Faced with misrepresentation in the mainstream media, queer influencers are telling their own stories and creating communities on YouTube.
Speaking directly into the camera from his room, Lelo Macheke begins his incisive and often humorous analysis of queer representation with the words: "South African mass media has an irresponsibly poor relationship with queer folk". In his 15-minute YouTube video entitled "Boyz II Galz", he goes on to interrogate the ways in which queer people are misrepresented, excluded or treated as a monolith. "South African mass media in the department of representation has truly proven itself as incompetent and incapable of engaging queer identities and narratives and experiences," he says.
There are multiple examples of South African media representing the LGBTQ+ community poorly. For instance, a storyline about a same-sex relationship in the popular soap opera Generations was met with extreme backlash in 2008, leading the storyline to be dropped. Similarly, the 2018 film Inxeba (The Wound), which represents gay characters in a traditional initiation setting, was banned from mainstream cinemas after protests by political, religious and cultural groups. Queer South Africans, especially black queer people, rarely see people like them on TV or cinema screens.
In recent years, however, increasing numbers of queer South Africans - like Macheke - have responded to feelings of isolation, misrepresentation and marginalisation by representing themselves. Queer activists and influencers have gained large followings on the likes of Twitter and Instagram. Moreover, as I examine in my recent research in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, several vloggers are using YouTube to form communities where they can offer support and feel connected to people who might be going through similar experiences. Viewers gain insights into vloggers' lives as they share the ups and downs of their relationships, talk about everyday experiences of discrimination, and open up about personal stories of coming out or reconciling different parts of their identities.
These videos do important work to challenge misrepresentations in the mass media and to give queer people a voice. Here are some of the most prominent queer vloggers in South Africa.
Mosa and Siya
The viral engagement video of Mosa Seloane and Siyabonga Ngcobo shows how they overcame many obstacles to be together. The video is a celebration of their love. Friends of the couple are shown holding signs in the video with statements like "Love knows no gender". As Ngcobo says at one point in the video: "We've been through resistance from our relatives; we've been through resistance from our societies ... After all of that damage, we still chose each other".
The couple explain that they use their YouTube channel to talk about their everyday experiences to spread awareness about queer people in South Africa and to inspire young people who might be struggling with self-acceptance or discrimination in their communities. The common thread is the love that Mosa and Siya share. The comments on their videos show how viewers are inspired to see Mosa and Siya's celebration of love. Some commenters speak about their own struggles, relationships, and hopes for the future.
Lelo Macheke/ SuburbanZulu
Macheke's videos mix personal stories with more academic observations on media, culture and queer identities in South Africa. Macheke presents himself in dynamic, genderfluid ways in the videos, and adopts the name SuburbanZulu for his channel, showing how YouTube offers a space to play with identity and express many different sides of oneself.
In one video, Macheke describes a distressing experience of taking an Uber and experiencing homophobia from the driver. An interview with the cast and crew of Inxeba (The Wound) was being broadcast on the car's radio, and the driver, referring to gay people, exclaimed: "These people must just die!" Macheke describes his anxiety in the moment, speaking about the fear of seeming "obviously gay" because of what he was wearing and thus potentially facing danger and violence.
The comments on the video again show a strong sense of community, and viewers reflect on their own life experiences of homophobia and trying to "appear straight" in order to protect themselves in public spaces.
Thando Hlophe/ Azania Realness
Thando Hlophe, whose channel is called Azania Realness, releases videos on her everyday experiences as a lesbian woman in Johannesburg. In one video, Hlophe describes how she found it relatively easy to come out to her mother, but she also shares her daily struggles with being proud of her gay identity and how she wrestles with being open about her sexuality in different settings, like job interviews or in her church community.
She ends the video with practical guidance for younger people who are in the process of coming out. She encourages viewers to share their own coming out stories in comments. Many commenters offer support and share their own stories of rejection, acceptance, or conflict about coming out. The video opens the space for dialogue and community between Hlophe and her viewers.
Dambuza is one of the most popular South African YouTube personalities. He creates satirical and comedic videos about South African life, including the popular series about an interracial relationship called Living with Afrikaans. However, Dambuza also shares vlogs about his personal experiences as a gay man, with many of the stories told in his usual humorous tone.
Dambuza's large following means that he is an influential South African media personality. The broad appeal of his comedy means that he can tackle serious topics, like family rejection, in an accessible way. Through his videos and vlogs, Dambuza can spread awareness of the challenges and joys of LGBTQ+ people in South Africa.
Dr Grant Andrews is a Lecturer in the Languages, Literacies and Literatures Division at the Wits School of Education.