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Blogger Siyanda Mohutsiwa looks back on the enormous success of the hashtag IfAfricaWasABar. “Thanks to the internet we see that we’re not that different and that we have a common background as Africans.”

What if Africa was a bar? The hashtag #ifafricawasabar went viral a year ago and immediately positioned the young Motswana blogger Siyanda Mohutsiwa (in her early twenties) at the centre of attention. At the international Tech-Campus Party in Utrecht (the Netherlands) she told why new media can rekindle the flame again to the smouldering fires of pan-africanism.

How do social media and social pan-africanism, as you call it, relate to each other?
“The concept of joining the forces of all Africans already exists for a long time but it has always been a matter foremost for and from the elite. The majority of the people know(s) very little about eachother as soon as they cross their own land borders. Thanks to the internet a sense of interconnectedness arises, and it makes it easier to look over the fence, to exchange ideas and collaborate. It is tangible, look: in my teens I read two books a week and knew a little something about the concept of pan-africanism and the visions of many African leaders but I truly got a sense of a common identity and destiny when I started following Ghanian, Kenian and Nigerian tweeters. They opened my eyes, they showed me the world.”

What does a common identity mean exactly?
“Thanks to the internet we see that we are not that different. For instance, #growingupafrican showed us that we have a common background. Even Afro-Americans recognised a lot in the African upbringing. With the acknowledgement of a common identity comes a transnational empathy which makes us stand up for one another. Ugandian, Zimbabwanian and Sudanese problems become African problems which we not only want to, but also can solve together.”

It is hard to imagine only 140 characters can solve complex international cases.
“Of course they can’t. Education and business are also extremely important. Or take infrastructure: a trip to a nearby country is costing me more time and bureaucratic endurance than a trip to Amsterdam. But Twitter is speaking directly to our generation. And don’t underestimate the intelligence it takes to break down a vision of a writer or a political situation to a tweet. That short message can provide food for thought and lead to further research, for instance on what pan-Africanism means. When you’re in a bar you’re not going to contemplate your stance in the debate for years, before writing it down and declaiming it. New media generate a continous debate without geographical limits, an informal conversation in a bar. I assume, and hope, you’re not always there but it is tremendously valuable if you can go there once in a while to talk about politics, economy and culture.”

And in the bar things have to stay friendly, right?
“As long as you state it with lightheartedness and a sense of humour, you can get away with a lot of what you say. It is a matter of tact, social intuition. Self-irony is also appreciated. My first tweet was: #ifafricawasabar… South Africa would be drinking all kinds of alcohol and begging to get along in its stomach, referring to the dream of the rainbow-nation. I am not a South-African but I used my second name Siyanda, which is a South-African name.”

To be honest, I would have expected you were a political scientist, or a literature student. You study maths though.
“Maths in the end is an ancient form of philosophy, it comes down to grasp and set out the complexity of the issue. It demands a certain fearlessness to take that challenge. So you see, often it is about faulty images and presumptions. Already sice I was young I am aware of that, with a mother from Swaziland and a Motswana father.”

For the moment it seems like most has been said with the numerous keen, humorous and encouraging tweets. Do you have new plans?
“Yesterday I finished my last exams and now the time has come for something new. I have already spoken about this with different creative and engaged people but I don’t want to say much more about it, that will only bring bad luck. I find it exciting: the success and attention it received was really unsuspected, it happened spontaneously. Now people know me and that comes with expectations. It is something I have to manage, because I don’t feel comfortable in other peoples’ boxes.”

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