#RainbowNation: The rise of South Africa's 'black Twitter'

Twitter use is booming in South Africa and a loose, outspoken community of black tweeters are using the short-form platform to bypass traditional media and add their own voices to social debates. 

A little over a year ago, a debate exploded on Twitter in South Africa.

Responding to an accusation that Cape Town was a racist city, regional premier Helen Zille unleashed 140 venomous characters at a black singer named Simphiwe Dana.

"You're a highly respected black professional,” she wrote, according to a report in the Times of South Africa. “Don't try to be a professional black. It demeans you."

Soon, #professionalblack was a trending topic on Twitter and Ms. Zille was dodging Twitter barbs left and right.

"Helen Zille has managed to piss off black Twitter. She can't blame me for this one," Ms. Dana tweeted back.

The debate eventually died down, but the “black Twitter” Dana referenced didn’t stay quiet.

19 years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the country’s formerly white-dominated media outlets have become significantly more diverse. But in a country renowned for its social inequality, many feel they still represent a particular and narrow version of the new South Africa.

Enter the so-called black Twitter, a loose community of black tweeters using the short-form platform to add their own voices to the fray. 

 “We're a part of [the media], but our manner of discussion, it's subordinate to a center and that center is suburban and white,” says Nomalanga Mkhize (@NomalangaSA), a historian. Twitter, on the other hand, is a "space where we don't have to explain to anyone when we say, 'We are black in South Africa' and what that means.”

That means that views on the latest single from Justin Bieber might sit next to criticism of the West’s involvement in Syria and sympathetic comments about Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

Twitter is "a free online platform where black voices can assert themselves and their views without editors or publishers deciding if their views matter,” says Unathi Kondile (@unathikondile), a journalism lecturer at the University of Cape Town

A Twitter boom

There are no statistics on Twitter use in South Africa broken down by race, but the site’s overall popularity is booming.

Technology research company WorldWideWorx found that by mid-2011, Twitter had 1.1 million users in South Africa, a country of 50 million. That was a 20-fold increase from the previous year. And black tweeters are carving out their own space within that media ecosystem.

“Eventually [black Twitter] became more fun, gossipy, and featured indigenous languages at times,” Mr. Kondile says. “Black Twitter doesn't take itself too seriously – one could say it is the tabloid version of Twitter.”

But for a group that doesn’t take itself too seriously, black Twitter is often an active participant in social debates.

“That mainstream media space tends to follow a certain narrative and it loves to portray [South Africa as] Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and its constitutional democracy,” Ms. Mkhize says. She says that vision of South Africa, however, leaves many black South Africans and their views outside of the debate. 

“Black people still carry emotional, and physical, scars of apartheid. The nation has not healed, instead anger and pain are suppressed,” tweeted a user named Mfuneko Solomzi (@MfunekoS) Thursday, commenting on the recent death of an apartheid death squad leader who had been granted amnesty in the '90s. “The rainbow nation project has failed dismally.”

New voices, new languages

In addition to adding diversity of perspective on social issues, black Twitter users are also contributing linguistic diversity. Although English is widely spoken by educated South Africans, the country has 11 official languages, and a majority of its people speak an indigenous African language as their mother tongue. 

Many in the black Twitter cadre, even when they speak in English, pepper their tweets with words and phrases in languages such as isiZulu, isiXhosa, and Sesotho.

Instead of “ROTFL” or “LOL," for instance, tweeters might write ‘Kwa!’ or “tltltl” for laughter or chuckling.

“The vernacular is very much part of that space. It’s not a conscious effort but it’s just easier to express yourself that way and people know what you mean,” Mkhize says.

Kondile is something of an outlier in that, for the past three years, he has tweeted exclusively in his own language, isiXhosa, something that is still rare in South Africa. He says he gave up most of his white followers when he made the switch.

“I battled with internal questions of why do I use social media? Who am I reaching out to? Who am I trying to impress with English?” he says.

Mkhize points out, however, that black Twitter is also a generally middle-class medium, requiring a regular connection to the Internet, whether through smart phones or a home and office connection. But only 21 percent of South Africans have Internet access. 

“For me personally, black Twitter was a space of very suburban, educated crowd who spend their days speaking in English always," she says. "Whilst they have a critical understanding, or have that feeling of wanting to criticize the mainstream media, they are also part of it and want to contribute to it."

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