Twits or Twitterati: Social media & South African politics

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We have all amused ourselves by looking at articles and graphics imagining social media as a country, but what about the correlation between social media and political support? With South Africa’s next general election scheduled for a date between April and July next year, it may be an interesting exercise to see which South African political parties could be considered Twitterati and which ones come across as twits in the social media arena.

Whether Twitter followers or Facebook likes correlate with actual support at the ballot box is up for debate, since many variables and tripwires come into play:

  • fake accounts
  • duplicate accounts
  • internet access does not necessarily translate into internet use (often due to cost and slow speeds)
  • non-supporters following/liking to stay up to date with policies & statements
  • general socio-economic status of supporters and its effect on internet access

With regards to the last variable it should be noted that South Africa’s internet population (based on access) has increased to 14 million people in 2013, representing 39% of adults in South Africa. [Figures for 2013 as researched by the Digital Media and Marketing Association (DMMA).]
That includes internet access from mobile phones, which is an important factor in a country with one of the highest number of users of mobile technology and mobile social networking in Africa.

According to a 2012 Unicef study on the South African mobile generation:

  • South African adolescents and youth are the first adopters of mobile technology, with 72 per cent of 15 –to 24-year olds owning a cell phone.
  • South Africa is the leading innovator, in Africa, in social networking, microblogging and content creation.

Another report by local business technology consultancy, Strategy Worx, revealed that there were 5.3 million Facebook users in the country at the end of 2012. Additionally 85% of mobile phone users and 75.7% of local internet users had a Facebook account. In comparison Twitter use was much smaller at 1.3 million users, but growing at a very fast pace.

Online participation has increased substantially over the past few years due to the increased adoption of smart phones and as a result of data cost being driven down by the proliferation of undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa with the rest of the world. The South African ICT research company World Wide Worx calculated in 2012 that there were 10 million active smart phones out of a total mobile phone market of 29 million users. Higher speeds, lower rates and ease of access also means that the demographic of the SA internet user base is shifting significantly. If you don’t believe that statement, just have a look at the amount of trolling, vitriol spewing and soap-boxing from almost every pigment of the lunatic fringe on local websites and social media.

A useful analogy exists in the fact that the most followed and liked brands in the business sector tend to also be the market leaders in their specific category. By way of comparison, a few business examples on Twitter and Facebook:
Woolworths SA – 79,000 followers and 285,000 likes
Pick n Pay – 62,000 followers and 421,000 likes
Vodacom – 70,000 followers and 300,000 likes

At the very least a comparison of political parties and their respective social media statistics should reveal a few trends that may help with electoral guestimation, a passé game for wise-arsed pundits worldwide.

So without further ado we present to you, the politically and hopefully democratically curious, the social media heroes and zeros of the South African political landscape. For the purpose of this exercise we looked at a smorgasbord of local political parties. It includes the old, the new, the vibrant, the brash and the cripple. We have included trade union federation The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the second portion, due to its membership of the tripartite alliance (with the ANC and the SACP), as well as its regular pronouncements on all matters political.

The contestants:
SA political parties
The data visualisation:
Twit or Twitterati
The stand out conclusion from the above visualisation has to be the fact that the two new kids on the block, Agang and Julius Malema’s EFF, are both experiencing massive growth in social media support. In fact, the EFF, has more Facebook likes than any other party. Maybe wee Julius missed out on his vocation as a social media expert?
The second take away is that the 2nd and 3rd biggest political parties in South Africa, Cope and the IFP, are seeing their lacklustre performance at the polls reflected in low social media engagement. Either they are not engaging enough with their target voters or they are producing the wrong content. Time for a big re-think, methinks.
As promised earlier we added Cosatu’s Twitter stats in the second section, to prove, if nothing else, that huge volumes of tweets will not necessarily give you an incremental following. Verbosity and repetition may actually hamper the clear reception of your message. Maybe time to realise that your organisation is not the BBC world service.

