How the Black Twitter Diaspora reclaimed Winnie Mandela’s legacy

I LOVE Twitter. No, correction. I love Black Twitter.

Guest column Ayofemi Kirby

If you aren’t aware, Black Twitter is an amorphous collective of what I believe to be millions of people who, from the looks of their avatars, are all black.

Over the past few years, Black Twitter has been responsible for some of the greatest feats in our collective cultural history including: keeping the names of unarmed black people murdered by police in the mainstream media, organising millions of people to take the streets in response to those murders (#BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName), forcing the Oscars to address its lack of diversity (#OscarsSoWhite), making Black Panther the top selling superhero movie of all time in the United States (#WakandaForever) and has most recently crowned Brandon Victor Dixon (popularly known as “Terry” on Power) a Black Twitter prince, after realising he is also one of the top thespians of our time (#JesusChristSuperstar) — actually, I think that one may be all of Twitter, but I digress.

My point is that without Black Twitter, would all pretty much be lost.

For decades, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have been known as the “Conscious of the Congress”.

Historically, this means that while most members of Congress were proposing frivolous pieces of legislation or bringing trivial matters to argue on the debate floor, the CBC tended to bring them all back to reality by reminding them — and the nation — of the things that matter, like, I don’t know, civil rights, voting rights, healthcare, quality education for all, etc.

Throughout history, if it wasn’t for this collective of vocal, passionate, creative, often ignored black people working with the same collective of vocal, passionate, creative, often ignored black people in their communities, we wouldn’t have a number of the laws for this administration and Congress to try and dismantle today.

I like to think of Black Twitter the same way.

Once we of Black Twitter — and yes, I am a proud card-carrying member — discovered that together, our voices were loud enough to be heard on the interwebs and the airwaves, there was no turning back.

Black Twitter has undoubtedly become the “conscious of the country”, bringing and keeping morality and the issues that should matter to us all pertinent in the public domain.


This week, I was reminded of Black Twitter’s power to reclaim and change media narratives with the announcements of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death.

On Monday, the title of the first story someone shared with me on her passing was from the New York Times.

The headline read Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a tarnished leader of South Africa’s liberation, dies at 81.

I am no South African history scholar, but I do know enough about the absolute horrors of apartheid to question why the words “tarnished leader” were intentionally chosen and included to lead the story.

I have seen headlines of death announcements for humans who have committed undoubtedly awful acts of inhumanity merely stated as facts, “Name, Notable Objective Descriptor, Dies at Age of Death.” But no, not for Winnie.

Insert the Black Twitter Diaspora. Within what felt like an hour, the headline was changed to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Is dead at 81; fought apartheid and the counter-attack had begun.

On Black Twitter, we come for ours.

Now, there are still so many questions about how this headline and the content of many others were and continued to be published, and why Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy has been framed within the shadow of her husband and the accusations against her, but most importantly, Black Twitter across the Black Twitter Diaspora has continued to dispute them all with receipts.

In this case and in others, Black Twitter has amplified the voices of black South Africans — many of whom lived through apartheid with their parents and recent ancestors as the oppressed not the oppressors.

They have reframed and repositioned Winnie as the radical freedom fighter that the racist, murderous, disgustingly malevolent white supremacist-based system of apartheid created her to be.

Most of these announcements forgot to initially emphasise that part.

No sweat.

Black Twitter fingers in Africa, America and the UK immediately got to work, calling out the conspicuously biased and sexist language included in these stories, and backing up their counterattacks with facts and first-hand accounts of apartheid, noting how it affected Winnie’s life and legacy — and their own.

They are also highlighting the persistent racism that plagues the lives of Black South Africans today.

I have been to Cape Town, Khayelitsha, Johannesburg, and Soweto; I have seen what it looks like first hand.

I was left mind bogglingly confused by the notion of a “rainbow nation” that I had thought healed and sealed the wounds of apartheid before visiting.

Thankfully, because of the black people I met while visiting South Africa, the Afrikaner, who shared with me how he watched the SAP destroy any humanity left of his brother who was an officer during apartheid, and later, because of the Black Twitter Diaspora, I have been able to learn more of their collective memories and current experiences.

“Nothing much has changed in South Africa except that we vote but economically we don’t own the country as a people who were oppressed” — Hugh Masekela

I am so proud that despite efforts to tarnish Winnie’s lifelong plight to see her people be free, she is safe. The language coded in white supremacy and sexism used to describe her is not opaque enough to prevent the words, images and tributes of the Black Twitter Diaspora in her honour to shine through.

Winnie’s voice has been heard and our memory of her capsuled within #WinnieMadikizelaMandela, #MotheroftheNation.

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