Social media in SA can be exceedingly ruthless, from lists of accused to the consistent ‘no chill’ facetious responses to urgent events and goings on. Generally it’s enough to make a person want to delete their accounts only to reactivate and complain about it, but what the current outbreak has shown us is just how prepared and armed our instruments were to disseminate important messages. Last week on my radio show I got some backlash for asking what the best coronavirus song written in South Africa was before putting up a Twitter poll up offering three choices: music by the...
Social media in SA can be exceedingly ruthless, from lists of accused to the consistent ‘no chill’ facetious responses to urgent events and goings on. Generally it’s enough to make a person want to delete their accounts only to reactivate and complain about it, but what the current outbreak has shown us is just how prepared and armed our instruments were to disseminate important messages.

Last week on my radio show I got some backlash for asking what the best coronavirus song written in South Africa was before putting up a Twitter poll up offering three choices: music by the Ndlovu Youth Choir, The ZCC or The Kiffness.

Some thought we were making light of the situation and, in a way, we probably were – but that’s not irreconcilable with disseminating important information.

Each of the songs included important lessons on how to maintain hygiene and made their way to respective audiences, many of whom would never read a government gazette or listen to a presidential speech.

Speaking of the presidential address on Sunday night, that too succumbed to South African Twitter … although ‘succumbed’ is probably not the correct word to describe it, considering the positive effects. It barely took 30 minutes before I had received 17 different versions of the same snippet of the president showing people how to do an elbow greeting with some flairy music dubbed over it, as if he were dancing, though the monologue had been kept in.



To those over 30, it may be viewed as a facetiousness and silliness, and it likely is. The unintended effect, though, is one that is overlooked and probably more important than can ever be stated.

The unintended effect is that the largest proportion of our population, which statistically would not be interested in watching a full 30-minute speech, had access to a 30-second clip with vital information in a form they could/would consume.

I’m not certain how many saw one form of that edited video or another, as I stopped counting when I reached 300,000, but that so many people saw something funny yet with the same message is something that should not be scoffed at.

Effective communication with young generations is largely lost on the older political class. Other countries have been swifter, politically, to campaign with short effective memes and be seen in selfies with celebrities, coupled with various other decisive tactics at resonating with the youth.

South Africa’s political discourse is catching up on that front but that this South African humorous social media conduit has formed thus far is laudable and has its roots in a very particular Constitutional Court case: Laugh It Off Promotions v South African Breweries. Far be it from me to repeat a lengthy judgment of the court, but it is the go-to decision any time a legal argument raises the concept of free expression. Not only that, but it also raises the importance of humour in the law.

In fact, in opening his reasoning, Justice Sachs opened with the question: “Does the law have a sense of humour?” in reaching his conclusion he wrote, “The Constitution cannot oblige the dour to laugh. It can, however, prevent the cheerless from snuffing out the laughter of the blithe spirits among us.”

The conclusion, concurring with the majority judgment of then Justice Moseneke, resulted in the protection of humour against powerful entities of business and government for what has now been nearly 15 years.

In those 15 years, that protection has largely been used by those skirting potential copyright infringements as they print satirical T-shirts or make humorous videos.

It is, however, this open market of humour that has opened doors for South African Twitter to rip off anything they find worthy of fun and/or ridicule. And sometimes, that conveys an important message to those who would otherwise not receive it.

After those videos went viral on Sunday night, consider how many kids and young adults greeted with an elbow tap. Maybe some took the message to heart. Doubtless some did it as a joke, but even a joke that results in the desired action can have the desired effect … in this case, it can even save lives.

South Africa’s free speech and open environment has been a conduit for much misery to many, but on this occasion, it has, in the most expectant way, put humour to good use.

In short, making light of something serious has a unique place in South African discourse and, when we start to appreciate that, we can start reaching more people.

How our Twitter jokes can help to convey deadly serious info_1

Richard Anthony Chemaly.

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