“We’re famous as a country with beautiful laws that are not implementable.”
That’s a quote from Yvette Abrahams, the Commissioner for Gender Equality in South Africa, talking about the problem of correct rape in her country.
“South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution, and the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage” reported IRIN news agency, yet “the country also leads the world in the prevalence of violent crime, and violence against women in particular.”
In 2011, a much-publicized Change.org e-petition demanded that the South African Ministry of Justice to label as a hate crime the brutal practice of raping lesbians to convert them to heterosexuality. The petition gained over 170,000 signatures.
“Extensive media coverage of our Change.org petition’s success has really piled pressure on the minister, whose chief of staff told our allies at Change.org” noted the activism group behind the e-petition, Luleki Sizwe. The e-petition also automatically generated individualized emails to the minister’s senior staffers, “flood[ing] the ministry’s email system.”
After many attempts to gain government attention, the Ministry finally called the activists for a meeting within weeks of the e-petition’s launch. “This was a first for us, and never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we would get this kind of a response,” wrote the activists. “We are thrilled, excited and very, very humbled by the support.” The founder of Luleki Sizwe, Ndumie Funda, was appointed to an official Hate Crimes Task Team.
And then the fight continued. Now, three years after the famous e-petition, the legal change originally envisaged by the e-petition is in sight.
Last month the Ministry of Justice announced a new Policy Framework on Combating Hate Crimes, Hate Speech and Unfair Discrimination, which could later become law. According to Justice and Constitutional Development Deputy Minister John Jeffery, the new law would create a separate criminal category for hate crimes, as the e-petition originally requested.
According to Inter Press, the policy is “in direct response to the increase of hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in South Africa.” Yet, even if a hate crime law is passed, will it become one of the unimplementable “beautiful laws”? The fight will continue on.
What does this tell us about the use of digital media for activism?
Because of its speed, low cost, and global reach, digital media can rapidly bring international media attention and public pressure to issues that activists at the national level have failed to gain traction on. Through raising the profile of an issue, it can give local activists’ increased access to decision-makers, providing them with new channels for influencing these officials once the media attention and public pressure have passed.
We need more nuanced ways of measuring the effect of digital media use in activism. In the absence of goal achievement, did digital media use benefit the causes’s constituency by increasing activists’ ability to pursue their goal in the future? In this case it did, putting Funda in a position of increased influence and putting the government in the position of having publicly committed to address the issue.
More than hits, clicks, and shares, the criterion of benefit is a nuanced and durable measure of activism success.