[By Verashni Pillay]
If life was like Twitter we’d all be remarkably witty, if abrupt. We’d sometimes finish sentences with an agreed upon keyword, pronounced with slightly different emphasis, and we would all vote DA.
But life is not Twitter and, depending on your level of social media anathema, you’ll find varying levels of good news. We don’t all go inexplicably quiet at the appearances of a giant whale, wear a one sentence bio on our forehead and Helen Zille is not our best friend.
You can’t fault the official opposition and vehemently un-white party for trying though. Since the 2009 elections, the Democratic Alliance have had a remarkably good social media strategy — inspired in no small part by the viral wave that carried Barack Obama to office in the US. Official Twitter accounts were launched, comprehensive Facebook pages devised and, at one point, their very own social network was created for DA volunteers.
You may be wondering if the D in DA stands for delusional.
Everyone knows that just 10% of our population in this telecommunications-starved country is online. Good luck to anyone mining the histrionic yuppies on Twitter for a vote.
The “insignificant” figure of 6m South Africans online is often compared to the 50m-plus South Africans out there. But when it comes to election time, that’s a misleading comparison.
There are about 23,6m people registered to vote in the local government elections, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, but only about half of them will probably vote, based on past local voting trends.
In the 2006 local government elections, out of about 20m voters, 10,2m pitched up to vote. The ANC won the 2009 national election with just 11,6m votes.
Suddenly 6m doesn’t look so small any longer.
But how many people online actually use social media?
SA has about 3,8m people using Facebook, and 91% of those are of voting age. Early last year a study put the number of Twitter users in SA at about 55 000, but these days experts suggests it’s more like 1m.
It makes sense for the DA to pursue this narrow band of South Africans for votes. You may think the Western Cape is DA country through and through but in the 2009 elections the DA won just 989 132 of the vote in the Western Cape out of just over 2m votes cast. The ANC were very close behind with 666 223.
In a climate like this, every vote counts, even the seemingly insignificant middle-class types using social media.
Thus the DA has pioneered a commendable strategy of social media engagement, headed up by strategist Ryan Coetzee. Coetzee made it his business to engage all sorts of opinion-makers on Twitter on the upcoming elections, obeying the unspoken Twitter rules of respectful and playful conversation. Most other high-profile DA leaders are on the platform, and their Facebook page is regularly updated. Twitter was treated as its own constituency by the party, with “town hall” meetings taking place on the medium.
But a monolithic party such as the ANC can even win in social media without trying.
The ANC’s social media strategy is almost nonexistent. The party had a gratuitous presence in the 2009 elections with blogs that never got updated. However, Fikile Mbalula headed up an amazingly successful campaign that spoke to the kind of youth the ANC was most concerned about — the majority. They held rallies which turned into parties, with kwaito hit songs rewritten to punt the ANC message. This time round Mbalula was sidelined for political reasons and the ruling party’s campaign foundered. Again, there were token nods to social media, albeit laughably late. On 10 May, President Jacob Zuma launched his official Twitter profile. On the same day, at the behest of social media savvy ANC member Shaka Sisulu, a number of ANC leaders in Gauteng got together to talk social media. But they were quick to acknowledge they wouldn’t actually be doing the tweeting themselves.
But even with the total lack of strategic attention to social media, the ANC can win over huge numbers thanks to its sheer size and momentum. Zuma’s Twitter profile launched about a week before voting day but it already has 16 280 followers.
Zille has 32 628 followers and has been tweeting since 2009 — with 811 tweets — at the time of writing. Zuma managed to get half that in four days and as many tweets.
The more I think about it the more I realise the ANC’s lack of savvy in this area does them good — they’re in the same space as much of the electorate: tentatively engaging a new medium and getting their heads around it. I predict by the next election the ruling party will be much more strategic about social media as they, and their voters, catch up to its significance and broadband becomes increasingly available to all kinds of South Africans.
Already, cabinet minister Malusi Gigaba and deputy minister Derek Hanekom are old hands on Twitter, while dozens of high-profile ANC and ANC Youth League leaders have very active and engaged Facebook profiles. It has been an organic process for the party, rather than a strategic one.
The DA, on the other hand, is as engaged and up-to-date on social media as a political party would be in Europe. Will that serve them well? It will win them a few more votes to carry on being a strong opposition party. But not enough to topple an ANC with mass ground-level support.
- Verashni Pillay is deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online
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