Is #MovementBuilding Effective?

By Lenina Rasool

In October 2017, the #MeToo opened the online floodgates and shone a spotlight on sexual assault in Hollywood’s entertainment industry. The movement quickly took off across industries and countries around the world, gaining enormous media attention and providing a glimpse into the high rates of violence against women.

Here at home, #TotalShutdown, an Intersectional Women’s Movement in the fight against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), was born in May 2018 by a group of women who, as quoted in Independent Online, “felt that they had just seen one too many posts of missing women and know exactly how that story will end”. This time last year, the red and black colour scheme dominated digital and physical spaces, mobilising women via Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and, utilising the tools of old, young women spread out and distributed pamphlets and T-shirts to promote the cause.

#TheTotalShutdown trended for months until 01 August when, reminiscent of the Women’s March against pass laws in 1956, thousands of women across the country took to the streets in a nationwide march. In Pretoria, as in 1956, the march led to the Union Buildings where a memorandum of 24 demands was handed over to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The movement had an immediate effect, with the Presidency hosting a two-day National Gender Summit two months later in November 2018. The summit sought to share experiences and identify collective solutions to violence and abuse and produce recommendations to end violence against women and children.

One year later, as the deadline loomed for #TheTotalShutdown’s 24 demands (which can be viewed here:, the group was less visible online, in the media and across the country. But while the marching momentum may have faded, the modest turnouts concealed considerable activity over the past year, both on the ground and within government where a steering committee collectively worked on a plan to end GBV. In late August, stakeholders convened in Cape Town at a provincial consultation working towards a National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) Strategic Plan for 2020 – 2030, which is now out for public comment. (See details below.)

This begs the question: how impactful are mass movements in the greater scheme of advocacy?


Siphelele Chirwa, a 2012 Activator and the current Executive Leader at Educo Africa, who once helped lead a group of Activators to spam the SABC2 Morning Live news programme via SMS with the #A1 hashtag, says that while marches and shutdowns are good, it is not enough to sustain a movement.

“It’s fun to pick up placards and feel like you’ve done something, but a true movement goes beyond that. People think that 50 000 people marching or shutting down universities signals success, but it’s actually the 10-15 people who went to Parliament that is the real success,” she says.

Western Cape Coordinator of #TheTotalShutdown, Tandi Rouse, agrees and shares some insights on building movements from her work as an activist.

“People are event-driven and want to get involved when there is hype, like a march or something, but beyond the march, it’s difficult to find support and volunteers. People also do not really see the work being done behind the scenes and become disheartened when there aren’t quick results.”

Rouse adds that change takes longer and requires a sustained effort over a quiet – or non-marching – period. “People also don’t know that for anything to be funded by the government, it has to be planned and the proposal put into a budget cycle which is every five years. So it takes time to do the necessary work.”

Chirwa urges youth, however, to continue with their activism, even if it feels like you’re fighting alone.

“Look at the dagga activist,” she says. “He was the only face in that movement for ten years. He worked alone or with a few people and didn’t give up, even when people laughed at him. He was one man but he changed legislation, he changed the world.”


*The draft National Strategic Plan (NSP) for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide has been released for public comment. You can download a copy here []. Add your voice to the fight against GBV by submitting your comments via this Google form [] or email your comments to by the 15 September 2019.


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