From being dismissed as unruly student protests about fee increases, the protests had become a national 'movement' by mid-week, rallying support across South Africa via multiple hashtags, for their mostly, non-violent, disciplined, non-political and organised nature. Students were lauded for showing restraint and for cleaning up after themselves at rallies, with the private sector stepped in to feed those who were sleeping over at sit-in's across institutions such as Wits and UCT.
Today the Bannister Hotel in Braamfontein was offering a free lunch to #WitsMustFall and #UJShutdown students.
But, stepping away from the 'politics' of the situation for a moment, one of the most astounding consequences we bore witness to, was the way student on-the-ground coverage influenced sentiment, spurred on by strong missives from their academic leaders, correcting facts in the media and emphasising the organised and non-violent nature of the protests. It was a true social media revolution, this time for the South African context.
Social media, as we have noted in other revolutions globally, has been the catalyst in changing perceptions, providing witness accounts, and creating a groundswell of support, in this case drowning out the usual negative commentary that sprouts insidiously at times like this.
It was stories such as these, accompanying the videos and the pix, from the students themselves caught in the thick of things while protesting, which are being shared over and over...
We shouldn't be surprised of course, this is the millennial generation, our born-frees, our first truly digital generation, and our 'hopeful' youth, the product of our democracy. And they know better than any of us older than 25 years, how to use social media for maximum amplification of their cause.
Plus, there is precedent: Germany abolished all tertiary education fees last year after mass protests and a groundswell of public opinion against high fees.
The hashtag that rallied students to the cause, which began at Wits and then spread to UCT and other institutions within a matter of days nationally, was #FeesMustFall, expanded to #NationalShutDown. When this became the subject of a court interdict for UCT students protesting on campus, the hashtag #FeesWillFall was added, along with many other variations.
We also witnessed the spotlight growing on influential youth media site, The Daily Vox, which has been the 'go-to' blog for live updates from students and reports on the ongoing protests, referenced by international media, like the Washington Post in this early guide for readers internationally that wanted to know more about the significance of South Africa's student protests.
And EWN is becoming a legend at creating in depth timelines and coverage of key events in our history. Their latest feature tracks the conversation around the protests.
Responding to criticism against the media for a narrow and biased view of reporting the protest action, Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarber invited students to co-edit today's newspaper. It was a groundbreaking decision.
And in all the political and eye witness commentary, lighter moments have come from posts showing messages from older activist parents giving advice to their newly-minted activist children on how to cope with teargas in the marches.
Even artist Faith47 created a poster for free download and non-commercial use for the #FeesMustFall movement.
A handy infographic survival guide is also doing the rounds with a graphic representation of how to "survive" the march to the Union Buildings today with practical advice on bringing water, sunscreen, a torch for evening vigils, a charged cellphone, etc.; as well as posts on what to do if you are arrested.
The implications of what is going on right now, for South African society, politics, as well as our communications arena, are far reaching and social media is an undeniable enabler. Stay connected and watch this space...