Activism is the language of the liberals


As populism rises in the more noticeable corners of the world, so does the demand for social change roar into favour the existential liberals of modernity. One might ask that if liberalism were to dominate the supposed 21st century, why has right-wing politics taken to the wheel to drive a major wedge in contemporary society. 

It’s a matter of perspective; populism is an ideology that restricts not only one’s individual freedom but also limits their political inhibition in the fear of retribution. And as a matter of fact, populism has gained popularity and socio-political security as we see waves of anti-liberal actions all around. But what this also equates to is the momentum of collective resistance. As much as there has been socio-political repression, the quest for individualism and freedom continues.

And such has become the rise of activism in the wake of individual awakening and collective reckoning. While activism is predominantly a labor to the soul, it strengthens civil society and garners a space for mobilization of the ordinary person. But how has activism changed through the generations as the demand for change has altered paradigms and travelled distances. What may have started as a phenomenon of revolution and rebellion might has well been personalized to politically suit a generation’s uprising through tribulations. As we enter into a more connected and modern era, violence and regression have more than usually become evident in social spheres. Thus, the subject of activism has arose to commit to a brand new forum of awareness and intricacy.

More so, activism is not only a public demonstration of dismay or demand but has altered itself to be much more than an intervention through time. Some may even call it a creative medium of projecting change and others might still resort to brand it to a revolt or disruption. In my mind, activism has much more to its context than demonstrations and interventions. Being an activist is taking your soul and losing it to the labour of practicing what you believe in. However, the conversation does not end there. With our current generation’s obsession to materialize its ambition on the go, activism has run its road but with tricky avenues to observe.

Even if collective effort is required to raise awareness, activism has achieved notoriety because of people personalizing their gain and accessibility. Although mobilizing ideology to empower society is commendable, often the onus to depend on activism falls on those without the certain social capital who commence the movements. While liberalism boasts of individual democracies, but unfortunately function on socio-economic privilege. Skepticisms surround the nuances of activism; what is it, who is it for and why do it? 

More of the modern activism percolates around social media and the industry of protest is evidently in the public space. But what makes it more difficult to persuade naysayers is the constant commercialization of what is made to be activism. While members of an equal society hold the right to protest and project dismay, how far do we take it when our own civil liberties determined by the strata of society we come from affect those who the activism is intended for? It is more said than done to be an influencer in their respective domains but has the altered form of activism done more harm than good? What may be a beginning to empower civil participation, is arguably being diluted to a ‘fashionable trend’.

Recently at a political summit held in Durban about electoral accountability and transparency, famed political activist and author Boniface Mwangi unpacked the efforts of activism and how it has shaped society as we see it today. Political violence is evident in African nations and Mwangi’s own experience with political dissonance was important to understand an unique perspective. His insight took a look at how activism and civil society has an elaborate partake in ensuring that human rights are well protected. But when we do examine human rights, it carries a more a intricate framework than one shown on the surface.

Activism should not be restricted to a certain domain to incur influence but should be an everyday task. But what is more noteworthy to understand is that Mwangi himself had once turned his back on being in the spotlight till he found his calling. Boniface reiterates that the right to protest is actually a valuable tool for citizens to exercise their agency to project their politics, frustration and authority. He insists that activism is not supposed to be a sport for those who have access to social credit, activism is for everyone who wish to reject their ‘pariah’ status and to manifest their resilience to move beyond oppressive structures. And he further said that mobilizing citizens to fight for what they believe in starts from the smaller levels which will predict larger success.

Activism, as much as it a contested icon of contemporary society should be at the least inclusive and non-glamourous chore.

Sumona Bose is a MPhil candidate in Justice and Transformation at the University of Cape Town. She also did undergraduate studies in Political Studies and International Relations and has a Honours in International Relations.