Updated: Aug 30, 2020
In the last few weeks during global quarantine (except for the US, there really is no quarantine happening there), we have witnessed the surfacing of many societal problems that have been left unaddressed. These issues may be glossed over because of the idea of what is or is not newsworthy, general apathy, or just straight-up political concealment. With these issues being brought to light, what I have found particularly interesting is the undeniable impact that western media has on our lives.
With each re-post on an Instagram story, or the incessant tweets streaming through my timeline, I could not help but feel strange with all the people I knew, people living in South Africa, being extremely vocal on what is inherently an “American issue”.
Moments after any kind of monumental event that takes place in the global north, you can rest assured that your twitter will have the relevant hashtag, and your Instagram will be flooded with corresponding imagery. Within the last 24 hours, the overarching conversation that will probably be most "newsworthy" would be the spine-chilling murder of George Floyd or the almost cartoonishly racist outburst from Amy Cooper. These are some of the most alarming occurrences to enter this week's news cycle and it is unfortunately not an unusual feature in the lived experiences of black people in America.
And I reiterate, black people in America.
With the growth of globalization - or arguably western neo-colonization - and as part of being in the age of the internet, we are able to absorb and internalize a lot of information. And this information, although extremely important for personal enrichment, has been almost exclusively geared to the west. This initially began to bother me after the passing of Ahmaud Aubrey. With each re-post on an Instagram story, or the incessant tweets streaming through my timeline, I could not help but feel strange with all the people I knew, people living in South Africa, being extremely vocal on what is inherently an “American issue”.
I admit this does sound harsh as my internal monologue recalls the words I just produced. But it is true.
The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) was generated in the US following the unjust deaths of young black people at the hands of law enforcers. If you were alive and had access to some sort of media in 2016, there is a very small chance that you didn't know about BLM. It was an important moment globally, whereby you had black people across the world expressing transcontinental empathy for black people in America, and the reason is simple: the life of a black person anywhere, is a nightmarish existence.
The result of BLM was this new age of what I call “re-post activism” and the only real prerequisite for you to claim the label of a “re-post activist” is that you come in contact with the relevant infographic or post, and add it to your Instagram story. And there you have it, activism is done, labor completed. The problematic elements in this kind of activism could write me a full thesis, but I will list just 3:
1. How can we (we being black people) be sure that you (non-black people) actually have emotional investment or at the very least find the matter at hand troubling? Or are you just posting to appear “woke” (I really hate that term, but here I am)?
2. What does the re-posting truly solve beyond raising temporary awareness?
3. Does your activism reach beyond your repost and into the communities (non-black communities) you interact with on a daily basis?
4 years after BLM’s monumental impact on how we engage with social media and ideas of social justice in the digital context, we have not really developed from this form of activism. It has become the way we measure someone’s engagement with prevalent matters.
For me, what adds to this already grey ideological terrain, is how African people have managed to adopt this same type of activism without adapting it to the social topics that are relevant to our context. We, in a manner of speaking, are stuck in the same 2016 loop, re-posting BLM adjacent issues in the name of advocating for all black people. However, if we continue with this same method, where do African issues then fit onto our re-post roster?
It could be argued that the situation we have on our hands is a consequence of aesthetic importance when it comes to the “re-post activism” phenomenon, as expressed by my older sister after I badgered her for hours with my lamentations on this issue. It is true that the images we re-post, in honor of the lives lost senselessly, are visually pleasing. They fit modern aesthetics in a way that would make our Instagram stories nice-looking and additionally “woke” (here we go again) enough.
If we continue with this same method, where do African issues then fit onto our re-post roster?
I do not want to enter into some sort of “all of you are sheeple” discourse which condemns anyone who reposts a gorgeous infographic regarding police brutality, because that would be stupid. Apart from the “re-post activism” side of it, we re-post because it is also part of social media culture and it is one of those zeitgeisty moments that we participate in to feel part of something, and perhaps connected to a global movement rooted in a yearning for peace and tolerance. The discourse I do want to enter into is where, as African people, do we draw the line? When do we stop requiring a pretty infographic in order for us to put our experiences at the center of the discussions we have on our social media echo chambers?
COVID-19 has seen forced evictions of South Africans and foreign nationals in SA despite the ongoing global crisis, inconsistencies with relief funding, disproportionate deaths in poorer communities due to spatial apartheid, police targeting specifically black and immigrant communities to monitor movement during the lockdown, inadequate health care facilities in neighboring countries, and the list goes on. More importantly, these African issues go on.
I can’t sit on a self-righteous pedestal as if I know even half of what is happening above the SADC region. I know that most of the media I consume is from the global North in terms of film, television, music, and the like. But I think as Africans, we need to take a moment to reassess what cycles we are perpetuating with west-centric “re-post activism” and media consumption. I think what is happening in the US is disturbing and I will never stop empathizing with black people globally. I also think that what is happening here, in Africa, what we can fix in real-time or raise awareness of, is worth focusing on more than what we can do for black people in America using social media.
And it doesn’t have to start with a pretty picture.