Q&A with SpeakZA founder

Sipho Hlongwane is one of the more popular contributors on the Mail & Guardian Online’s Thought Leader blog. At the end of March, he organised an online, blog-based protest against ANC Youth League (ANCYL) Spokesperson Nyiko Floyd Shivambu’s attempts to leak a dossier of City Press journalist Dumisani Lubisi’s alleged finances, and the Youth League’s subsequent intimidation of journalists who objected to Shivambu’s antics. Hlongwane named his campaign #SpeakZA, after the Twitter hashtag convention.

Bloggers who agreed to participate in the protest posted blogs with the tag #SpeakZA in the headline. The online protest received a good deal of coverage in traditional, digital news outlets and across a broad spectrum of social media platforms. Before long, the phrase “Desktop Activism” was being bandied about, with negative and positive feedback.

We spoke to Sipho Hlongwane about the why, the how, and the what now of the #SpeakZA protest.

What kind of response has #SpeakZA had on Twitter and other social media sites?

Huge! It was unlike anything I’d anticipated. When I first began to develop the idea, I thought that 50 blogs was quite ambitious. To be honest, I was hoping to get 20 or so blogs to participate. However, once the idea broke on Twitter (via Chris Roper’s blog and the #SpeakZA hashtag), the requests kept rolling in. On the #SpeakZA day itself (24 March 2010), the tweets were coming in at a rate of about one tweet every 20 seconds. I’m still hugely bummed that we didn’t manage to crack a trending topic. Just one of those things, I guess.

Thomas Jefferson said “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press…”. If he had lived now, do you think he might have swapped the word “press” for “blogosphere”?

Essentially, you’re asking me whether social media sites have replaced newspapers more than any other traditional media types. Traditional media still has a very important role to play in society, despite the explosion of social media. The trouble with social media is that anyone, from conspiracy-theory crazies to rabid racists, can now mount the soap barrel. I like what P.J. O’Rourke said about blogs in his book On the Wealth of Nations, “Freedom of speech is wonderful, if you have anything to say. A search of the ‘blogosphere’ reveals that hardly anyone does.”

Closer to our context, the news of the passing of former Health Minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang first broke on Twitter, but we all rushed to the news sites to verify that information. We will always refer to the traditional news outlets for accurate information — even if that news first broke through social media.

Another angle to this question is the issue of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Liberty is meaningless if it doesn’t come with the right to express oneself without fear of suppression. In that sense then, I’d say that blogs and the press are interchangeable.

Did you worry that by launching the SpeakZA campaign on the internet, you’d only be reaching a very niche section of the population?

That issue came up when #SpeakZA launched on Twitter. Someone suggested that it was just another ‘rich, white whinger’ initiative. That person had a serious amount of back-pedalling to do when he realised that I’m neither rich nor white. Yes, I was aware of the fact that the reach of the internet is ridiculously low in South Africa, and is largely limited to a certain demographic, for reasons we all are aware of.

It’s a pity, but really, no reason at all for any of us not to act on our convictions.

Have you read Floyd Shivambu’s blog?. What kind of blogging advice would you give him?

I didn’t know that Floyd Shivambu blogs! That’s quite interesting.

I receive daily updates of the ANCYL’s press releases, and compared to those, his blog is brilliant. I’d advise him to update his blog more often, and to perhaps provide more in-depth, behind the scenes coverage of Youth League activities. And what does he, as a person, think? His blog seems to be nothing more than another ANCYL propaganda outlet. It’s like Shivambu doesn’t ever think outside party lines…

Will we see #SpeakZA again?

#SpeakZA is still around. I had thought it was going to be a once-off thing, but clearly there’s a need for this sort of thing, and so we’ll keep it alive. I keep in touch with members via the Facebook group. However, should we feel the need to speak out publically again, we will certainly do so.



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