Creative Womxn: Owethu Makhathini on digital literacy and black sisterhood

Owethu Makhathini’s playground is the digital realm. She’s an erudite content copywriter and navigates the online world as a problem solver seeking different ways to share knowledge and educate consumers. Look at her blog shortshitbigmouth on Tumblr and her love for social media becomes apparent. Watch her being interviewed on eNCA, SABC, Google Africa and CNBC Africa and you’ll hear her speak knowledgeably about the possibilities that the medium presents. And, if you follow her on Twitter you’ll know that she’s actively impacting the lives of South Africans by hosting digital marketing workshops across the country. 

As a social media guru, strategist and trend forecaster in the advertising industry, she’s learnt that enterprising strategy connects people. However, in South Africa, she knows there’s a lack of digital literacy and so, to help close the gap, has started her own creative consultancy called Makhathini Media with the eventual aim of funding creative projects and upskilling businesses and individuals by enabling them shift perceptions and stimulate creative synergy. 

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You’ve said you have big plans to contribute towards the liberation of black womxn. How do you think social media plays a role in this?

Social media plays a huge role in disrupting mainstream and harmful narratives about blackness and more especially black womxnhood. I have met incredible black womxn, both online and offline that have helped me completely shift my perception of myself, helped me unpack internalised misogynoir, affirmed me, loved me and most importantly made me feel normal. Representation and diversity are often used as hollow buzzwords but social media has played a pivotal role in breathing life into those terms and showing their necessity. This later formed the foundation for my navigation of the corporate world. I have often drawn on that to become the person I myself would like to see when there is no one that looks like me in my office. The hashtags that we create are often a resistance to these corrosive stereotypes we are burdened with, from #BlackLivesMatter to #BlackGirlsAreLoud to #BlackoutDay; we create pockets of space online where we do not have to apologise, accommodate or shrink. We know that taking up space is a challenge for all womxn, especially in the corporate world, but we fight additional battles as black womxn, especially outside of the corporate arena. Social media has allowed me to yaaaaaaas and church-hands in awe, and shower appreciation at black womxn living their truths and snatching our edges with reckless abandon. We are able to mobilise movements, demand accountability, and build sisterhood and solidarity. I wrote about the Restorative Power of Black Sisterhood for Melenial which was later picked up by my favourite Queer zine Sula Collective and said “our sisterhood is a space where we feel seen and our experiences completely validated. For a black girl living in a world that either ignores us or makes us hypervisible, sisterhood as a physical manifestation of space is invaluable.” So when I speak of liberation, it is not just in the physical sense but also creatively, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and physiologically.

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What lessons can you take away from your job as a strategist that have shaped your life philosophy?

Strategy mirrors life, when you are able to connect to a fundamental human question, thought or emotion; you are able to create work that connects people with each other and those people with an idea that unites. I had the privilege of interviewing some of the best creative leaders for the Loeries promotional video and much of their insights pointed to that, the power of creatives to unite. Not by ignoring differences or forcing assimilation, but by finding creative ways to unite through a piece of bold, honest creativity. The same philosophy applies in my life. When I am able to connect to the thread (what I like to call the Spirit or the Source) that connects us all, I am able to learn every day, find creative ways to connect with people who are completely different to me, love deeper and ultimately experience life from a richer place.

Language embodies culture and you speak 3 of the 11 official languages. What insights has this given you when it comes to understanding the way South Africans communicate online?

The majority of black South Africans speak multiple languages so 3 languages is nothing really (laughs). Throughout time, South Africans have always found new and interesting ways to connect, share and engage. Whether its tsostitaal or post-apartheid middle class vernac, language has always been another way people add colour to our daily lives. I am very impressed with how young South Africans have used spaces online to decolonise language and force terms previously thought to be acceptable to be unpacked, thrown out, replaced and/or given new life. Online spaces allow us to have a glimpse into niche spaces that we may or may not be a part of. Previously one would have to physically be in proximity with dominant (cool kids) or sub groups to understanding cultural markers like slangs and tags but now simply following a hashtag can give insights into communities we hadn’t seen on this scale before. Often when people think of insights, they mistakenly assume that every insight should be flipped into monetary gain. Sometimes, the non-monetary aspect of communities is what ultimately makes richer storytelling because there is an inherent respect, instead of an outright commodification under the guise of ‘pop culture’.

