If tweets were votes, the ANC would lose badly

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - Jeff Kelly Lowen­stein voices@ city­press. co. za

Lo­cal elec­tions in South Africa are still about a year away, but the ANC ap­pears to have rea­son for con­cern. The party’s prob­lems are ap­par­ent in the press, where head­lines and com­men­tary alike have blasted Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s gov­ern­ment for what crit­ics call its cor­rupt and an­tidemo­cratic be­hav­iour.

So­cial-me­dia ac­tiv­ity among the coun­try’s three most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal fig­ures has re­ceived far less scru­tiny, but also does not bode well for the gov­ern­ing party.

Eco­nomic Free­dom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema (pic­tured) rou­tinely takes to Twit­ter through­out the day to com­mu­ni­cate with his 782 000 fol­low­ers. To give some per­spec­tive, the ANC’s of­fi­cial feed has 220 000 fol­low­ers. Pres­i­dent Zuma’s ac­count, which has about half of Malema’s to­tal, was last ac­tive in 2013.

Malema’s feed is a com­bi­na­tion of his own steady and pointed cri­tique of the Zuma gov­ern­ment and retweets of those who do the same. On May 27, for ex­am­ple, he posted four-dozen retweets. Be­yond the sheer vol­ume of peo­ple he reaches, Malema’s feed is note­wor­thy for its level of en­gage­ment. His tweet on May 29, com­posed solely of hash­tags such as #Proud­lyBroughtToYoubytheANC, #Etolls, #MarikanaRe­port and #Nkand­laRe­port, was retweeted close to 200 times and sparked dozens of com­ments and vig­or­ous de­bate. Although it has fewer fol­low­ers, the feed of newly minted DA leader Mmusi Maimane (pic­tured) also elic­its a wide re­sponse. Like Malema, Maimane is highly ac­tive on the plat­form, tweet­ing and retweet­ing up to 20 times a day. On May 27, he ar­tic­u­lated a cri­tique of Pres­i­dent Zuma’s eco­nomic poli­cies over the course of a dozen con­sec­u­tive tweets. His #askm­musi Twit­ter town hall, held shortly af­ter he was named the party’s leader last month, gen­er­ated 100 000 tweets and be­came a trend­ing topic world­wide. Many have also re­sponded to the tweets Maimane has posted since. On May 28, for in­stance, he tweeted about Po­lice Min­is­ter Nathi Nh­leko’s re­port on Nkandla: “As ex­pected the min­is­ter of po­lice who works for Pres­i­dent Zuma has determined that He does not owe us a cent.”

Be­low his words was a pic­ture of the sec­tion of the re­port that said Pres­i­dent Zuma did not have pay for any of the “se­cu­rity fea­tures”.

Retweeted more than 1 200 times, Maimane’s words and his in­ser­tion of the doc­u­ment elicited pas­sion­ate re­sponses de­nounc­ing Zuma and Nh­leko’s ap­par­ent com­plic­ity. “Z is ex­pos­ing him­self! It’s not funny any more” or “Un­be­liev­able” were among the more rep­re­sen­ta­tive com­ments.

How­ever, it should be noted some com­menters took Maimane to task for leak­ing the doc­u­ment be­fore the of­fi­cial press con­fer­ence took place.

Maimane also in­te­grates pho­tos, car­toons and a weekly Bokamoso video posted on YouTube into his tweets. By con­trast, the ANC feed reg­u­larly vi­o­lates stan­dard Twit­ter eti­quette by al­most ex­clu­sively tweet­ing or retweet­ing about the party. A tweet on May 29 about a fo­rum build­ing up the cel­e­bra­tion this month of the 60th an­niver­sary of the Free­dom Char­ter led to just seven retweets and a few scathing com­ments.

“All you can do is cel­e­brate,” wrote one user. “Why don’t you do some work for a change?”

The ques­tion, of course, is whether Malema or Maimane can con­vert Twit­ter out­rage and en­thu­si­asm into elec­toral suc­cess.

Con­nect­ing with young vot­ers would ap­pear to be a crit­i­cal part of that equa­tion. A Forbes ar­ti­cle last year re­ported that half of Twit­ter users glob­ally were in their twen­ties. In South Africa, res­i­dents be­tween the ages of 18 and 29 con­sti­tuted more than a third of the vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion in 2013, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies. The re­port also noted that voter reg­is­tra­tion among young South Africans was sig­nif­i­cantly lower than that of older age groups. This might be the most com­fort­ing news the ANC has re­ceived in re­cent weeks. But ig­nor­ing the grow­ing cho­rus of dis­con­tent emerg­ing on so­cial­me­dia plat­forms and rest­ing its hopes for elec­toral victory in part on the lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion of the so­ci­ety’s younger mem­bers seems po­lit­i­cally short­sighted at best. At worst, it could erode the demo­cratic ideals the party pre­vi­ously fought for so long to se­cure. Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers have noted that the ANC’s strong­est elec­toral base is ru­ral, a part of the coun­try whose views are sel­dom re­flected on ei­ther tra­di­tional or so­cial me­dia.

Still, Mashudu Raphala’s tweet on the ANC’s feed sounded an omi­nous note about the gov­ern­ment’s fu­ture prospects: “u have 21 yrs to im­ple­ment it but u fail wat u do best is to cel­e­brate and white wash Nkandla ur days ar num­bered.” Lowen­stein is a jour­nal­ism lec­turer at Columbia Col­lege in Chicago. He was a Ful­bright ex­change teacher at the Uthon­gathi School in Ton­gaat

be­tween 1995 and 1996

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