between NGOs and activist groups as well as with government and corporations. A change has also been noted in the relationship between the corporate world and the world of activism, which was traditionally oppositional but is increasingly becoming integrated and relational due to a growing realisation that communication can be more valuable than conflict, and that there can be mutual benefits.

Changes in the way corporations behave, with a trend towards values-based outcomes has also gained traction in business over the past decade, where a focus on profits is widening to include positive outcomes – such as social improvement and development. There is also evidence of more stakeholder participation, which includes shareholder activism (where shareholders influence a corporation's behavior by exercising their rights as partial owners) which can be very effective in holding corporations to account.

All of this bodes well. In a country like South Africa, that is fighting for its economic survival and is still deeply divided along racial and class lines, the future will depend on how successful we are in working together to tackle social injustice and inequality. Civil society and activism can play a key role in bringing it all together. The emergence of strong and inspiring young voices in the South African activism space is cause for optimism and young leaders like Hassam deserve to be celebrated and nurtured.

Clint Maggott is a psychologist and Bertha Scholar at the UCT Graduate School of Business. The research cited in this article was completed as part of his MBA thesis in 2017.

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the GSB offers MBA scholarships to deserving students. Applications for 2019 MBA scholarships will close on 15 November. For more information go to

University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
UCT GSB is internationally renowned as one of a few business schools in Africa with the prestigious triple-crown accreditation with endorsements from EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA. As a top school with more than five decades of experience in Africa and other emerging markets, UCT GSB has a responsibility to engage with its socio-political and economic context. Its teaching, learning and research are directed towards addressing the complex and pressing economic and social challenges of our world today. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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