With smartphones and broadband becoming increasingly available and affordable across class and geographical divides, we now see the rural and urban poor occupying the same virtual space as the middle class and the rich. This social cloud, as I call it in the research report from which this article is derived, lowers barriers to communication, instant messaging, sharing of photos, videos and other forms of iconography but can also increase the risk of HIV infection.
Social media and reality TV aid the development of common trends and sub-cultures across class and space. As a result, what might previously have been regarded as middle class or urban trends are universalised across class and geography.
It is the largely Euro-American cultures and rituals of conspicuous consumption and narcissism that are universalised.
Through social media and reality television, young people follow the same trends and idolise the same celebrities, irrespective of where followers find themselves. Often, these trends are materialistic and staged.
The notion is that if one can virtually associate with trending personalities, you can also become talk-worthy – trending being a proxy for popularity in the social networks as measured by the number of likes, shares and followers.
In the digital realm, these subcultures of narcissism and conspicuous consumption replicate themselves a million times over because of the virtual dissolution of socio-cultural and spatial barriers.
Knowledge of and aspirations for global trends now transcend socio-historical barriers. For example, when celebrities post sexually suggestive or nude photos on social media, these quickly spread and are ‘liked’ and sometimes mimicked. The recent trending of #AmberRoseChallenge comes to mind. Young women and adolescent girls from villages in South Africa are sharing nudes this youth month inspired by American singer Amber Rose who posed naked to highlight her anti-women abuse cause. This matter in SA became of the excesses of patriarchy.
The following conclusions on the changing political economy of the Aids epidemic in the context of the spread and influence of social media and reality TV are based on the research I conducted since 2016 by scouring Facebook, Badoo, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, WhatsApp, WeChart, YouTube, Snap Chart and Viber, and from attending blessers’ and mavuso parties in Gauteng.
The main conclusion from my study is that social media unintentionally furthers the casualisation of sex, mating across disparate age groups, multiple concurrent sexual relationships and commodisation of women who can be “bought” by money and gifts.
In the final analysis, the agency of women notwithstanding, the reality is that this is a manifestation of patriarchy and persisting inequality in South Africa. Conspicuous consumption does not empower women. It opens them up for manipulation and abuse in an HIV hyper-endemic country.
The crass materialism that is flaunted in the social networks and reality TV shows like the local Footballers’ Wives and America’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians cultivates the notion that “beauty pays” more than hard work. Real beneficiaries of this political economy are macho mobile men with money with the propensity to objectify and abuse young women.
This is a public policy conundrum, the unintended consequences of opening wide the doors of culture and communication where Bongi from Nongoma arguable co-exists with Beyoncé from New York albeit in a precarious social media bubble which eventually bursts as Bongi is more likely to have a near encounter with HIV owing to her socio-economic status and prevalence of gender-based violence in her society. DM
Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba: Outliving AIDS in Southern Africa available at the HSRC book store. He works in The Presidency and writes in his personal capacity.
Busani Ngcaweni is Deputy Director-General & Head of the Private Office of the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. He is also editor of books such as The Future we Chose (AISA) and Liberation Diaries (Jacana Media) and co-editor of the forthcoming book Nelson Mandela and Decolonial Ethics of Liberation and Servant Leadership (Africa World Press).
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle