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#ZumaMustFall: Whose hashtag is it anyway?

In the build-up to the #ZumaMustFall marches on December 16 (Reconciliation Day), a number of critical voices came to the fore. I wondered whether some #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall activists were perhaps not proprietary in their response to the new hashtag and the planned marches, which appeared to be driven largely by white, middle and upper-class South Africans, citizens who are beneficiaries of what Eusebius McKaiser calls unearned privilege (see Run, Racist, Run for an excellent elucidation on this concept).

This is how I interpret McKaiser’s term, unearned privilege: Whether you think of yourself as a racist or not (that is, whether you think you are guilty of interpersonal racism, or not), apartheid and South Africa’s adoption of neoliberal economics after the fall of legislated apartheid have made you a beneficiary of structural racism. Your privilege continues to be enabled by structural mechanisms.

Critics of #ZumaMustFall felt that a set of privileged South Africans who had not been involved in the struggles of landless people, victims of the killings in Marikana or the struggles for the transformation of tertiary institutions were appropriating the struggles of marginalised people.

After reading Zackie Achmat’s statement of support for #ZumaMustFall, I felt that we need to rise above ad hominem attacks (there were a few) and petty prejudices (there were a few more) in order to address substantive issues at this critical juncture.

While the new hashtag might have looked like a hijack or piggyback, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have set something positive off. The student movements have led the way. Let others follow — warts and all. As I know these new revolutionaries, they are steps ahead of many and a hijack is not going to happen easily.

If the beneficiaries of unearned privilege are going to hop onto the Must Fall #, then they are going have to do the homework that the student movements set for them. What is this homework?

My favourite placard from the campus protests earlier this year offers a hint: “A revolution without intersectionality is bullshit.” If the #ZumaMustFall marchers and tweeters are going to jump on the hashtag bandwagon, which was built tirelessly by students in 2015 in the face of arrests, teargas, stun guns, rubber bullets, beatings and treason charges (remember the treason charges?) then they are going to have to engage the issues that these students have brought to the surface in hours of debates and de facto decolonisation master classes.

This is a chance for our new marchers and tweeters to establish dialogue with the student movements and engage fully with the burden of race, capital, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and scores of themes addressed so eloquently by these sharp young minds.

I am hopeful that this dialogue will happen, notwithstanding the fact that many privileged people engaged #RMF and #FMF’s public dialogue selectively (op-eds, social media commentary and comment threads offer a hint in this regard). The Jacob Zuma / Des van Rooyen / Pravin Gordhan issue has the privileged classes riled up and it is possible that they will connect the dots between JZ and the issues that #RMF and #FMF have been raising so well — the links are tangible.

If they cannot or will not engage #RMF and #FMF, then their use of the # is a clear case of cultural appropriation. I have written about cultural appropriation before (see Static: Race & Representation in Post-apartheid Music, Media & Film). If privileged communities “borrow” cultural practices from marginal communities without consulting them and without respecting the ways in which they would represent themselves and their cultural practices, a measure of cultural appropriation has taken place.

To put it crudely, am I saying that white people cannot do “black things”? Not exactly. If borrowing comes at the expense of marginal communities and if it is facilitated by unequal relations of power, we are talking about cultural appropriation. Take blackface in US theatre and cinema, for example. The practice emerged during the era of slavery. White artists would literally blacken their faces and perform racial caricatures of black people for white audiences.

The practice continued well beyond the end of slavery and made its way into contemporary popular culture. Scholar Eric Lott writes that “the minstrel show had disastrous consequences — particularly since black people had little room to contest publicly the social meanings generated out of their culture” (see Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class).

Black people had no control over the ways in which they were represented. They could not lay down the terms upon which there were represented because they did not possess the power to do so. In fact, black artists who attempted to make a living by doing blackface had a hard time doing so because white audiences considered the white blackface artists to be more authentic. Blackface tells us more about whiteness than about blackness because it involves white projections of blackness, and not the black experience itself.

This brings me to the #ZumaMustFall marches, specifically the one held in Cape Town on Wednesday. A wide number of commentators remarked on the glaring lack of diversity of the event. It was encouraging to see many white protesters outside Parliament, albeit on a public holiday when there would be absolutely no disruption to “business as usual” and notwithstanding the fact that legal permission had been obtained.

