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Thandi Mathobane Does Not Exist; the Potential of Copyleft to Change the World is Alive and Well
Alex Steffen, 9 Oct 04

Hmmm. So, I was turned on to this movie (flash) supposedly a true story, about independent journalist Thandi Mathobane, whose Soweto Times Online was released under a Creative Commons license, allowing all sorts of good things to happen -- teachers to find original living history content about Soweto, a DJ in London to cut the audio tracks into new mixes, etc.

By the time the narrator wrapped up with "Join us in making copyright work for South Africa," I was like, hell yes, worldchanging in action! Unfortunately, it's more a case of worldchanging in theory.

See, I couldn't find anything else about Thandi or the Soweto Times anywhere else online. Having Googled and scrolled and clicked and backbuttoned my way into a whole bunch of dead ends, I emailed Heather Ford, of Creative Commons South Africa, to find out more. She emailed back

"unfortunately she is a fictional character - we wanted to illustrate with a story of how cc can be used here since its very new still. thanks for pointing that out..."

Which is fine -- I strongly believe in the use of story to advance arguments. But it is important that we identify which of the stories we tell are true and which are not. When tryng to convince people of wildly new approaches, it's important to distinguish between what we know and what we imagine.

Heather promised to make it clear the story's fiction, so no harm done, though I have to admit that I really wanted to be able to tell the real-life story of Thandi Mathobane, of citizen journalism in Soweto, and the triumph of collaboration and copyleft in South Africa. I hope it won't be long before I can.

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I will definitely put in a note that this story is fictional, but where did you get that it is 'supposedly a true story'? There's nothing in the animation to say that this is definitely true - nor that it is fictional. But to imply that we were trying to make out that it is a real story is misguided. The aim of the movie is to inspire people - telling stories, I think, is the best way to do that. And whether that story is 'true' or not is pretty irrelevant here. Sure, it would be nice if the story was true, but the reality is that it's far from being true, and it more about illustrating the potential than anything else. Interesting thing is that very few locals are confused by the fictional nature of the movie. People outside of Africa get very excited about showing a "real" test case from the developing world, but a community-based project like this needs investment in education, training, hardware and support - and with only 4 out of 43 million people in South Africa with access to the Internet, it will take a while before the potential becomes a reality.

Posted by: Heather Ford on 11 Oct 04


First, as I said in my email, you're doing great work and deserve applause.

But as you yourself point out, the presentation of the film is ambiguous, enough so that BoingBoing called it a true story, and the reader emailing me thought we ought to get Thandi as a contributor. I got that it was supposedly as true story because the people who turned me on to it *told* me it was a true story.

Much of this is contextual. If the film were hosted on Futurismic, the viewer might wonder if it were a true story or not. But Creative Commons is a legal/policy NGO, not precisely where I -- or apparently others -- expect to encounter works of fiction. I think that to leave the fictional/ nonfictional nature of the film ambiguous in this context is to imply its nonfictionality.

None of this is meant to take away from the excellent work involved in making and putting up the film, or the great work you guys in the Creative Commons universe continue to do. We're on the same side, here.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Oct 04



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