SA Bloggers are Thriving in Cyberspace. They Just Aren’t Nearly Diverse Enough.
An article in this morning’s Times, cleverly positioned next to a marketing blurb about an increase in traffic to their website, says that South African bloggers are thriving in cyberspace. A new study released this week by World Wide Worx claims that 4.5 million South Africans are now online and that over 5,000 are consistently blogging. (According to Rick Joubert of Vodafone, another 9.5 million connect to the internet with their mobile phones.)
The Times article claims that 1,000 of these 5,000 bloggers took part in a survey to learn more about the social demographics and motivations behind South Africa’s blogosphere. Some interesting findings:
- Cape Town is the epicentre of blogging in the country with more than 75% of bloggers living in the city;
- 58% of local bloggers are aged 25 to 44
- 95% of them speak English or Afrikaans
- 42% earn more than $2,000
- 46% of them have children and 55% are married
- 88% describe their blogs as online hobbies rather than income-generating tools
- 65% spend more than 10 hours a week blogging
What I want to know is where is the raw data? In the open spirit of the web, will it be made publicly available? The survey says that 95% of South African bloggers speak English or Afrikaans (I assume they mean “write in English of Afrikaans”.) What are the other languages represented and where are their blogs? (I have a hunch there are probably more Urdu blogs than Sotho despite the fact that there are way more Sotho speakers.) Also, I was amazed that 42% of the bloggers participating in the survey earn more than $2,000 a month. But what were the average and mean salaries?
On the second night of our Bloggers Roadshow of South Africa, we joined our South African blogging colleagues at Asoka Bar and Restaurant in Cape Town for a few rounds of drinks. With lounge techno in the background we clinked glasses and exchanged business cards. I finally got to meet some bloggers that I had been reading for years like Rafiq Phillips, Matthew Buckland, and Chris Rawlinson.
Among the dozens of bloggers packed into the bar, however, only two or three were black. And, as I learned from Rafiq, they were Rwandan, not South African. When I asked Rafiq about the lack of non-White bloggers at the meet-up he said there were two explanations. First, more Indian and Pakistani bloggers would have showed up if the event were not held at a bar serving alcohol, as the majority of Indian- and Pakistani-South Africans are Muslim. (Rafiq makes a point of noting that he was drinking orange juice at the bar, which I dutifully confirm.)
Second, South African bloggers of different ethnicities tend to stick to their own spheres, as I’ve written about in the past. This was quantified in a study by Annie Kryzanek of the Berkman Center’s Internet and Democracy project. She selected 30 blogs from AMATOMU’s life section, categorized them as English-speaking white bloggers, black bloggers, and Afrikaner bloggers, and then examined their linking patterns. 30 blogs is a very small sample size, but the results are provocative: South African online society is nearly as segregated as it is offline.
There is an obvious history behind all of this. Like in most other countries, South Africa’s bloggers started out as a community of tech-centric geeks. They had the computers, internet access, and time on their hands to figure out the new tools and develop their voice. They were nearly all White males in their 20’s and 30’s. Once the community was defined, it unknowingly became an exclusive clique. Mario Olckers, looking at South African social media through the framework of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, argues that the South African blogosphere’s exclusive start already spells out its impending failure.
Any kind of Social Media Strategy is therefore little more than inside baseball amongst an incestuous clique of privileged practitioners who retain and guard the old money and benefits of the old apartheid regime. Whatever Social Media campaign is launched online will necessarily only be seen by a handful of regular old faces who continually regurgitate each other’s utterings and bounce around any newsworthy items or movements within the local South African Web 2.0 zoo.
I think that he’s right-on in his diagnosis, but I tend to be more optimistic about the future. South Africa has centuries of ugly race relations history. The only way that things are going to improve is with dialogue. And social media – be it forums, twitter, blogs, or social networks – are ideal for that. But it’s going to get ugly, emotional, and difficult as it did a couple years ago at the Digital Citizen Indaba. Those are exactly the kinds of conversations that need to take place and we need leaders like Ndesanjo and Ory who can summarize them so well, step back, and offer some clarity and perspective.
The first step for any White South African bloggers reading this post (or anyone else for that matter) is to subscribe to the feeds of all the bloggers featured by Ramon Thomas in “Who’s who in the non-white Web 2.0 South African Zoo“.
Over the past five years the vast majority of South Africans have been excluded from the new public spehere that is the social web. Ridiculously expensive internet connections ($20 an hour at the hotel where I am writing at this very moment) and a lack of new media training programs means that only the wealthy are able to participate. Furthermore, English and Afrikaans have centuries-long histories as written languages. You’ll find that many bloggers – and writers in general – are more comfortable expressing themselves in writing than in person. South Africa’s other 9 official languages, however, have, comparably, only recently existed in written form. Unlike in Tanzania, where written Swahili was a significant and symbolic part of their independence movement, formal education in written indigenous South African languages has never really taken off.
I don’t want to discount the up-and-coming movements of Zulu and Xhosa literature, but it has to be said that most South African languages are still 99% oral and are rarely put down on paper. Which I believe is why the bloggers in Kwa Mashu tend to be unenthusiastic about updating their blogs with text, but become instantly excited when there is an opportunity to communicate with video, audio, performing arts, and music. For them, those are simply the best ways to communicate. Unfortunately, South Africa’s bandwidth constraints means that participating online is still restricted to text-based communication. But in the next few years a number of international and domestic projects are going to vastly improve connectivity in South Africa. Once video becomes the major medium of South African cyberspace, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it’s the old guard of White tech bloggers who are clamoring to keep up.
On a final note, it is increasingly difficult to define what is and isn’t South African. This country has always been cosmopolitan. The majority of its people, languages, and culture actually came central-Western Africa when Bantu-speaking farmers migrated south. Yesterday, walking around Soweto’s Freedom Square, the majority of merchants were not South African, but rather from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Today two of the most highly regarded bloggers living in South Africa are probably completely unknown to the majority of South African bloggers. Manal and Alaa are hugely popular Egyptian bloggers currently living in South Africa, as is Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan who is one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most authoritative voices internationally. Meanwhile, there are plenty of influential South African bloggers living abroad, like Mohamed Nanabhay. It is becoming increasingly difficult to categorize bloggers by nationality or location. Soon enough we’ll just have to treat each other as people.
And for an extra bonus, I recommend Théophile Kouamouo’s “Why I blog about Africa.”