Updated: Mar 20
For several years, I've been attempting to counter anti-government sentiment on Twitter among its South African users by tweeting information on positive developments and interventions, with links to the documents generously made public in the interests of transparency. This is not because I agree with everything government does. It's because the one we have is unlikely to be replaced any time soon - and if it ever is, the chances of improvement are slim. I have a post-graduate degree in African politics and many years' experience in community development.
Where the present government has shortcomings, South Africans would accomplish far more by finding objective ways of addressing them instead of tweeting their frustrations endlessly into a vacuum. There are many established civil society organisations and lobby groups to which government critics can turn to voice their grievances, as well as numerous opposition parties whose representatives in Parliament are paid well to look after the interests of their supporters.
Occasionally, I have taken it upon myself to correct misinformation about government policies and new legislation. The repercussions of doing so have been unpleasant to say the least. Each time, my tweets have prompted mob attacks from the 'alt right' leading, to date, to the closure of two Twitter accounts in the hope of protecting my name and brand.
I exposed the vileness of these attacks in one of my articles for the Daily Maverick, when I focused on misogynistic elements of the 'alt-right' Twitter mob. I decided not to mention racism, my view being that black South Africans are best placed to tackle this themselves. My blog, 'Wall of Shame', (in which I posted screenshots of racist tweets, along with many that could have been perceived at the time of tensions in Senekal as deliberately inciting violence) was suspended by its host in Israel for naming the offenders. I found that rather ridiculous; the worst hid (and still hide) behind pseudonyms and foolish avatars. But the viciousness of the first attack last year made me angry. No holds were barred in my response, and a Twitter war ensued.
Since then, I have made a point of reporting racist content to Twitter itself and have probably been instrumental in the suspension of several offensive accounts. I like to believe my email to CEO Jack Dorsey was taken seriously. I have also written to Amnesty International, who indicated in their reply that they are equally concerned about the hate speech on Twitter in South Africa and intend monitoring it.
All the accounts suspended were run by white South Africans, who have repeatedly accused me of harassing and 'stalking' them, being a communist and so on. They see themselves as the defenders of western civilisation, which they believe is under siege. In their minds, this justifies spewing racist remarks in the context of farm attacks, dysfunctional local government, corruption, an ailing economy, unpopular Covid-19 disaster management measures and anything else that's topical at the time.
Their most common complaint about me is that I don't confront what they call 'black racism'. Notwithstanding my sense that, given South Africa's ugly history, black people 'can be prejudicial towards whites - but not racist' (Sobantu Mzwakali in Pambazuka News), I have deliberately chosen not to venture into the murky Twitter waters of exchanges between the 'alt right' and supporters of the EFF, Black First Land First and others. They tend to deteriorate rapidly and I have a professional reputation to protect.
I did once run an anonymous Twitter account that attracted a large following of conservative-minded white South Africans. I had expressed concerns about the downside of political correctness, which I believe perpetuates mediocrity. Unexpectedly, they were retweeted and 'liked' to such an extent that 'followers' came in droves. Being new to Twitter at the time, I naively 'followed back' - landing myself in conversations with people I would tend to avoid in real life. What I observed can only be described as eye-opening and deeply disturbing.
My experiences as an anti-apartheid activist left me acutely aware of how careful one must be about written communication so, even in the anonymous account, I was always diplomatic in confronting racist remarks that found their way into my timeline. Some 'followers' were so crudely explicit in expressing their sentiments I had no alternative but to mute and eventually 'unfollow' them. Some of the pornographic images of African people with primates have haunted me ever since.
One conservative 'follower' challenged me to 'come out' and reveal my identity, which I did by opening a new account in my name with a headshot. I invited several less radically conservative 'followers' from the other account to join me in my new one, and eventually withdrew my incognito self from Twitter.
But I have never forgotten what I saw under cover. Which is what made me determined to do what I can to stop it and all the misinformation.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the white South Africans I encountered in that anonymous Twitter account (and those who have since gone out of their way to attack me) either don't think they're racists or are purposefully spreading hatred with some unspeakable agenda in mind. Either way, this is not going to end well for them or the country. How can it? White South Africans are a minority group with a bad reputation going back centuries. Do the racists among them on Twitter naively believe they aren't being watched? Unless an account is protected from the public eye, every tweet and timeline can be accessed by anyone in the world - not only on Twitter but on Google (where anyone interested simply has to type an account name and the word 'Twitter' into the search space). If I was black, the vile tweets blatantly expressing racism in deeply disgusting, often misogynistic terms would enrage me.
These misguided Twitter account holders are fanning the flames of anger and frustration in a sea of poverty and despair. Clearly, they don't give a damn.
Those of us who do need to act now, before it's too late. I've just reported one to the South African Human Rights Commission, having stumbled upon his real identity, the location of his properties and the whereabouts of his grown children. It will be interesting to watch what happens next.