On May 14, 2021, the body of Thabani Nkomonye was found in a field in the southern African kingdom of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, by his mother. His eyes had been gouged out, and there were three holes in his torso, she said.
Suspicions that the 25-year-old student had been tortured and killed by police led students to organize protests demanding an end to police brutality and calling for multiparty democracy. The protests continued through June and into July, and were met by tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.
At least 27 people were killed. If the overall trajectory of the protests in Eswatini sounds familiar, it is because it reflects broader trends found in varying forms around the globe. At a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, young activists are especially invested in struggles for a better future. Unless their demands for a secure future, greater democratic participation and equitable solutions on climate change are met, we should anticipate increasingly frequent and disruptive waves of protest.
Today, dramatic protests and conflict have emerged in a number of places. Deadly unrest in Eswatini’s dominant neighbour, South Africa, was sparked by a 15-month prison sentence imposed on former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court after he failed to appear before a corruption inquiry. But it must also be understood as a response to rising poverty in a country with the highest youth unemployment and highest economic inequality anywhere in the world.
Cubans have taken to the streets amid food shortages as the impact of the Covid pandemic magnifies difficulties in an economy already limited by United States sanctions; their demands are for systemic change and freedom.
And in Colombia, weeks of protest – initially confronting pandemic-prompted tax reforms – broadened into demands for reform of the police, better healthcare and stronger forms of democratic representation.
Reflecting the youthful demographic that appears particularly involved, and the strength of Colombian student movements in recent years, better access to education has also been a key demand.
Despite the specific national contexts that spurred these events, there is an underlying pattern.
We see pre-existing situations of economic inequality and political injustice accompanied by either autocratic governments or repressive policing – which have been sharply exacerbated by the pandemic. What began as narrow demands ended up being broadened out to challenges against a lack of democracy. The existence of multiparty elections does not protect faltering governments from potential instability.
This is not a new pattern. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 increased unemployment, and raised the cost of food, housing and utilities around the world – sparking the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa two years later. The Occupy protests that began in New York in 2011 mostly occurred in relatively stable democracies as a response to economic hardship, which led to demands for deeper forms of democratic participation.
Many of these movements were driven by young activists. So often the first fired and the last hired, young people are particularly vulnerable when economies contract, and unemployment rises. Economic troubles are often the trigger, but they lead to broader demands for political reform, better representation, more participation and more accountability.
Sociologists understand that social movements appear in waves. That is, the frequency of events – whether measured within or across countries – is not scattered randomly. It is visible as a roughly wave-shaped line on a graph charting protests over time.
Protest waves may contain many different movements with apparently divergent grievances and forms of action. But there are likely to be discernible underlying patterns, as well as connections between movements.
If we are today seeing a wave of protest at the global scale, then it is clearly patterned by the all-encompassing context of the Covid pandemic. We cannot simply explain away such protests as knee-jerk reactions to difficult times, however.
As protesters come together, they begin to recognize the possibilities for change. Hope begins to take over from outrage as a spur to action.
And in coordinating protests and sharing stories – whether on the streets or online – movements develop an analysis of their situation. Individual troubles are recognized as a collective injustice, solutions are proposed and pursued, strategies are deployed and adapted.
When protesters develop demands for dignity, respect and liberty, they often reveal long-held dissatisfactions with the status quo and dreams of a better day. Those dreams motivate long-term social movements whose activity persists between – and feeds into – the dramatic waves of protest visible on the evening news.
The movement against racial injustice saw an increase in public action in 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests spread globally after the murder of George Floyd. The rapidity and breadth of mobilizations indicate that the movement has been growing over the longer term.
Manuel Castells, the prominent sociologist, observed that young people were the driving force of the Middle East and North African protest wave of 2010-11. One reason was economic vulnerability. In the places where protests emerged most rapidly, such as Egypt, Greece and Spain, youth unemployment rates had hit historic highs.
On top of this, young activists brought particular skills and resources to the organization of protest. Many were well-educated and particularly well versed in the use of information technologies. Social media platforms offered access to a network of other interested young people, and an audience for activist-created media as videos, news updates and commentaries sped from phone to phone.
Cosmopolitan, they looked abroad for inspiration and shared messages of solidarity. ‘We are all Tahrir’, painted on a placard in New York City, photographed and shared via social media, is both a direct message of solidarity and an expression that, like the Egyptians, some Americans craved radical systemic change.
Connected and collective
The 15-M movement in Spain, and then Occupy in America took the tactical form of occupation of a public square directly from the uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa. The sudden appearance of tents in city centres, demonstrating a level of commitment beyond the traditional march and rally, was a highly visible sign of that connectivity. The tactic reappeared too in the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, which led to demonstrations in 2013 against urban development plans for Istanbul, and the 2014 Umbrella movement in Hong Kong in defence of democratic rights.
