The Me in Memeby Andy Davis / 18.04.2013
The internet is a strange and wonderful thing. Our story starts with a Sunday evening, a man and his laptop. He’s creating memes of a socio-political bent. As one does, these days, as a kind of creative activism when you’re bored on the internet and have an issue you want to address. His name is Damian Stephens and he’s quite famous for the label he started called Pioneer Records that specialises in finding and promoting conscious, vernac hip hop – drawn mainly from the ghettoes that surround Cape Town. The divide between white privilege and black poverty is a pretty central theme to his position. A foot in both worlds, as it were. This fine evening on Facebook he releases a photograph, pilfered from the internet, featuring 2Oceansvibe’s Seth Rotherham at the Polo, flanked by two girls, ‘babes’ one would say in the 2OV parlance, and overlaid with some pretty incisive political commentary about white privilege. I ‘liked’ when I saw them on Facebook, as you do, and wondered what Seth had done to incur the wrath of Damian. Another internet bitch fight brewing. Grist for the Mahala mill. White creative Cape Town is a small place filled with bitchy, vindictive neighbours. So I hit him up:
“Damian howzit? Let’s do a piece on these Seth memes you’re creating.”
“Haha. What kind of piece? Who is Seth?” Damian typed back immediately.
“The dude in those pics, he’s the head of 2Oceansvibe.” I typed.
“Oh. that’s perfect then.” He answered.
“So why did you produce these? What’s the reasoning?”
“The underlying reason is obviously the issue of white privilege in South Africa. Been reading some Tim Wise recently. But I saw the White Entrepreneurial Guy Detroit Meme and copied it.”
“Why did you choose that pic of Seth?” I ask.
“This is the funny part. I googled ‘white Capetonian’ and that was there.”
“Ha ha. Wow. Read this.” I replied.
“Amazing! Looks like I unwittingly picked the perfect poster boy for my campaign.”
But then I googled “white Capetonian” and couldn’t find the pic of Seth and the girls. Maybe it had been removed, or maybe Damian did this far more calculatingly. Maybe he knows exactly who Seth Rotherham is. It’s hard, in the SA internet scene, to think he doesnt. The Gentrification meme seems like a particularly pointed barb. If so, why the subterfuge? Is Damian telling the truth, or am I being roped into a hatchet job? These kinds of memes are fast becoming the internet’s version of street justice.
The next day. My Facebook pings:
“So apparently the woman on the right of the photo is ‘devastated’ to have her image ‘dragged through the mud’. ‘So immature and unnecessary’. I also made it on to 2OV. I’m famous! You got a shout out too.”
And indeed I had received a shout out for my impromptu liking of said memes. (Shot Seth). And kudos to the ‘editor in chief’ for re-publishing them on his enormous, uh, blog. Surely a believer in the “all publicity” maxim, but I’m wondering if he fully understands the poignancy? Unwittingly or not, Damian just made Seth the poster boy for privileged whiteys who fail to appreciate just how privileged they are. Let us call this ‘the bubble’, where many of us, black and white, all privileged, choose to live, because hey, life’s just easier in here. Who wants to deal with death and suffering when I can choose, Facebook, Game of Thrones, The Kooks, sushi and craft beer?
And then, just hold that thought, Seth updated his meme story with a big plug for his ‘initiatives’ in Gugulethu through the Name Your Hood (NYH) campaign, the obvious suggestion being that Damian’s memes are way off the mark because Seth is really a trailblazer at overhauling the old apartheid legacy. And that’s when I started to think that maybe there’s a story here. The comment thread beneath the 2OV story just confirmed that this was a subject that needed tackling.
“Also, here is a cool article from San Francisco, highlighting our efforts to fight the legacy of apartheid.” Trumpeted Seth linking to an article on GOOD, written by NYH founder Bruce Good, in the third person, that actually quotes Bruce Good. “Wow.” Said Andy Davis. “That feels weird.”
The real question one needs to ask is does a neighbourhood rebranding campaign acually redress the legacy of apartheid, as both Bruce and Seth claim it does? And how exactly does it achieve this in a ‘hood’ typified by poverty and dire need? Sure it does something on a psychological level, if the names actually manage to catch on. But I’ve yet to hear people refer to bits of the CBD as ‘The Loop’, ‘Union Kloof’ or ‘Little Camissa’. And surely that Vodacom moolah would be better spent building schools, clinics and roads? Providing electricity, running water and sewage lines? What about some educational support for the country that comes second last in the world in maths and science education? Planting trees? Establishing parks? Some basic skills training, perhaps?
And why invest in name changing, sorry ‘rebranding’, when the city and the government, at both great expense and public controversy, are busy doing it for you? In my humble opinion, saying that Name Your Hood is ‘fighting the legacy of apartheid’ is like claiming that you can cure cancer with a new t-shirt. In fact it’s exactly this kind of misguided ‘goodvertising’, bolstered by the 2Oceansvibe ethos of ‘living the holiday’, larging it up in luxury hotels, driving fancy cars and celebrating ‘exclusive’ access to the good life publically on a widely read blog, internet radio station etc. that indeed makes Seth the perfect poster boy for the seemingly impenetrable bubble of white privilege. Hopefully one day soon, we’ll be able to detach the racial dimension, because Kenny Kunene (who 2OV loves to hate) is reading from the same script: promoting the same smug entitlement and love of power, wealth, status, conspicuous consumption and ultimately, bullshit.
Ping goes the Facebook. It’s Damian.
“I have just got an email from one of the women in the photo telling me I’m damaging her BEE business, and that she doesn’t come from privilege and worked really hard to get where she is.”
And in a very South African twist, the women flanking Seth at the Polo, the silent co-accusees tarnished in these memes, are simply collateral damage in our pissing match. Sorry about that.