DHASA2017 – Abstract

Investigating the nature of public discourse in the #feesmustfall campaign

Sewchurran, Anusharani; Mdladla, Thulebona
University of KwaZulu-Natal

There has been much in the traditional and digital media on the #feesmustfall movement. However, little appears in the academic space perhaps due to its currency. The initial focus was on the #Rhodesmustfall movement (Bosch 2016), with Booysen (2016) reviewing the #feesmustfall movement. Pillay (2016) also focussed on the movement from a psychological perspective. This paper will attempt to review the #feesmustfall campaign from a Habermasian perspective investigating the nature of public discourse emerging in the twitter feeds.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most prolific and influential theorists of our age, Habermas introduced and continually refashioned the idea of the public sphere (Habermas 1991) through which he contemplated the necessary conditions for ‘mixed companies’ or the populace to engage in rational critical debate which could then translate into political action. The theory of communicative action offers the ideal conditions of speech where such a public sphere could exist and out of which an authoritative political action could occur. Here reflexive agency and procedural rationality feature as necessary conditions towards a public sphere. Habermas’s ideas of the public sphere were both critiqued and appropriated by a range theorists which led to the emergence of multiple competing publics existing as opposed to a cohesive singular metaphorical sphere (Calhoun 1992, Pusey 1987, Goode, 2005, McKee 2005, Edgar 2006 and Gripsrud, Moe, Molander and Murdock, 2010). In the face of competing publics Foucault’s theories of power and discourse (Foucault 1997, 1998 and 2001) become significant especially within the context of digital media. While the media is not necessarily a public sphere, it does afford communication between and amongst ‘mixed companies’ thus creating the structural reality for public spheres to exist. Foucault’s account of discursive fields is helpful in understanding the way in which competing publics jostle for the legitimacy to speak and for their truth to be valid, and validated.

The paper takes a qualitative approach using grounded theory. In this case the artefacts studied are the tweeter feeds related to #feesmustfall. Twitter analytics are guardedly employed. The study uses open coding with the constant comparative method to critically investigate the nature of the #feesmust fall discourses as they compete for validation and political action to occur.