After New York, the term ‘Occupy’ and the slogan ‘we are the 99%’ spread widely, offering a further symbolic connectivity in the global wave of protest. At other times, symbols drawn from American popular culture have been adopted. The Guy Fawkes mask from the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta was mobilized widely online in discussions among supporters of political hacker group Anonymous and then adopted by different movements around the world in the early 2010s. The three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games films appeared among student protests in Thailand and then again in Myanmar.
The continuing importance of Hollywood in global circuits of culture doubtless explains the direction of travel here. But ideas flow in other ways too. Today, racial justice movements in the West are clearly influenced by a critique of the continuing influence of coloniality drawn from intellectuals, such as Frantz Fanon, writing from the global South.
Symbolic connectivity does not necessarily indicate deeper forms of interconnection at the global level. But those deeper forms have been present as a characteristic of several significant movements since at least the 1999 ‘Battle in Seattle’, a demonstration held during the World Trade Organization summit, sometimes described as a ‘coming-out party’ for global activism.
The Battle in Seattle drew together movements of peasants and landless workers from the global South with trade unionists, environmentalists, feminists and others. This was possible because the groups involved had formed links after the Zapatista-hosted ‘Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism’ in 1996, when thousands of activists from Europe, the US and elsewhere visited Chiapas in southern Mexico to discuss the autonomous critique of neoliberal capitalism being developed under the leadership of the Mexican insurgent Subcomandante Marcos.
Often mislabelled as the ‘anti-globalization movement’, the summit protests that followed Seattle, targeting the institutional architecture of globalized capitalism, mobilized many movements from every continent. Neoliberal globalization was in its most triumphant phase, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and claims such as Francis Fukuyama’s that we had now entered the ‘the end of history’.
In opposition, movements found ways to generate alliances, not only across borders but across issues and causes as well. The movement developed innovative online platforms such as Indymedia, as well huge World Social Forums and their various regional and local offshoots.
Confronting international financial institutions shone a light on sharp political and economic inequalities between nations. Those injustices persist as can be seen in the way that unequal access to global finance, alongside the protection of intellectual property, has created a situation of ‘vaccine apartheid’.
The risk, here, is that driven by accelerating communication practices, speed takes precedence over depth. Some scholars have argued that the diffusion of mobilization through social media today creates ‘wildfire movements’, emerging with unprecedented rapidity, but disappearing with equal speed and leaving few traces.
The many waves of global protest described are partly suggestive of continuities over time. But each wave contains its own innovations.
Today’s young activists are certainly bringing high levels of commitment to struggles against injustices of many kinds. We can begin to see some novel characteristics. Firstly, political consciousness and action appears to be beginning earlier in people’s lives. Not only adult students, but also school students have placed themselves in harm’s way in Hong Kong, Columbia, Thailand and across Europe in school strikes for climate justice.
A second characteristic may be a different attitude to leadership. Preceding waves of protest have displayed a distrust of individual leaders or any attempt to represent the diversity of participants. Today we see the emergence of a different kind of leader – Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, Gabriel Boric in Chile or Greta Thunberg in Sweden.
All have emerged into the international spotlight rather organically, their leadership based less on organizational functions, and much more on the moral authority of their statements and commitment to action. While these are among the more recognizable figures, it seems that at more local levels in many movements the young – and particularly young women – are finding new ways to inspire others to confront injustice and demand change.
As we have seen, while the arrival of large scale, disruptive protests and unrest may appear disparate, responding to national failings in the context of a global pandemic, they are also driven by long-held and widely shared needs and desires.
A further theme is the development of a deeper understanding of global inequalities rooted in colonial power and slavery. From the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa, to the toppling of statues in the US and Britain, activists make histories of oppression visible. This is true too of the activism of indigenous communities in settled lands including Canada and New Zealand.
Where such concerns come together with future-oriented contestation over climate – such as with the US-Canada Keystone XL oil pipeline – we can see how present-day anger is rooted in a deep understanding of historical development.
Demands for access to food, shelter, medicine or education bring people on to the streets. Once there, they demand access to decision-making too. Rigid structures of power – in democracies as well as more authoritarian countries – lose legitimacy as they continue to reproduce violent forms of discrimination and put up barriers around the comforts of the wealthy.
Despite some softening of the language and the effects of economic globalization, injustices persist. The pandemic has shown that in times of crisis the most divided societies suffer the most instability.
As the effects of climate change continue to grow, that may be a lesson worth learning.