Victor Dlamini is well qualified to pass judgement on the behaviour of corporate South Africa, on social media and elsewhere, writes Gasant Abarder.
When most people are sleeping in on a Sunday, attending a church service or preparing lunch, Victor Dlamini has his own ritual. He brews a fresh pot of coffee, perches on his couch and fires up his laptop. His poison: Twitter.
You see, Victor is something of royalty among the Twitterati and one of the reasons there is no such thing as an easy Sunday on social media.
“Typically, this is where you see a lot of companies that are out of line. I dedicate my Sundays to really say to companies, ‘Don’t sell us stuff that is either not true or is absolute bull’.
“I increase what I call public accountability, particularly in South Africa for private sector and fast consumer goods companies because they often are so sexy – they know how to do the billboards and all that. In South Africa we have this obsession with the public sector, so my Sundays are almost dedicated to saying, ‘Come on guys, let’s not forget that the private sector can be silly and very often offensive’.”
Wait, there’s a old word for this, rebirthed, if I’m not mistaken, by one Julius Malema a few years ago. That word is tjatjarag. Victor is tjatjarag (if you’re not following him on Twitter – @VictorDlamini – where have you been?). But he is well qualified to pass judgement on the behaviour of corporate South Africa, on social media and elsewhere.
It’s what Victor has been doing as his day job for more than a decade.
Currently, he is the spokesman for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. They couldn’t have hired a more qualified man for the job.
“I advise companies on how to manage their reputation and I’ve done that for quite a number of years. I also write speeches for CEOs, it’s something I take very seriously.
“So often, people don’t understand that the days of the public just passively accepting whatever corporates say is over.”
And these days, the corporates come up short on social media.
“Corporates are used to broadcasting messages, which means that the message comes from them to the public. What social media has essentially done is it has changed that. It firstly works if you are a member of the community – you can’t come in and out, as and when you please. That’s the first mistake a lot of companies make. When their new product launches or it’s their annual results or they’ve hired someone important they come on social media. The members of social media then say quite rightly, ‘Who are these people, we don’t know them’.
“You have to be invested, which means it’s 24/7. If you remember at the beginning the first mistake that companies made was hiring a social media team that would knock off at 5pm on a Friday. Typically, the problem will start at seven in the evening – two hours after they’ve logged off – and between Friday and Monday when they come back to the office, they are finished.
“People have been saying, ‘who are these guys, where are they, there is no one responding’. Companies have since learnt that they can’t do that, it’s a 24/7 environment.
“But secondly a lot of them tend to confuse their official advertising messages with their member-relevant messages, which means something that may very well be fine on a billboard on the freeway, where no one engages with it, is suddenly going to come under scrutiny on social media.
“I think this is where a lot of companies have made a mistake, where before they were the experts, they could speak with a detached voice, there was no platform on which you as a member of the public could answer back.
“A lot of them don’t understand that their billboards are no longer static. All that someone has to do is grab a picture of that, put it on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and before you know it, this thing that is not supposed to be interactive, is interactive – with a hashtag.
“My basic advice to companies is ditch everything you used to know 10 years… or even three years ago… because the world has changed, primarily around accountability. No longer can companies hire a team that doesn’t look like the society it is serving. It is a level of instant accountability. In the past it used to take too long to get that feedback. Now you can launch a campaign on Sunday and be forced to pull it down by Monday if you have not considered all the elements.
“I like to say to companies that far from considering the public as an adversary or trolls or whatever, consider them a vital part of your feedback. Before you had to hire focus groups, now you just put it out on social media – that’s your focus group. It’s free, it’s brutal.”
To call Victor a public relations guru would be grossly unfair – and downright inaccurate. He is so much more. Victor trained as a journalist at The Star’s famous cadet school run by Chris van Gas, who he says taught him everything from shorthand to writing an intro.
But you can add to his impressive CV the titles of accomplished photographer (have a look at his impressive picture gallery via the QR code on this page), fashion designer and collector of fine art.
