If tweets were votes, the ANC would lose badly
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