In short, this was minimal risk event — so much so that #FMF activist Wandile Kasibe’s photograph of a police officer obliging white protesters by taking a happy photograph of them (as if they were at a music festival), went viral along with a number of scathing and somewhat funny critical comments about white privilege. This event was clearly very different from the last march to Parliament that I attended not so long ago: no teargas, rubber bullets or stun guns in action. No police brutality and no frenzied running from the police at random intervals.

My colleague Khwezi Mkhize sent me a photograph that he took at the scene of the protest. It features three protestors holding a banner. The one on the left reads “Honour Madiba” and the one on the right it reads “Drop Kick Zuma”. The three protesters are wearing masks over their faces — masks of Nelson Mandela’s face. Mkhize’s message to me read, “Mandela in Blackface”.

His interpretation is spot on. All of the signifiers of black struggle have been appropriated by white citizens — everything, except for the burden of those black struggles. One sees this often in corporate appropriation of counter-cultures, specifically black and feminist counter-cultures that oppose racism, sexism or capitalist exploitation. This form of appropriation is common in South Africa, though, and it extends beyond the commercial co-option of counter-cultures. For example, we see it in the branding and marketing practices of a leading steak house, which “borrows” heavily from colonial-era racial caricatures of indigenous Americans. In recent years, we have also seen a great deal of debate about Die Antwoord in relation to blackface (see Static).

Broader debates about cultural appropriation and blackface aside, let’s return to the hashtag, revolution and the meaning of Mandela. This is how revolutionary discourses and practices are appropriated by beneficiaries of unearned privilege (whether they think of themselves as racists, or not): Revolutionary signs are appropriated by separating the signifiers (words, visuals, sounds, or performances that communicate transgressive meanings) from their signifieds (the transgressive meanings attached to these signifieds). New meanings (signifieds) are attached to these revolutionary signifiers so that they appear to be revolutionary, but are hollowed out of their revolutionary / transgressive content (see Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style for more on the co-option of subcultures). The revolutionary signs and discursive practices are thus rendered safe — as safe as asking a police officer to take your picture — while still appearing to be revolutionary (dare I use the phrase “game changer”?).

This is what the Mandela blackface photograph by Mkhize is doing. Apart from the fact that they are literally blackening up in blackface tradition, the protesters in the shot offer a selective reading of what Mandela’s political activism means because they have the power to produce such a selective reading. This is how cultural appropriation works. It is produced by power (unearned privilege, in McKaiser’s words) and is also an expression of that power. You represent black struggles and cultural expression in ways that suit your worldview because you have the power to do so.

I have used the term “protesters” in this op-ed repeatedly. This is a misnomer, I know. Was it a protest in the same sense of that adopted by residents of Wolwerivier, for example? How have the #ZMF marchers engaged their unearned privilege? How prepared are they to conduct a critical interrogation of the systemic imbalances that sustain race and gender-based class exploitation in South Africa? Are they prepared to engage a broader range of activists beyond tweets, a march on a public holiday, a dose of cultural appropriation and a hint of blackface? I sincerely hope so.


  • Adam Haupt writes about film, media, culture and copyright law. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town and is the author of Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property and Hip-Hop Subversion (HSRC Press, 2008) and Static: Race & Representation in Post-Apartheid Music, Media & Film (HSRC Press, 2012). In 2010, he was a Mandela Mellon Fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.


  1. Green advocator Green advocator 17 December 2015

    Um look up Change.Org and see where the #zumamustfall actually started. It’s not borrowed but it has been expanded from #corruptionmustfall campaign.

  2. Andrew John Snaddon Andrew John Snaddon 17 December 2015

    Doesn’t blackface imply mockery of blacks by whites?I doubt wearing a Mandela mask is an act of disrespect or racism-especially considering the marchers’ banner reading ‘honour Madiba’.At worst,It’s simply bad taste.