“At a personal level I have a very low threshold of boredom so I can never do one thing. I love making photographs, mostly jazz photographs, and I travel around the world doing that.
“I also do landscapes. For the past two or three years I’ve been obsessed with mountains and windmills. It’s so iconic and you see it all the time – I wanted to interpret that.
“For me photography really allows me to reflect on society. Recently I did an essay on Kliptown and I was quite astonished by how it is not only the place where the Freedom Charter was written, but it’s also such a complex society with so many communities living side by side there.
“I did this portrait of Kliptown, which for me was also a resistance to what we increasingly see as tourism-led photography. I have nothing against these insta-walks, of Instagrammers going into communities, because these days we are very visual. But sometimes there is no context or depth.
“It’s almost like everyone who goes into Soweto must get a photo of Hector Pieterson Square or Vilakazi Street where Mandela used to be. I have nothing against that, but it then reduces our sense of Soweto into almost a visual cliché.
“So part of what we must do as photographers is to resist that, not by criticising what other people do, but by doing what we think should be the alternative.”
Victor is also a clothes designer – a career that started when he had garments made for himself which were inspired by his travels. He would typically return from visiting a country and, after seeing a garment that moved him, he would mesh what he wanted to wear with what he had seen. He now supplies men and women across the continent with his creations.
And then there is his love for art – paintings, sculptures and other works that he has collected from all over Africa over the past 15 years.
“I have been struck by the power of painting. People, I’m proud to say, speak of the emergence of African art and I’m like, ‘It’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it’.
“That’s the thing about establishment; it always speaks about emerging voices. But they’ve always been there – you just haven’t been listening.”
Although Joburg is home, Victor visits Cape Town often. He lived here while working as a journalist. But he says he often doesn’t recognise the city he once knew so well and it troubles him greatly, mainly because it’s complicated. It’s complicated because Cape Town is arguably the least integrated and inclusive of our major cities.
“It’s very difficult to get people to coalesce around politics because they are typically divisive. But when people coalesce around the culture there is a lot that they share. I really think that part of the magic that has to be rediscovered in Cape Town is the shared culture, the shared suffering.
“Anyone who goes to District 6 understands the shared uprooting. Right now there’s a sense in which race has become the predominant thing. Are you coloured? Are you black?
“And when you take out the context of a common deprivation, but also of a common sense of uniting around a UDF, then it’s very difficult for people to remember that the last 10 years do not define race relations.
“The considerable floundering of the ANC in the Western Cape should not make people forget what the Western Cape once represented.
“It’s very difficult for people to remember in the 1980s, there was a sense that this was almost the model of racial harmony, when there was unity among the oppressed. Now when I read all these letters and complaints, I almost can’t recognise the new Cape Town. And I think it’s disheartening.
“One of the things that fascinates me about South Africa is that in 2003, (Thabo) Mbeki spoke very publicly about the two South Africas and I think his troubles began there. The liberals, in particular, said he was abandoning (Nelson) Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation, and that, more importantly, he was reintroducing race in South Africa.
“Race had always been there. What he was telling us was that we were drifting dangerously. If you look at what happened he was right and I think people owe him a big apology for that. We did not like the disruption of this utopia.
“Around race, South Africans had really bought into the born-free Kool Aid – that there was a time when race stopped mattering. That’s why the born frees were created… those who were free of the racial burdens.”
But Victor firmly believes, like many others, that the students of the Class of 2015 have shown the way.
“I think one of the shocks for many analysts is to see how the young – that they thought were depoliticised, apathetic, but particularly, had no sense of racial deprivation – led something so deeply radical that goes to question all the gentlemen’s agreements that had been made around the removal of the statue of (Cecil) Rhodes, around language and all that.
“If anything, it shows when the youth are sufficiently pissed off they will act, very much to the surprise of the older generation. All I keep saying to my friends in their late 40s and 50s is we must never imagine that our battles are the last ones.