Tech, Now + Beyond

South African memes are not here for your white entitlement

Say what you want about South African memes but ayizona ezenu.

Raise your hand if you get this meme:

Now, raise your hand if you get this one:

I know what you’re feeling, that pang, that strange sense of disconnect:


Memes are a cultural phenomenon. We use memes to tell each other what we’re experiencing in our day-to-day, and how we’re dealing with it. Exam stress, funny work incidents or even something as mundane as washing the dishes make for great memes because so many people can relate. In a matter of seconds we are able to reinforce certain cultural values. I don’t think many people realize it, but memes have become the primary way in which we choose to communicate our cultures across the internet. The reason why listicles like this are so popular among people all over the world is because each one shows something significant about a group of people and a commonality they share.

That feeling of commonality is so important. It tells humans that we’re not alone, that we have a community to look to when we feel disconnected from the rest of the world.

So when we’re confronted with a meme we don’t understand, of course we’re going to feel frustrated: it means there’s a secret club we haven’t been let into yet. It’s like hearing your best friend whisper an inside joke to someone you met just a few minutes ago.

When it comes to South African memes, nothing is more obscure to American audiences, and responses like this are so typical:

The way South Africans respond to Americans using our memes is equally intriguing:

And I get it. For Americans it feels like you’re being excluded from something you desperately want to be in on.

For South Africans it feels like having someone knock on your clubhouse door, trying a bunch of different passwords to see if they can get in.

In this case I’m going to have to side with the South Africans.

For an American person to call our local languages “code” follows along the American entitlement that assumes that whatever is out there should belong to them, especially if it is coming from a so-called ‘third world’ country. It reinforces the idea that ‘third world’ countries serve as little more than a playground for westerners during Summer vacation. It reinforces the idea that our lands are just a giant pit of mineral wealth to drain for no benefit of our own.

To expect that whatever we in the global South produce should belong to America is neocolonialism, imperialism and capitalism.

Even memes.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but in truth it is an indication of the imperialized reality South Africans face. Take Anglo-American, an American mining company currently ravaging our earth for minerals like coal, diamonds and iron. Mineral wealth can be a huge form of economic power for countries with the luxury of being able to mine it. Although we are not able to because, to put it simply, Anglo-American has bought that right.

With cold, hard white-owned American capital.

As well as this so many black people in South Africa are landless while white, international holiday-makers own barely-touched estates in seaside towns like Camps Bay in Cape Town. All the while black people are made to parody their own cultures for the sake of western tourists’ amusement.

So you can understand why we’re a little stingy with our memes.

This is not to say that Americans shouldn’t have some form of access to South African memes, it’s the internet and therefore, by nature, South African memes belong to the world. But the way you, as Americans, choose to consume South African memes and therefore South African culture can say a lot about the way you are choosing to think about imperialism in relation to cultural exclusivity.

And don’t forget to retweet.