Despite severe restrictions implemented by governments in many countries to combat the current Covid-19 pandemic, protest and demonstrations have continued to take place around the world. In Angola, like elsewhere in Africa and beyond, these protests are being led by the youth with many resulting in police brutality and deaths. The country has been undergoing deep political and economic transformations before and during the current pandemic and young people who make up more than half of the population have been deeply affected by these changes.
The current millennial generation of Angola faces a totally different reality from that experienced by the equivalent generation between 1975 and 1990s due to the country’s long civil war ending in 2002. Young men and women who lived through the colonial struggle as well as the civil conflict were shaped by insecurity and uncertainty rooted in the wars’ lasting disruptions on the social systems and infrastructure. Nineteen years later, Angola’s youth no longer have the long-lasting civil war as a reference point. Instead, their lives are shaped by disparity between the government’s promises of a prosperous life and the current dire everyday life experienced by many people in the country.
The imprisonment of the youth book club activists who were charged with conspiracy of wanting to plot a rebellion and criminal association against the government after organising a public reading of Gene Sharp’s book “From Dictatorship to Democracy” in 2015 gives one example. Another is the ongoing youth protest across the country in the last months. Both illustrate that the activism of young people in Angola is very new for a country still lacking democratic values and institutions. In recent times, Angolan youth are increasingly taking to the streets to expressed concerns, discontent and fury at the level of police brutality, corruption, unemployment, rising living costs among other issues faced by majority of the population in Angola.
A shifting landscape of protest
Much of this youth-led anti-government protest is being organised on social media, which has today solidified its role on Angola’s political sphere. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have become the most powerful means of young people’s expression of dissent and mobilisation against the state. It indicates that, as in most developing democracies, social media platforms could present an opportunity for governments to help strengthen the process of democratisation. There is clear potential for those in power to leverage social media platforms to help state-citizen relation by closing the gap between those who govern and those been governed.
Social media has not only allowed the youth to actively express their political discontentment but also to create a political identity in a way that is convenient and potentially safer in a country low with restricted space for protest. As the government continues to struggle to deal with this ‘new’ reality of political activism, attempts to limit and control these virtual spaces have prompted wider protests and even online meme-fication of the executive power.
Challenging executive control of social media
Chris Tenove defines political memes as a purposefully designed visual framing of a position, represented in the form of jokes about a public figure or political issue. Memes today represent a new genre of political communication that works when they are shared widely, help cultivate a sense of belonging to a “group” and present a compelling and complementary normative illustration about a figure. They are easily created, consumed, changed and disseminated, and can quickly communicate the creator’s position on the subject. The stronger the emotional response provoked by a political meme, the greater the intention to share it.
Yet, under the Penal Code of Angola, a new article (333º) has been introduced to condemn any criticism or commentary against the figure of the President of the Republic and organs of sovereignty. This is seen by many political analysts and law makers as a threat for freedom of expression and creation. It has prompted a recent wave of political memes created by Angolan youth reflecting the importance and power of social media in Angola’s political sphere. With the next general election just around the corner, ‘digital rights’ which are universal human rights in digital spaces, could be a major topic of public debate in the country.
Social medias as political protest
All in all, the recent protests in Angola showcase the solidification of social media in the political sphere and the start of meme-ification of the executive power as a way to question it. These new digital trends led by young people, should not be seen as threat to state governance but as an evolution of democratic practices in a country where the youth represent the main social voice. While demonstrating the new role of social media, the recent protests in Angola also illustrate how the country is going through a new phase of social dynamics. Here, the benchmark of prosperity for the youth is no longer the end of the civil war but rather the political promises made by the ruling party versus the socio-economic reality the majority of the Angolans which contradicts these promises.
It is clear that this generation of Angolan youth are committed to challenging the status quo while playing an active role in creating their own identities. Their protests and activism show an incredible capacity and desire to make a living for themselves within a constrained economic, political and social environment. Young people in Angola are not waning in political engagement but are rather using non-conventional forms of political participation to express themselves. The most important channel for their political expression is now social media which has become the facto instrument of defence against the state. The recent wave of political memes directed at the executive branch is a reflection of this phenomenon.