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South Africa’s #NationalShutdown: Beware misleading visuals circulating on social media

The Economic Freedom Fighters party was on Monday 20 March protesting a slew of grievances. But not all was what it seemed to be.

This article is more than 8 months old

On 20 March 2023, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s second-largest opposition party, took to the streets for what it has termed a #NationalShutdown

The party's grievances include rolling blackouts imposed by the country's ailing power utility. It has also called for the resignation of president Cyril Ramaphosa.

As expected, social media was awash with images and videos claiming to show protest action. While many were accurate and showed genuine footage captured by the public, a number of posts were misleading or outright false, often presenting old videos and photos as current.

These posts have the potential to stoke further unrest and confuse response efforts. 

1: Widely shared video not of 2023 #NationalShutdown protesters

A video that has been widely shared online claims to show protesters at the EFF-organised #NationalShutdown.

The video, which could have been taken at dawn or dusk, shows a crowd enthusiastically singing and dancing.InsertSA1

At first glance, the video is credible because most of the people in it are dressed in the red colours closely associated with the opposition party.

“What a time to be alive #NationalShutdown #RamaphosaMustGo,” reads one caption to the video.  

“South Africa protestors makes Kenyan protestors in Nairobi CBD look like we are joking,” reads another caption, this time by a user based in Kenya.

The opposition in Kenya is also protesting on 20 March for what leader Raila Odinga says is economic and electoral justice. On the day, streets in the capital Nairobi were largely deserted and security forces were highly visible.

The video has attracted a lot of attention – the two examples above together had thousands of likes and half a million views at the time of publication.  

But is the video of March 2023 protests in South Africa? 

To check, we ran it through the free InVID verification tool to extract thumbnails of the video. The tool also allows you to do a reverse image search of the thumbnails.

This led us to past uses of the same video. EFF deputy president and member of parliament Floyd Shivambu posted it as far back as July 2020 (archived here) when he said it showed celebrations of the party’s seventh birthday. The party was established in 2013. 

While we could not verify this, the video is not of #NationalShutdown protests in South Africa in March 2023.

2: Photo of large crowd dressed in red is years old

An image shared on social media here and here claims to show EFF protestors heading to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where the government is headquartered.   InsertSA2

It shows a large crowd, dressed in red, with the EFF emblem visible on some protestors’ shirts and hats. 

“The Road to Union Building #NationalShutdown,” the caption reads. The tweet had been viewed nearly 130,000 times at the time of publishing. 

But a reverse image search revealed that the photo was taken years before the #NationalShutdown, in 2017. It shows protestors taking part in a national day of action calling for the removal of then president Jacob Zuma. 

The march, organised by opposition parties, started at Church Square in Pretoria and ended at the Union Buildings. 

3: Video showing slowing traffic ahead of international airport taken out of context 

“It is Monday morning, 20 March and the route to the Cape Town International Airport is closed.  Cape Town International Airport operations are highly [affected] by the #NationalShutdown,” reads a tweet by the EFF’s Western Cape province branch. 

It includes a video showing traffic slowing down before the exit to Cape Town’s airport. The flashing lights of a South African Police Service vehicle can be seen in the distance. InsertSA3

Several Twitter users commented that the video showed a routine police roadblock. And Flight Radar, a Swedish service that tracks aircraft flight information in real-time, showed evidence of several flights departing from and arriving at Cape Town International Airport in the early afternoon of 20 March. 

The airport’s official Facebook page also posted an update at 07:34 that morning. “All of our airports are open and fully operational. To remain updated, please follow the conversation via our social media platforms and the ACSA mobile app to receive push notifications,” the post read. 

ACSA refers to the Airports Company South Africa, which owns and operates airports in the country, including the one in Cape Town.

“We are not aware of this incident. All roads in and out of the airport are open and operations are normal,” Mark Maclean, regional general manager of Cape Town International Airport, told Africa Check. 

4: Video of large group of EFF supporters from 2020

A video shared on Twitter claims to show a large group of EFF supporters marching down a street.

InsertSA4Protesters can be heard blowing whistles and chanting as some hold up placards.

“Meanwhile, its going down in South Africa #NationalShutdown #Maandamano as Malema leads masses in peaceful demos, Johannesburg,” the tweet reads. It had been viewed over 260,000 times at the time of publication.

The flags and placards in the video do seem to show that those marching are EFF supporters.

But the video is more than three years old.

The quality makes it difficult to see what the placards say but one clearly reads “South African citizens first”.

A Google search for “South African citizens first” led us to a February 2020 tweet by Eyewitness News (EWN), a South African news publisher.

“#EFFEskomMarch WATCH: EFF marchers at the Innesfree park in Sandton. Some placards read 'Pravin Gordhan must go' 'South African citizens first',” the tweet reads.

The party was marching, at the time, to protest against ongoing power cuts and the proposed privatisation of Eskom, South Africa's public power utility, EWN said in a 2020 article.

Twitter searches for “#EFFEskomMarch” shows the video in the claim, and others like it, during the 2020 protests. 

5: Photos of quiet streets taken during Covid lockdown 

Another post circulating on social media shows a collection of photos, allegedly taken on the day of the #NationalShutdown in the city of Durban on South Africa's east coast. InsertSA5

“Durban streets … are closed”, the post reads. It shows four photos of city streets that appear to be almost completely empty. Within hours, the post had been viewed more than 60,000 times. 

On a normal Monday morning, you might expect the streets pictured to be bustling with activity. For example, the historic Durban Station in the city centre is clearly visible in one. If these photos were indeed taken on 20 March 2023, they would suggest a major stay-away as part of the #NationalShutdown. 

But, as many Twitter users were quick to point out, they were not, even if mainstream media reported that a lot of shops were shut on the day.

Image search reveals photos are from March 2020 – not 2023

Searching for matching images using Google Lens turned up posts (like this) containing the same photos – except they were not from March 2023, but three years earlier. 

They had been posted in March 2020, when South Africa was under a hard lockdown at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the lockdown, regulations restricted people’s movement, leaving many public places, like city centres, largely deserted.

The image search also revealed that local station East Coast Radio, which publishes news articles on its website, had posted a collection of photos taken around the city at the start of the lockdown. The photos purporting to be from the #NationalShutdown appear in this collection. The headline of the piece reads: “Day 1 lockdown: Durban CBD transformed into a ghost town.”

Many users were quick to point out that the photos were taken during South Africa’s first lockdown. “But these are lockdown pictures ... why are you lying?” one user asked. Another replied with a video of traffic on a Durban highway, saying “Normal day in Durban”.


Seeing is not always believing. Read our guide for tips on how to spot out-of-context videos. If all you have is a smartphone, we’ve also got you covered.

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