Activists – black activists in particular – find that Facebook is not a safe space to voice their pain and anger on issues affecting them. That’s why three young black professionals took the matter into their own hands and launched a social media platform of their own to voice their issues. Headhunter Mandisa Khanyile, app developer Tumelo Baloyi and economist Thato Sogo launched DotAfro on November 18. The Daily Vox spoke with Khanyile about the platform.
Why did you start an alternative social media platform in the first place?
DotAfro was not even meant to be a public place at first. I had the idea during the #MenAreTrash campaign when all my immediate friends within activist spaces were banned on Facebook. We were all using our secondary or tertiary Facebook accounts and reverting to WhatsApp because we couldn’t organise anything being banned on the platform. I was so sick and tired of this and thought there must be another solution to Facebook. I discovered a couple of black alternative platforms in the US but the problem was the platforms charged a subscription fee for people to belong to them. They’re also very specific to African American issues, minority issues etc. They don’t really speak to issues in the continent. I started doing research and found that there isn’t anything unifying people of African descent as a specific network. Luckily, I was friends with Tumelo who is an app developer. I spoke with him and he said he could make it happen. He made me a prototype and I thought this could really work. I just wanted to make a Facebook for me and my friends.
What are the similarities and differences between DotAfro and Facebook?
It’s very similar to Facebook in terms of how it operates. Obviously there are some differences but if you’re a Facebook person, you’ll find DotAfro very familiar. Our interface is similar, so is the way we post status updates – except that we have the option to post voice messages as status updates. We don’t have limitations in terms of characters. We have follow options but we’re not specific to specific individuals. We’re trying to move away from this celebrity vibe that other platforms are using. If you come on the platform as someone who has social clout you will be like the rest of us because we’re trying to build a community here. We don’t want a hierarchy, everyone is accessible to everybody. Obviously you have an option to add and remove friends.
The platform is available on mobile and web. If you access the html on your mobile, it will automatically take you to the mobi site and if you use a PC it will take you to the desktop site. We do have an Android app but we had a problem when it came to our launch.
What challenges did you face when you tried to launch it as an app?
We submitted our apps to Google Play and the iStore. Prior to this we were doing advertising for the platform. We were specific that as much as this is a social network in South Africa, it is a pro-black space. Unfortunately, some right-wing Caucasians interpreted that as being an anti-white space – which is something that I’ve never said; white people are allowed on the platform, they are on the platform. They reported it to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) as a racist platform and the HRC chucked it out because that’s nonsense. Having said that, they submitted a petition to Google and Apple and as a result our apps are blocked. We’re in the process of an appeal to prove this isn’t the case. I mean when you sign up we don’t have demarcation for race. We can’t kick white people off if we don’t even ask them if they’re white.
Why did you decide on the name DotAfro?
I actually wanted to call it Black Tribe but it was R50 000 to buy the domain. If you have “black” on a domain it goes over R10 000. It was too expensive. It moved from “black” to “brown” but that was also over R7 000. A month into struggling to get a name and having actually developed the platform, I had a dream and I thought, what about DotAfro? I spoke with my ex-colleagues and they all loved it and then I put it out on social media and people were interested.
How was DotAfro funded?
It’s 100% self-funded between myself and my two partners. Tumelo develops apps and a portion of his funds goes into DotAfro, I was working up until the beginning of November so I made contributions and Thato has a crowdfunding platform called B4W which stands for Bank for Who, that’s also where we get some of the contributions. We have no investors currently, we’re still in the process of trying to find funding.
What was the process of developing the platform like?
We had over 1 000 people test the platform – which is basically unheard of. We wanted the app to be what other people wanted it to be. We wanted to make sure that the features and the product we offered worked for the people using the platform.
How many users do you have?
We’ve gotten over 3 000 users in two weeks. We’ve been well received by the community. We get new users everyday and we’re fortunate that current users are sharing the link and getting friends to join.
Tell us about your slogan, “Free speech is not a privilege”
That comes from us wanting to be a censorship-free space for Blackness; that has always been the ultimate goal of what this platform is supposed to be. Facebook has been censoring us as activists. The moment we start talking about pro-Black issues, we’re put on a watch-list. All I need to do is say “trash” and I’m blocked. Once you’ve been seen to identify with issues that speak directly to the lived experience of what being a Black person is, you become censored. Its very important for us to have a platform where we can talk about things like land redistribution, Black women and our issues, albinism – things that affect us directly. We’ve been taught as Black people that we need to be shy about discussing out issues. It’s a privilege of the few to be able to be vocal and not have consequences. We wanted to change this.
What does the future of DotAfro look like?
I want DotAfro to be a voice for Black people globally; my market is not South Africa even though it has started here. I want a Libyan, a Nigerian, an Aborigine who has an issue close to their hearts to articulate themselves and know they can be safe. I want everyone with melanin to find a home for themselves on DotAfro globally. That’s where I’m going with this.