Sexwale divorce shows the power and danger of the tweet age
Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale's confirmation of his divorce showed again that the advent of social media was blurring the line between the private and the public, media commentators say.
Veteran media analyst Chris Moerdyk said the Sunday Times story on the Sexwale's divorce, which followed intense speculation on Twitter, proved that the information chain had changed forever and rumour had become more powerful than ever.
"Any form of celebrity will tell you that it has become nigh impossible to keep anything private. The thing is that with Facebook and particularly Twitter, nobody has to be absolutely sure of their facts," he said.
Media academic Anton Harber said Twitter and Facebook were eroding privacy, but on the positive side the proliferation of social media also meant that it had become harder to keep anything of public interest quiet.
"Social media does mean that there is much less control over the flow of information and that people can push things into the public arena. It had become much harder for people to control and to contain personal information, for better or for worse.
"I say for better because stories of public interest have become much harder to suppress, and I say for worse because it can be very intrusive into private space."
Harber said in this instance he believed that there was an argument to be made that the story of a senior politician's divorce was in the public interest.
On Friday, newspapers published stories on the divorce without naming the couple. The South African Divorce Act restricts publication of anything other than the names of the parties to a divorce and the court order made in the case.
But the Sunday Times published statements by the lawyers acting for both Sexwale and his wife of 20 years, Judy, in the acrimonious break-up.
In an editorial note, the weekly said it believed publishing the names of the couple along with their allegations was justified because the minister had wanted to go public.
Moerdyk noted that people were mistaken to think that they could set the record straight in a dispute by stating their side of the story in public.
Sexwale, via his lawyer, denied his wife's claims that he had emotionally and physically abused her.
'A no-win situation'
"People go public because they think the facts will speak for themselves. But it is a no-win situation. In fact it is all about perception and people will take sides," Moerdyk said.
"Here you have all sorts of elements that will prompt people to do that. There is a man people see as powerful and woman they will see as vulnerable."
Comments on Internet news sites on Monday suggested that the Sexwale's divorce gripped the public and that sympathies were indeed divided.
Some commentators on the Sowetan's website said they felt for the minister because the couple had been married in community of property, others weighed in that his wife deserved a big settlement for having supported him in the early days of the marriage when "Tokyo had nothing".
Both Harber and Moerdyk said the conventional mass media would have to adapt to the fact that its role had been usurped by more immediate forms of media that were not bound to the same rules.
"The mass media no longer controls the news agenda as much as they did in the past," Harber said.
Moerdyk said social media had managed to become an instant news source of choice for the younger generation.
"Newspapers have for a long time complained that they found it hard to have a readership among the youth. You will find that young people do not read newspapers or listen to the radio, but they are very well informed because they are communicating with 500 people all around the world on websites."
He said Twitter was a handy tool both for journalists who wanted to draw readers to their stories - and for whistleblowers looking for a forum - but unfortunately often meant that context and background were over-looked if followers looked no further than the tweet.
"Newspapers and news agencies have a tremendously important role to play in providing the whole story and the perspective."