Tweet dreams are made of this

I never imagined I would spend my first anniversary as a South African resident watching a fellow British journalist get marching orders from a press conference with the words “bastard” and “bloody agent” ringing in his ears.

Nor did I expect my 999th contribution to Twitter to be sent from a funeral where Nazi-style swastikas and apartheid era flags were de rigueur, black journalists were heckled as “kaffirs” and “baboons” and mourners expressed their grief with a salute perfected in 30s Nuremberg.

I took comfort from a sense that, somewhere between these extremes, there were millions of South Africans working, shopping, laughing, watching television, making love and, in a small but growing minority, tweeting.

Twitter last week rapidly became a focal point of discussion and debate about both Julius Malema’s notorious outburst and Eugene Terre’Blanche’s gory demise.

Jonah Fisher, a BBC journalist, demonstrated that being on the receiving end of Malema’s audition for The Last King of Scotland sequel can do wonders for your Twitter career.

Hours after being ejected by the African National Congress youth league president, Fisher tweeted: “Forced out of ANCYL meeting and called a bastard by Julius Malema. What did I do? Pointed out that he lives in Sandton ... After he’d launched into a tirade about Mickey Mouse opposition in Zimbabwe speaking from ‘airconditioned Sandton’ not Mashonaland.”

That evening Fisher added: “Crazy day.
Thanks for all the nice messages. Now at the church in Ventersdorp for Terreblanche funeral tmrw.”

And later: “ANCYL have issued a statement inviting me to apologise. Hhm ...”

The following day, Fisher tweeted again: “Funeral over. The heavens have opened. And the ANC have told Malema to apologise. Waiting for the phone to ring.”

All of this brought him more than a thousand new fans on the social networking website. Fisher, who started tweeting only in January, quickly surpassed my own tally of 788 followers and now has almost double that number.

‘Jonah Fisher is kinda cute :))’
Many gave messages of support. The user absurdking wrote: “Jonah Fisher, hats off to you. For being a damn good journalist, and covering real issues. We applaud you.”

Another, ilseposselt, posted: “Jonah Fisher, in my (granted, somewhat limited view) you have officially reached hero status!”

ryanrich001 said: “My support as a South African is completely behind you, and I can’t believe how rude that arrogant little nothing was!”

There was dissent from jamesrobinson00, who told Fisher: “You should stayed there and given the little shit some serious uphill—not walk out like a scolded child! backbone?”

But he gained an admirer in tarrynharbour: “Jonah Fisher is kinda cute :))”

Malema himself appears to have more than one Twitter identity, but the youth league has pointed out they are all fakes. Its spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, said recently: “It’s set up by people who are crazy, people who are mad, and we have no interest in that.”

But people are tweeting across Africa, particularly in South Africa and Kenya. Every day I see messages from aid agencies, embassies, marketing firms, media organisations, NGOs, politicians, journalists, citizen journalists and countless others with access to phone or computer. In countries such as Zimbabwe, it has become one more valuable weapon in the war against state censorship.

For foreign correspondents on the road, Twitter has come at a time when cellphone coverage is expanding into the unlikeliest corners. I’ve tweeted from a boat in the Okavango Delta, the forests of southern Madagascar and a military convoy in the hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I’ve also used it to file quotations from press conferences, reviews of theatre first nights in 140 characters, and web links to African articles, photographs or multimedia that seem worth sharing.

Twitter offers the chance to drop pebbles of experience, insight or breaking news into a pond. Robyn Dixon, who reports on Africa for the Los Angeles Times, often tweets postcard impressions from her travels.

Here are some nuggets from her visit last month to Nigeria: “inside a nigeria govt office: desks and computers numbered in white paint. Faded prayers on the wall. Piles of withering paper files.”

“Staying in relic of a hotel in Nigeria. Stateowned, tatty. Things falling apart, as they do. Reminds me of Russia early 90s. But with geckos”

“Hugged a widow whose husband was killed by Nigeria police. Death is something you never get blase about, as a journalist. Widows. Orphans.”

“Tssiuuu! The noise of exasperation Nigerians make, expelling air through their teeth with their tongue. You hear it all day long.”

“Nigeria highway. A landscape of black plastic bags littering the dust like alien cabbages, caught in trees like malevolent ravens”

“Sign on incredibly battered ugly old truck in Nigeria: Sorry, baby. No time for love”

Citizen journalism
But the power, and perils, of Twitter for citizen journalism in Africa are also growing. In January Gregg Coppen, from Cape Town, witnessed a shark attack from his bedroom window. He instinctively reached for his phone and tweeted: “Holy shit, we just saw a gigantic shark eat what looked like a person in front of our house in fishhoek. Unbelievable.”

He added: “We are dumbstruck, that was so surreal. That shark was huge. Like dinosaur huge.”

The words were quickly circulated on Twitter and picked up mainstream media in South Africa and internationally. They were quoted in news reports, magnified in headlines and gained the permanence of print. Coppen saw his hastily written tweet staring back at him from lamppost posters in black and white. He was interviewed by radio stations around the world.

Unfortunately this left with him with what golfers call the yips, or perhaps the tweeps. He told West Cape News: “There is almost a sense of pressure—how do you follow up a shark attack tweet? I don’t know exactly why people are following me now. The whole thing is pretty farcical.”

And of course even the Cape Town twitterati will not be challenging the Silicon Valley iPad crowd any time soon. As Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, noted in a column last year, there are still two South Africas: “One that tweets on the best technology and one that does not eat.” -

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