  3. osaft osaft 17 December 2015

    this article is just plain nuts, zuma got in office against the “neoliberal” mbeki and to describe zuma’s policies as “neoliberal” just shows in what kind of fantasy world mr haupt is living, maybe just check the latest economist article on zuma – but my favorite sentence from the article:

    “If they cannot or will not engage #RMF and #FMF, then their use of the # is a clear case of cultural appropriation.”

    and mr haupt typing this article into an probably chinese, japanese manufactured computer – what is that if not cultural appropriation. maybe just get a grip:

  4. Mark Mywords Mark Mywords 17 December 2015

    This is the most obscure excuse for bringing racism into the #Zumamustfall debate I have heard. It is clear that any public debate in South Africa degenerates into heated racial discussion whether it is #zumamustfall or #samsungvsiphone. South Africans are addicted to race so much so that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

    The reasons for the public outcry are a string of poor decisions and inadequate leadership by the person who should be the role model for the country.

  5. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 17 December 2015

    I really don’t get this. When did protesting become a ‘black’ thing? Sure, white folk (in South Africa), don’t protest as often, but it is pretty prevalent in most ‘white’ countries. White South African miners got bombed by the government when they had their big protest. Protests against conscription were from white people. The fact that our economy is something that white South Africans feel is important, shouldn’t be mocked – it impacts ALL of our country.

    There was a large number of photos of the Cape Town march. There was every shade of human in it. There were even some ANC t-shirts there. Making this a racial issue is ridiculous. Due to apartheid, the white community is probably more aware of what this will do to the country. NOT to the white community only – to the country. As much as you can’t see it, the white community loves the country more than they love the colour of their skin. You could try that.

    As for the student protests – there were a heck of a lot of white people who, not only participated, but who took down water and food. STOP trying to racialise everything. Our wonderful country is more important than our skin colours.

  6. Amit Amit 17 December 2015

    This article just flew over your head. Completely.
    The author is pointing at a the core issues that enabled our president to get away with so much.
    One interpretation may be that people with unearned privilege have done very little to create a balanced society. And unearned privilege in our country happens to be on racial lines. And those same people don’t seem to be willing or able to look deeply at the causal realities of the situation. And then take responsibility for their part, even if that part has been to do nothing. Change is not possible until this happens, and so we’ll continue to have Zuma ruling.

  7. ingrid van den berg ingrid van den berg 17 December 2015

    My dear Mr. Haupt, as the vast majority of white South Africans are tax-payers, we have every right to use whatever means at our disposal to bring to book someone who is screwing the tax-payer at every turn.

  8. Mr S Mr S 18 December 2015

    “Unearned privilege”, “White, middle and upper-class South African’s”. I guess it’s true, if you don’t have a valid argument to make, pull the race card.

  9. John Taylor John Taylor 18 December 2015

    Um, do a search on twitter. You will find that #zumamustfall predates the #corruptionmustfall and was first trending the day the #feesmustfall students marched to the Union Buildings.

  10. Sanza Nhlapho Sanza Nhlapho 18 December 2015

    Powerful write-up …

  11. Jeremiah Jeremiah 18 December 2015

    I think they are wearing the masks because they are afraid of being identified and persecuted. End of story. Do you know what an intellectual double back somersault is? The students were protesting the unfair neglect of our educational system, now their parents came out and protested the ridiculous fact that their kid’s protest fell on totally deaf ears, because Zuma still reigns. White people need to integrate and participate I agree, but maybe you should spend more time in Johannesburg. Where that happens to a greater degree than in the Cape.

  12. Jeremiah Jeremiah 18 December 2015

    Also, it isn’t cultural misappropriation because these are current cultural events underway in OUR country. Any South African could reasonably be understood upon using a Must Fall hashtag, it is something going on in our country now. For all of us. Your attitude seems to exclude white people from taking part in South African cultural events like protests. So confront yourself writer!

  13. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 18 December 2015

    The author does not stop at protesting being a cultural thing, but the Mandela legacy too.

    It seems we, as a nation, cannot celebrate Nelson Mandela as the first President of a unified South Africa, only as a freedom fighter against apartheid. This saddens me a little, because it suggests 1994 is no longer a significant milestone in the country’s history.

  14. ProudlyFemale ProudlyFemale 18 December 2015

    Ok I got three quarters of the way through and thought OMG! Then I read all the comments and was happy I don’t have to say any more…

  15. Iain Botha Iain Botha 18 December 2015

    Can we please just go ahead and make it law that ‘white people’ be forbidden from expressing their views, opinions, partaking in any form of public discussion, forum, protest, et al. because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that whatever we say and/or do is construed as ‘racist’. If we don’t give our support to a protest we’re accused of ignoring the plight of the masses; but if we do protest, then we’re accused of ‘appropriating’ the struggles of the masses (btw, it’s the first time I’ve been made aware of the fact that protesting is a ‘black’ thing).

