Earlier this week, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P), downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to junk status as the country’s currency began free-falling after a major cabinet reshuffle in the dead of night.
President Jacob Zuma’s ten changes to the ministry incited seething protest from opposition parties and, after rubbing the sleep from their eyes, also from South Africans who had already gone to bed by the time the Presidency casually sent a press release via email around midnight on Friday. Their ire unleashed after finding out the sacking list included finance minister Pravin Gordhan, South Africans took to Twitter to toyi-toyi – not with the traditional protest song and dance, but weaponizing memes. This method of dissent seems spineless considering South Africa’s rich history of protest culture – there are no water cannons, shock grenades or images of burning tires shared on Twitter.
For more than a year after Zuma fired previous finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in late 2015, Gordhan managed to keep the country out of junk status even as political upheaval threatened to obliterate the last shreds of investment confidence. Without Gordhan, to whom Zuma even referred as “the man who can calm the markets,” those shreds disintegrated. The dire economic consequences will hit the poorest communities hardest as inflation rises, transport and food prices increase and even basic items like bread and milk become unaffordable.
Nonetheless, mere hours after the cabinet changes were announced, only about 300 people gathered in front of the South African Parliament in Cape Town to protest, while memes abounded on social media, reflecting reactions from ordinary South Africans: Shock, anger, despair, disbelief. One shows Zuma as a Mario Brother in the classic Super Mario video game, stomping, shoving and jumping to get those sparkly coins. Another meme copies one of the Warner Bros. “That’s All Folks!” end titles with the caption: “re: South African economy.” A newly arranged map of South Africa’s provinces makes light of the surprising events South Africans woke up to. The inserted text reads: “He shuffled the provinces while you were sleeping.”
As protest art in a limited digital context, however, it does achieve something unlikely in light of the grim realities South Africans will face in the months ahead: comic relief.
As a form of passive protest, these memes have yet to convince Zuma to step down or to convince the African National Congress’s top six to forcibly remove him from his position as president of both the party and country. As protest art in a limited digital context, however, it does achieve something unlikely in light of the grim realities South Africans will face in the months ahead: comic relief. By being inventive, provocative and shrewdly funny, South Africans create a digital bubble where laughter temporarily cures all ailments, even a tanking economy and jarring unemployment figures. These meme creators source images that a majority of South Africans know well from local pop culture. Beyond the original cheeky text they add, the images already possess cultural value.
In 2007, when Zuma stood trial on rape charges, cartoon artist Jonathan Shapiro drew Zuma with a shower head extending from the back of his neck after he testified that he had showered after having sex with his accuser to reduce his chances of contracting HIV. The image became iconic and remains a meme favorite. Thousands of images with crafty captions similarly attempt to undermine the president, and of these one of Zuma’s habitual movements stands out: Pushing his glasses higher up on his nose with his middle finger. It can seem funny, or the symbolic meaning of the gesture, whether intended or not, can come across as exceedingly brazen. Now, when armchair activists feel done in or disrespected, their memes are ruled by pictures of Zuma’s middle finger.
By being inventive, provocative and shrewdly funny, South Africans create a digital bubble where laughter temporarily cures all ailments, even a tanking economy and jarring unemployment figures.
Protests with songs and posters and megaphones with dying batteries are expected in coming months as South Africans mobilize in the fight against political corruption. A plea also went out on social media for a complete government shutdown. “Do not go to work, or to school or do anything unless you’re taking to the streets in protest,” the message reads. Thousands attended marches and protests all across the country and government officials expressed their disapproval and accused protesters of being disloyal – to the party and the struggle.
The memes, disloyal or not and in spite of disapproval, will follow.