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What might the current consumption patterns of young South Africans reveal about the future of our nation?

Consumption patterns of young South Africans are revealing how strongly we believe in ourselves. Young South Africans are willing to learn the trade so to speak, and construct creativity that speaks to our own experiences. We are in a truly electric place where we are forming an aesthetic, a language, a standard to judge our work according to our own standards. So much good work is bubbling under and young people are more than willing to (financially) support local work. Our consumption patterns show we will pay for international brands but we will always customise pieces according to our own personalities. For instance in fashion, we are moving away from an anthropological African aesthetic like ‘Ankara’ prints and opting rather to express ourselves as we are without the need to pander to subtly racist tropes about what ‘Africanness’ really looks like. We are coming into ourselves as a nation and I couldn’t be prouder of every single young creative expressing themselves on whichever medium they have chosen. We are building the South African brand organically, not in the cheesy rainbow nation khumbaya way we have been force fed before.

Advertising can have a negative connotation. How can digital marketing have a positive impact on society?

Advertising has had a negative connotation because advertisers have largely been a sexist all white boys club. I opted to work in advertising because I believed in the power to cleverly shift narratives, nation build and influence behaviours through incredibly rich and simple creative. Digital marketing is remarkable because elements such as Influencer Marketing incorporate a human level of integration between the end user and the brand. Digital marketing has an immediacy and humanness that South African advertisers find it difficult to consistently duplicate. Good work; good work that puts society first and profits second can make monumental changes in society. There are numerous examples of individuals who have built businesses from a social wellness perspective, rather than a purely profit-driven model driven by smart digital marketing strategies.

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Connecting to the digital world provides us with a wealth of resources and information. What strategies need to be employed in South Africa to ensure everyone has access to the wonders of the web?

Delivering digital marketing workshops across Africa has given me an incredible insight as to what strategies have to be implemented in order to give young South Africans a fighting chance in the global arena. Firstly, there is a huge lack of basic computer literacy skills among learners and job seekers between the ages of 18-35. Secondly, young people are not equipped with basic digital skills that can help them navigate information online. Many young South Africans do not know how to look for information online or how to use it to their own benefit. This is a failing on our education system; subjects like Life Orientation should put a bigger effort in equipping young people with relevant, up to date skills on how to thrive in the real world. Thirdly, a huge attitude shift must be prioritised. There is a huge pool of potential that is not being tapped into because older generations do not value the power of the internet. Digital marketing can be used to leapfrog our economy monumentally especially through e-commerce. Both the government and average citizens should be prioritising an understanding of the digital landscape for the good of our nation as a whole.

Recently you’ve been travelling across the country facilitating digital marketing workshops. What’s the best advice you give both casually and professionally when it comes to using social media?

I always tell people that social media has many uses and how important it is to curate content to benefit your needs at the time. Participants are often surprised when I make them aware of how visible your digital shadow is to everyone and how important it is to make sure it represents your best self at all times. I tell people to switch on their privacy settings, clean up their images and language and avoid uploading information that is confidential.

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These days it feels like the web is over-saturated with personal blogs. What in your opinion makes compelling content?

Compelling content is tricky because the definition of compelling can mean different things to different people. In my opinion, compelling content is any content that answers fundamental human questions, unpacks, dismantles and investigates strongly held truths and is also engaging. Engaging does not always mean funny but rather thought provoking and/or humorous. Any piece of content that makes me think differently about a concept, a culture or an ideology is compelling.

You’ve written that you’re in the “profile-building stage” of your career. What dreams to you hope to achieve and what contribution would you like to make in the South African industry?

I will continue to do digital marketing workshops, not just for young people but for large corporates and the government. We have a long way to go in terms of digital literacy. I have recently started my own creative consultancy called Makhathini Media. I will travel the world more extensively building the Makhathini Media brand and empire. I had been working unofficially through referrals, until I recently decided to properly open up shop. My online presence including my website and skeleton team are currently under construction but I have a feeling we will be talking about the success of my business soon. I want to ultimately be in a position to fund creative projects, up skill people in digital skills, facilitate networking events and help big brands and businesses create compelling, perception-shifting creatives while creating my own.

Follow the digital womanist on Instagram and Twitter.

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Photographs of Owethu by Tarryn Hatchett.

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