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South Africa: A nation in conversation with itself 140 words at a time

“Was news of Manto’s death the Hudson plane crash of South Africa? Did the passing of the controversial former minister of health mark a coming of age of Twitter in this country?,” asks South African blogger and author Sarah Britten in her post on Thought Leader titled, “How Twitter broke the news about Manto.”

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is South Africa's former Minister of Health who died last week. Manto's death and Hudson plane crash comparison is probably not the best since the landing of the plane in the river was first reported by eye witnesses. However, she argues that the role Twitter played in distributing news of her death is significant. Sarah's post highlights a new trend in South African communication and media space brought by new media tools.

Sarah argues that what Twitter revealed what usually happens behind closed doors in newsrooms: rumours of a big story, frantic efforts to check sources, conflicting reports.

Conflicting reports: Was she or wasn't she?:

I happened to log on at about 2.30 in the afternoon, to see the following tweet from Toby Shapshak, the editor of Stuff magazine: “just heard that Manto has died”.
Wow. Credible source, I thought, since he’s an employee of Avusa and presumably hangs around the newsroom at The Times from time to time. I immediately directed a question at him: how did he know? Then I went onto Facebook and made the announcement in a status update, as one does these days. Then to the news sites to search for the story. Nothing. I asked Nic Dawes, the editor the Mail & Guardian, whether he knew anything. (That’s the amazing thing about Twitter: you have direct access to so many journalists and other public figures in one forum.) “Trying to find out about Manto before saying anything rash,” he tweeted. “She was said to be stable yesterday.”
Then a journalist at Sapa reported that no, Manto was alive; her doctor had said so. Lots of confusion in the Twittersphere. Was she or wasn’t she? Or was this some strange case of Schrodinger’s Former Minister of Health?
It was The Times that scored the scoop, with a brief report noting that sources close to Tshabala-Msimang’s family reported that she had died. A few minutes later Dawes confirmed it on Twitter: “ANC confirms the death of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.”

Another angle that Sarah looks at is how Twitter facilitates discussion in South Africa:

This story has so many dimensions. I don’t have the space or the time to address all of them in full, but one must surely comment on the role of Twitter in spreading the news and facilitating discussion. Ah, discussion. As Dawes observed of the participants some two hours after we had received the news: “You’re waging culture war. Ding dong the witch is dead — white. RIP — african.”
Some of the responses (all of them by white men — it was hard not to notice this) to Tshabalala-Msimang’s death were quite brutal. “I’m really sad, but you can’t tell because my sackcloth is at the drycleaner,” noted one tweet. “RIP Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. And in other news, Johnnie Walker sales plummet 34%” quipped another.
Ivo Vegter was especially vicious: “Joyful tidings for those on the liver transplant waiting list: maybe your government won’t murder you after all.”
One discussion in particular, between a well-known figure in the communications industry (who happens to be white) and the creative director of an ad agency (who happens to be black), got quite nasty, with suggestions of libellous and inaccurate re-tweeting. The comedian Loyiso Gola implored people to get some perspective. “People are overreacting … let us all take a step back,” he argued. “Think what day it is today.”

While many bloggers have written about Twitter and the death of Manto focusing on Gareth Cliff who made a controversial remark about her death, Sarah has focused on the potential of Twitter to transform the way South Africans communicate.

Gareth Cliff is the South African radio personality who, after learning about Manto's death, tweeted:

“Manto is dead,” he declared to his 23 686 followers. “Good. A selfish and wicked bungler of the lowest order. Rotten attitude and rancid livers — all 3 of them … ”.

You can follow Global Voices author Muhammad Karim's post about the controversy surrounding Gareth's comment.

When Sarah watches her Twitter feed, what she sees is “…a nation in intense conversation with itself, 140 words at a time.”:

But what really stands out about the news of Manto’s death is the potential of Twitter to transform the way we communicate in this country. It will not replace traditional media, because news of this nature can only be considered credible once traditional media have confirmed it (and indeed, Twitter could help to drive readers hungry for information to news sites). Twitter is not entirely user-friendly, and all too often the discussions it hosts are wrist-slittingly banal. But it’s the only forum of its kind we have: where South Africans of influence are able to debate and discuss, and ordinary citizens may also participate. Today, I was very aware as I watch my Twitter feed, of a nation in intense conversation with itself, 140 words at a time.

But did Twitter add depth and diversity to the discussion? Some of her readers are not as optimistic about Twitter as she is.

Herman Wasserman asks, ” Did it add depth and diversity to the discussion or amplify the vitriol coming from the usual suspects?”:

Interesting observations. But I’m still wondering exactly what and how Twitter adds to these debates other than speeding up dissemination of information and rumour. Did it add depth and diversity to the discussion or amplify the vitriol coming from the usual suspects? Will the 140 chars encourage restraint or do the opposite (Gareth Cliff a case in point)? And as you correctly pointed out (on Twitter!) yesterday, people will still wait for the traditional media to pronounce with the voice of authority on matters like Manto’s death.
As for ‘ordinary citizens’ having access to new media technologies, in a country like SA, a bit more realism is needed I would think.
I’m all for Twitter’s potential to create networks etc, but there is also to romanticize it at the expense of alternative public spheres elsewhere. How did tabloids report on her death, for instance? Community radio? ‘Sidewalk radio’? Or how does Twitter interact and overlap with these other media platforms (including blogs like this one)? Its strength may lie in these intersections and amplifications rather than as an isolated platform for venting.

Sarah responds:

@Herman: You make valid points. Twitter is a useful addition to other media rather than a replacement. Nonetheless, what marks it out as different is a) the fact that those participating in the debate are from a variety of media sources (how often do you get 5FM DJs and newspaper editors in the same forum?). This is rare in SA, where other fora are hosted by a particular media owner. Also, participants do reflect a fairly broad variety of backgrounds. Importantly, Twitter is very easy to use on a cellphone, which gives it huge potential in a country where access to PCs is limited.

Ivo Vegter argues that Twitter is more like casual conversation and less like publishing:

However, there are two issues here. One is that Twitter is more like casual conversation, and less like publishing. Even journalists tend to say things on Twitter that they probably wouldn’t publish. All the more so for the majority of users, who don’t make that distinction at all. The comments you hear on Twitter are no different from comments you would have heard in the pub or at the taxi rank.

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