South African media loses a key changemaker
Digital media strategist Siyabonga Africa dies, aged 35
Siyabonga Africa passed away suddenly in the early hours on Monday morning, 19 July 2021.
He was 35 years old.
“We are shattered by the loss. Siya was a force for good. His warmth and mischievous humour, coupled with razor-sharp smarts, created safe spaces for media innovators to experiment,” said Code for Africa (CfA) chief executive Justin Arenstein. “His passion and generosity helped shape scores of startups right across the continent.”
Siya was a senior programme manager on CfA’s impact investment team at the time of his passing. He led a media innovation portfolio that ranged from the continent’s largest women data science/journalism network, WanaData, to the pioneering EverydayAfrica ‘street photographer’ network and a string of initiatives that use drones (africanDRONE), satellites (Oxpeckers Center for Environmental Investigative Journalism, InfoNile and InfoCongo), and investigative data to make the world a better place. He also helped shape CfA’s data literacy and digital training initiatives across 21 African countries.
Siya brought a rare combination of skills and thought-leadership to the job, despite his relative youth, including journalistic experience from repeated stints at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). He learnt digital strategy during his time at the continent’s largest publishing platform, 24.com, and the OpenUp civic technology incubator. His social media analysis skills were honed at media monitoring organisations both in South Africa and the U.S. Siya also taught himself software coding, so that he could better understand the technologists he worked with, and had just completed certification in impact investment.
“Siya was someone our team went to for ideas on a daily basis. He helped us find solutions for everything from training volunteer radio journalists in deep rural Kenya, to liberating Covid-19 data in five West African countries. He was gentle with his wisdom, and practical with his advice. It is really hard for us to accept that he is gone,” said CfA’s knowledge programme manager, Tolulope Adeyemo.
The sorrow was echoed on social media, where friends and colleagues from across the world shared anecdotes about his proud identification as a “Star Wars geek” and his love of futurism, as well as his belief that — used wisely — technology could help solve key African challenges. This belief in African-led self-help saw him co-found the Johannesburg chapter of Hacks/Hackers in 2012, which helped pioneer some of the earliest data-driven journalism experiments in the country. The most abiding memory for many was of Siya’s generosity and kindness. Many used an old-fashioned, but fitting, term to describe him: “He was a gentleman.”
“There are people in this world who make it better by just being themselves. #SiyabongaAfrica @siyafrica was one of these. I will miss his radiant energy, love for life and others, and sartorial elegance,” said journalism lecturer and friend, Dinesh Balliah, on Twitter.
There was also speculation about the cause of his passing. Siya had received his first Covid-19 vaccine shot on 16 July 2021, and tweeted about adverse effects shortly afterwards. He had, however, complained of feeling unusually lethargic earlier in the week, prior to getting the vaccine, and had been recovering from a bout of bronchitis. He tested negative for Covid-19 during his bronchitis treatment. He collapsed on Friday night, but was not hospitalised when the paramedics who treated him at home found his vitals to be stable. He was scheduled to see a doctor for a full examination on Monday, but passed away before dawn. A full autopsy is being conducted. The results are expected to be released to his family later this week.
Many of Siya’s friends pointed out how much Siya loved facts, and disliked conspiracy theories. As Siya said on social media, he was adamant about getting vaccinated. He would have hated his death being used for unsubstantiated speculation.
Prior to joining CfA, Siya served as a programme officer at Media Development Investment Fund’s (MDIF) South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP), where he supported 24 independent media organisations by providing a mix of grant funding, capacity building, and targeted investment.
“We worked together for over three years, helping mostly young media organisations navigate their different and difficult challenges — a task that Siya always did with the utmost kindness and consideration,” said MDIF Africa director, Bilal Randeree. “Siya was always the best dressed person — in the room, or even on the Zoom call — early morning or late at night. He had such a unique style and charm — a true gentleman!”
Before MDIF, Siya was one of a small team of digital media specialists at SABC News responsible for spearheading digital news projects, and implementing new technologies and production processes in the public broadcaster’s newsrooms. “Siya impressed with his project management skills, his innovative ideas and his ability to train journalists on a variety of news desks to adopt digital production techniques and expand their online offerings,” added Izak Minnaar, who was digital news editor at SABC during Siya’s time there.
Siya received a BAdmin in international relations from the University of Pretoria, a BPhil in journalism from Stellenbosch University, both in South Africa, and a masters in new media from Indiana University Bloomington in the U.S. Indiana University’s motto as a “school for dreamers, doers and leaders’’ epitomises Siya. In pursuit of his commitment to ongoing learning, Siya was doing a second masters degree in data science at the University of Witwatersrand, and had received certificates for standalone courses as diverse as impact investment and monitoring and evaluation, to data visualisation from the University of Cape Town, Andela, Code Academy and others. Amongst Siya’s proudest accolades was his inclusion in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans cohort for 2014.
Siya is survived by his mother, Dr Patricia Nokukhanya Africa, step-father, Dr Dennis Joseph Mkhulisi, his two sisters, Noxy Jali and Tobi Mkhulisi, and his brother Thoko Mkhulisi.
Funeral arrangements are still being finalised.
Siya, may the Force be with you. Always. We will miss you.