  16. Pieter Barendse Botha Pieter Barendse Botha 18 December 2015

    If a President kill a country’s economy the president MUST FALL BY A NO

  17. Pieter Barendse Botha Pieter Barendse Botha 18 December 2015


  18. Gavin Kennedy Gavin Kennedy 18 December 2015

    I can SO see this article being the basis for a Monty Python skit titled “Ministry of Hashtags”….

    Imagine John Cleese saying “what do you mean you require a hashtag? You’ve brought absolutely NO evidence of being oppressed! Are you trying to appropriate someone else’s cause?”

    Or even “I see you’ve ticked the box here that says you’ll personally see this crusade through to the end and won’t allow anyone else to use this hashtag or complete your revolution on your behalf.”

    “Oooo, and I see you’re invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prevent Google from displaying this hashtag in it’s search results too?”

    Surely we shouldn’t deny anyone the importance or value of their personal struggle(s)?

  19. Peter Milner Peter Milner 19 December 2015

    Well said MommaCyndi! These marches are being over-analysed to the point of racism, and the whole purpose (joint with Tutu celebration) of them being entirely missed!

    The country and our economy are being destroyed – it’s time for change!

  20. Mbali Mbali 19 December 2015

    I agree with the writer. Was part of the march.

  21. Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw 20 December 2015 the vast majority of white South Africans have jobs..

  22. Philip Cole Philip Cole 21 December 2015

    Good article that makes the important point that so far the #Zumamustfall protests are not arguing for radical structural change and action to address poverty and inequality. I also was concerned at the ‘whiteness’ of the Cape Town march, which, if continued, gives the opportunity for Zuma and his acolytes to argue that the marches are ‘racist’. As other writers and the author have noted pictures were being taken of white marchers, no doubt to use in a pro-Zuma propaganda blitz if necessary. Thankfully the Jo’burg march was far more representative.
    But the author makes the common error of socialists of arguing for the purity of the movement and that the #Zumamustfall marchers must sign up to the students radical anti-capitalist and intersectional positions. This unfortunately is an alternative approach that will marginalize the #Zumamustfall marches if they are continued in the New Year. I agree that it is doubtful if many of the #Zumamust fall marchers agree with the students more radical demands. But that misses the point. If the #Zumamustfall marches are renewed in the New Year they will only succeed by creating a broad front against Zuma, similar to the coalition that was assembled by the UDF in the struggle against apartheid.
    And marching against Zuma is only part of the problem. The wider and more important issue is a forceful demonstration of civil society against the rot in the ANC and the patronage politics and corruption that has taken over in the party and hence in government. Zuma is the most obvious example of this tendency but he is only a tip of the problem. If the #Zumamustfall leaders are politically aware then they will already be building this broad front coalition ready for more action when the students go back to campus in February.

  23. Green advocator Green advocator 21 December 2015

    Well then this proves that it was there before what he claims white stole it for themselves.

  24. Mandy de Waal Mandy de Waal 3 January 2016

    Seriously? You just don’t get it. I would suggest reading the piece again. Carefully. It makes a strong, considered and extremely clear point about cultural appropriation vs doing the hard work of hearing, talking, listening and understanding. And everything is about race, and class and gender.

  25. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 5 January 2016

    No, Mandy, I don’t ‘get it’. I didn’t ‘get it’ when I was standing with a placard that read ‘The Berlin Wall Must Fall’ either. I didn’t see it as ‘cultural misappropriation’ to want a wall to come down in Germany. I obviously didn’t ‘get it’ when I went on all those other protest marches either. Strangely enough, I didn’t even ‘get it’ when I protested about the murder of Steve Biko … or maybe that was rude of me because it is wrong for white people to protest against black people being killed? So please, do explain it all to me, Mandy

  26. Thurlo Cicero Thurlo Cicero 21 January 2016

    I think you need to do research on blackface – also the author takes you through it quite eloquently. His interpretation of the use of Mandela masks are thus correct.

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