Percy Zvomuya speaks to Victor Dlamini about 'keyboard activism' and other modern outrages.
During the week in which I interviewed photographer and businessman Victor Dlamini some South African Twitter users were outraged at Dali Tambo for giving Robert Mugabe what they saw as an easy time in his recent interview.
They charged, as if in chorus, that he hadn't pressed Zimbabwe's president hard enough on the Gukurahundi genocide, the military code word for the assault on Ndebeles in the southern provinces. He hadn't quizzed Grace Mugabe on her spending habits or the alleged stashes of cash in overseas bank accounts.
"I was astonished by how people who [champion] freedom of speech are quick to curtail [it] in others," said Dlamini. "If someone is a host, they can ask the questions they want to ask, especially if this is in the DNA of the show. This is the show that he has been offering … I am surprised people are mistaking People of the South for Special Assignment …There is an increasing insistence that if some people are outraged by something, others have no choice but to be outraged as well."
Now a few years old, South Africa's Twittersphere has matured. Like a rhizome, Twitter has grown: its shoots have sprouted this way; its roots have grown that way.
People have assumed some of the roles their avatars play in real life. There are the activists (Nomalanga Mkhize and Andile Mngxitama); the wise matriarchs (gender activist Nomboniso Gasa and lawyer Christine Qunta); the contrarian and bastion of anti-imperialism (banker Sentletse Diakanyo); agony aunts handing out nuggets; voyeurs praying for targets to stalk; celebrities consolidating their brands and information peddlers (media houses and journalists) using it to push their stories.
In this democratic, anti-hierarchical space – "shouting central", Dlamini calls it – he plays the role of music connoisseur, contrarian and patriarch. A sample of his tweets include a quotation from John Coltrane: "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once."
On Gordon Igesund and South Africa losing to Ethiopia last weekend, Dlamini said "Bafana Bafana's gamble on a motivational speaker has failed to take them to Brazil." On church groups and their wails, he said: "Municipal by laws are lax when it comes to dealing with noise pollution from rowdy religious groups."
He describes the outrage against Mugabe and related forms of social engagement as "keyboard activism" and the outrage as "performed".
Said Dlamini: "It's fascinating how they move from one outrage to the next. As my friend, [columnist] Ndumiso Ngcobo, says: 'What are we going to be outraged by today?' It's people sitting there waiting vicariously, to join in these things."
Dlamini reminisced about his time as a journalist with the Sunday Tribune in KwaZulu-Natal. "When I was reporting for the Tribune in the run-up to the 1994 elections I had to wear a bulletproof vest.
"The activism that people [engaged in] then carried serious consequences … Today there is a safety in some, not all, social activism." This, Dlamini explained, is why one can "tweet an outrage" one moment and the next focus one's attention on ridiculing a soap opera.
Dlamini plays a number of roles in South Africa. He was, for two years, the host of book show SAfm Literature. "I never missed a single show," said Dlamini of his time as the curator of the country's library.
Bags of books
He studied English literature at the then University of Natal. "I was the student who put up his hand to say [to the lecturer]: 'I think your reading of Joseph Conrad['s] [Heart of Darkness] is questionable." For almost a decade now, he has been chairperson of Chillibush, an advertising and public relations firm.
"I used to keep an office there, but, for now, I work from home. When people complain about traffic I don't know what they are talking about," he laughs, as we sit in his Killarney flat.
One of his enduring passions is "making" photographs of artists and writers. Making photographs? I ask. Yes, he said. "I take my camera, read the light, change the lens. This is what a painter would do: change the brush, choose the canvas … The agency in photography is underestimated. My favourite button on the camera is the delete button."
The list of writers and poets he has shot is long and impressive. It includes novelists Nadine Gordimer, Kopano Matlwa and Lauren Beukes; photographer Mack Magagane; scholar Pumla Gqola; and poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile.He has had exhibitions in Cape Town, London and Port Elizabeth.
Though he no longer hosts the literature show, he has "bags of books", arguing that in a "world of quick tweets, one needs the discipline of going to the sources". One of the tragedies of the information technology epoch, Dlamini said, is that people want to "form large opinions" based on links to stories.
Instances of which are going to increase as more and more people discover "shouting central".
- Follow him @victordlaminiThis is the first in a series about what the South African chatterati are getting up to on Twitter