Exploring Global Protest Culture

Portrait of Marna Wal
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

In fall of 2016, undergraduate Marna Wal began her learning abroad program at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. That September, students across South Africa began protesting a proposed 11% tuition increase and staged the largest student protests in the country since apartheid ended in 1994. During the protests, Wal was living in the residence halls at the university with South African students. She was immersed in a culture that was unlike anything she had experienced before.

“What I really loved about Cape Town was the culture of protesting. South Africa has a rich history of protests, so it is ingrained in their culture. It is different from here where if there is an ongoing protest only some people would show up,” Wal says. By contrast, Wal recalls that in Cape Town, protests define the community. “When there is a protest,“ she says, “everyone shows up. . .At dinner all of my roommates would be engaged in discussions over the issue of the raised fees. This was common for us, and it was the only thing that anyone was talking about.”

Contrasting Cultures 

Protesting was not a new experience for Wal. She has been involved in local protests in the Minneapolis community. However, she states that there is a distinct difference between protests in the United States and what she encountered in South Africa.

“I've been to a few Black Lives Matters protests here. I went to the big one after the Jamar Clark shooting in which we marched from the precinct all the way to downtown. This was a really large protest, but at the same time it was scheduled and planned out,” Wal says 

“I remember when the protests began in Cape Town. I was walking to my bus when I saw a crowd marching and singing freedom songs. At the time I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I got back, my resident assistant messaged us about what was happening. The university had announced that tuition fees would be raised and almost immediately the protesting crowds had gathered all around campus,” she recalls.

Wal believes the immediate and broad participation in these protests define a key difference between youth culture in South Africa and the United States. Communities of students at her host university are more inclined to come together and participate, says Wal. “Again there is just a difference in the culture. . .There is a feeling of being surrounded by family, a real sense of community.”

Post Apartheid

The student protests during the apartheid era are still a significant source of inspiration in South African society, especially the Soweto Uprising, where thousands of students engaged in demonstrations and protests. According to Wal, this inspiration still drives students today to actively engage in protesting. The demonstrations of 2016 under the banner of #FeesMustFall led to an early end to Wal’s classes for that semester. Nevertheless, she maintains that her involvement with students as they marched for their beliefs was a learning experience itself. 

“This was super interesting because of my close proximity to these protests,” Wal says. “I was able to experience how different protesting is in their culture just based on the high level of engagement throughout the student community. . .The culture of resistance, especially the sentiment of showing up for what you believe in, surfaced during the apartheid, and that same sentiment exists there today. It’s a part of South African history, and now it’s a huge aspect of their culture.”

Moving Forward

Wal is thankful for her experience as a student and peer advisor in IGS. Her undergraduate career exposed her to new cultures. Upon graduation, Wal hopes to find a job for a non-profit organization. She wants to gain some experience in human rights advocacy before applying to graduate school in the future. Ultimately, she sees herself involved with public policy for a larger organization like the Human Rights Watch.


This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.

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