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Hamba kahle, Siyabonga Africa — may the force be with you

Siyabonga Africa and I met at a Hacks/Hackers Johannesburg meet-up in, I think, April 2012. You know that feeling when you walk into a room full of strangers, and look around to see who the cool people are; who could be your friend? Siya became that friend for me — and so many others. 

Siya’s work as a data journalist, programme officer and digital strategist at the SABC, the South African Media Innovation Programme and, most recently, Code for Africa, made an immense contribution to the media landscape in this country, particularly in nurturing startups. 

I will leave it to others to quantify that contribution. Because, like the millions of people around the world who have left us far, far too soon over the past 18 months, Siya was much more than his professional persona.

For me, Siya was the kind of friend who was always there — and whom I assumed always would be. 

It was Siya who was the only friend ever invited to our close family gatherings. He joined the Mallinsons for more than one Christmas Eve dinner and insisted on introducing us to turducken, a recipe from his days studying his first master’s in Bloomington, Indiana. My family were all a little trepidatious about the construction of this dish, but Siya took it firmly in hand, reminding us that his uncles had taught him to slaughter a sheep when he was 10 years old. The result was, of course, delicious. 

It was Siya, and our mutual friend Mina, who drove to my house and dragged me out of bed — and then out to lunch — many years ago when I was going through a particularly bad episode of depressive isolation and hadn’t been in contact with him. It’s fair to say this act of caring kick-started my recovery process. 

It was Siya who would put up with my snarky commentary on WhatsApp during whichever media conference, lecture or workshop we were attending. I used to joke that you could tell how engaging an event was by the ratio of my public posts on Twitter to my private messages to Siya, but it was true. 

Siya travelled on a solo trip to Thailand in 2018. He was initially a little nervous about travelling by himself but, true to his zest for life, embraced the experience. (Siyabonga Africa/Instagram)

It was Siya with whom I travelled to Buenos Aires in 2014, for a Hacks/Hackers meet-up, staying on to discover a little more of the city. We were both broke at the time, so we booked a room to share at a backpackers. I’m sure we would each have preferred to sleep in our own beds (not least because I snore), but it speaks to Siya’s character that I had absolutely no hesitation sharing the double bed with him. That level of trust is rare and precious. 

It was Siya who looked after my parents’ house, and our cats, when we went on holiday just this April. Every day he’d send us photos, videos and general updates on the kitties. When one of them caught a mouse, Siya dealt with the situation in his characteristic thoughtful manner. “No worries, it wasn’t a biggie — just really funny in a dark way,” he messaged me. “I rescued the mouse with a pizza box and set it free outside.”   

This was Siya — in his work, his relationships and his way of being — considerate and caring in every aspect of his life. He was always pushing himself to do better: faithfully attending his AA meetings; doing a second master’s; recently taking up golf; never scared of new challenges. 

Siya, I wish I could say to you now: you were already the best, just by being yourself.   

As well as being a special friend to many of us, Siya was a beloved son, brother and uncle. Condolences to his family: we are holding you all in our hearts. 

Siyabonga Africa stood unfailingly for science and data: his death was sudden, and his family has asked that people not speculate about the reasons for his untimely passing. They will receive the autopsy results later this week. The arrangements for Siya’s funeral will be announced in due course. 

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