To Be or Not To Be, an Activist?

It is only fitting to honour activism today, as we celebrate Our Nation’s greatest activist, Tata Mandela. Many years after his death there has been a great divide in opinion - mainly amongst the youth; the born-frees[1] in particular. With inequality, unacceptable living conditions, poverty and unemployment as stark reminders of a painful history; the youth question the heroic deeds associated with the stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement. My intention today though, is not to delve into the issues behind the difference in opinions, but to show appreciation for the act of activism.


Happy heavenly 100th birthday Tata! Your sacrifices allowed us the freedom we have today

Who or what is an Activist? Simply put, “a person who campaigns to bring about social change”[2]. Armed with a Facebook or Twitter account we have each become activists by joining the popularity of hashtag campaigns or internet activism. Social media campaigns have become effective in bringing awareness to a myriad of problems. If there are issues we were either previously unaware of or unable to fully comprehend due to a lack of context; digitalization has provided the means to close the gap.


| “Then, without ever leaving our homes, we are able to pledge our allegiance to a cause with a simple like or a share.”


Everything from the horror experienced by the Rohingya Muslims to the appalling caging of immigrant children in migrant detention centers, is shared across all platforms, ensuring that we are never in the dark.  Then, without ever leaving our homes, we are able to pledge our allegiance to a cause with a simple like or a share. We now feel like we’ve done our bit for the world and are able to walk over to make a cup of tea and perhaps start with supper. Back in the days of Martin Luther King, Winnie and Nelson Mandela, activism was a lot more effort intensive with the use of protest marches and placards. Seems we’ve become a little lazy in our own efforts… However, hashtag campaigns do have the benefit of being able to spread a message quickly and rather cost effectively too – you and your network of followers are essentially the key marketers! Yet many critics, and activists have questioned whether social media and internet campaigns do in fact bring about any effective change. The most successful social change movements in recent times have been those which have the ability to integrate both digital and physical campaigning. Protests and gatherings, logically, require a fair number of people to rally together in order to make a visual statement. A perfect example was the recent gathering of 250 000 people expressing their anger towards Donald Trump’s visit to the UK.


Whilst it’s great to be able to tell your colleagues or take a selfie showing that you’ve dedicated some precious time to a worthwhile social cause; activism can also provide a deeper meaning. A study[3] conducted on youth activism programs has shown that youth in these programs have been able to find a kind of sanctuary which allows them to not only celebrate aspects of their identity but to also feel liberated. Psychologists also believe that activism allows for the individual speaking out to experience both internal “psychological and physiological rewards”[4].





But there are also those individuals who are unable to attend protests either due to claustrophobia in crowds, disabilities or other limitations. Here is where we need to speak of the role of advocacy in activism. I was fortunate to stumble across a gem by advocate and activist Eva Lewis, where she makes a clear definition between advocacy and activism. Eva describes social media users as advocates who have the ability to support the cause of activists.  Advocacy allows for individuals to make changes within a system, whilst activists speak out in the world to bring awareness of the changes which need to be made.


| “To be an activist is to speak. To be an advocate is to listen. Society can’t move forward without both.”[5]


While I’m proud to be able to lend my impassioned voice to the discussion on my Facebook feed or even support efforts to cleanup beaches; I would hardly consider adding myself to a list of the great activists like Malala Yousafzai or Emma González. I think that based on Eva’s definition, I’m definitely an advocate, for now. I encourage you to find a cause or group which you identify with. Whether you choose to take the discussions into your place of work or family, you will still be initiating a change. Because at the end of it all, whether you choose to be an activist or an advocate, it’s still better than simply being a bystander.


[1] (in Africa) a member of a generation born in a country after its transition to democracy (in particular post-apartheid South Africa or post-independence Zimbabwe), Google dictionary,

[3] Akiva, T., Carey, R.L., Cross, A.B., Delale-O’Connor, L. & Brown, M.R., (2017) ‘Reasons youth engage in activism programs: social justice or sanctuary’, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 53, pp. 20-30

[4] Becker, A., (2003) ‘What makes an activist’, Available at: (accessed: 18/07/2018)