Well, that was round one. In round two we had a look at what the respective leaders of the above seven organisations have been getting up to on Facebook and Twitter.
SA politicians and their Twitter stats
First contestant up is a Mr Jacob G. Zuma, handle @SAPresident, just to avoid any confusion. Mr Zuma’s stats are pretty much to be expected, a solid following and a very low rate of tweeting. What else do you expect from a guy who struggles to read his own speeches? His account’s last tweet was on 27 May this year, which does not say much for the prez’s willingness to interact with the electorate. It’s the next bit though that comes across as slightly bizarre. Only six follows, and a strange mix they are. The Nelson Mandela Foundation is fairly innocuous, and following yourself @PresidencyZA is probably not a mortal sin. Although the suspicious among us may ask why you need to keep track of your own office, but that would just send us down a dark corridor from whence there may be no return. Moving on. As far as we know the last head count of Zuma offspring produced an official tally of twenty. Then why would only one child be followed? We checked, there is at least half a soccer team of Zuma kids on Twitter. Whatever the reason, only actress daughter, Gugu, made the grade. The balance of Zuma’s Twitter crew is made up of two young women, one of them a whitey, so no potential sprog scenario there. At the expense of being a bit of a shit stirrer the obvious question needs to be asked. Did someone hack your account Mr President? While it is certainly the prerogative of a president to limit his follows on a social media network to a grand total of 6 (six), it does beg the question why the final two spots were allocated to two female youngsters. No-one else who piqued your interest? Archbishop emiritus Desmond Tutu? The Dalai Lama? The Mo Ibrahim Foundation? Just not your cup of tea I suppose.

Contestant number two approaches social media with all the ferocious efficiency of a blitzkrieg. DA leader, Helen Zille, seems to have taken to Twitter with gusto. She is far ahead of her peers with over 23,000 tweets. Her tweets are succinct, on point and sometimes even entertainingly sarcastic. Very Cape Town. One of Ms Zille’s greatest assets is the ability to respond timeously and efficiently to queries. For all that hard work Reprobate crowns her our runner-up political twitterator.

Captain of the yellow team … sorry, I mean Cope, is political stalwart and survivor, Mosiuoa (Terror) Lekota. Before we jump in with the hand grenades of criticism, a compliment or two for jolly Terror. Friendliest profile picture and most balanced follow list: everything from journalists, politicians and news media to entertainers, sports people and a few everymen. Seems Mr Terror either had some help or he is a man with his finger on the pulse of wider society. Either way it is not helping him or his party, both have pretty dismal follower and like stats.

If everyone goes around mentioning how intelligent and full of integrity you are then you can afford to buck the trend. Despite a relatively low number of tweets, Mamphela Ramphele, leader of Agang, has already built up a respectable number of followers on Twitter. It would be interesting to see what the trend will be in 4 months time. The DA will have to be at the top of its game to retain the gains it recently made among middle class black South Africans.

Prince Mangosuthu ‘don’t call me Gatsha’ Buthelezi, imperator in perpetuo, em … president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, obviously reserves the right of a royal personage to deign not to participate in something as democratic and déclassé‎ as social media. And at 85 years of age, I’m sure tapping away 140 character messages on a smart phone is not exactly the prince’s idea of a productive day. For someone who holds the record for the longest ever legislative speech, 140 character messages must be an atrocity akin to seal puppy clubbing. By the way the record is real, check it out at Guinness World Records.

Since we used Cosatu in the party profile we decided to have a look at the Twitter account of its troubled general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Despite his ‘special leave’ aka suspension he seems to be in a relaxed frame of mind tweeting away about football and the refugee crisis in Syria. With over a hundred thousand followers and regular, relevant tweets Mr Vavi is one of the top dogs in the political Tweetospere.  A consolation since he may not be top dog at Cosatu for much longer.

We left the best for last. If you really want a surreal Twitter experience head over to @Julius_S_Malema. Your psychdelic experience starts with a background image of an idealised farm with tractor, glowing sunset/sunrise etc. You are kept under no illusions though – the Commander in Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters and and all round Revolutionary activist had his pensive visage artistically rendered as central motif. You better know that you are now in the house of the C in C of the EFF. All of that tone setting before you have even read one single tweet!
And the tweets, that’s where it really starts getting nutty. Half arsed spouting of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary rhetoric is interspersed with bizarre retweets of hair extension ads and conversations about a visit to a prophet in Nigeria. My favourite of the day was his droll response to Mamphela Ramphele reportedly calling him South Africa’s own Hitler. “She promised to bring new &dignified style of politics & now she’s calling me names, none the less I still love & respect her as a granny…
The fact that shrewd Julius took over a previously satirical Twitter account of himself and built on its existing follower base, also earns him extra points. Since it is a crazy, crazy world out there, Julius S. walks away with the no 1 spot in our social media contest. Manic tweeting can get you anywhere …

A few considerations:
SA’s mobile operators are hampered in their roll out of next generation networks by the delay in the release of additional spectrum by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA), which in turn will only free up after South Africa’s conversion to digital terrestrial television. Now if only the clowns can get their act together so that all South Africans may have access to the erudite and cerebral discourse of our politicians on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has already been proven to be an important precursor, facilitator, organiser and recorder of social upheaval and revolution as witnessed in the unfolding of the so-called Arab Spring. Its importance within normal socio-political discourse can not be underestimated.

Most importantly, social media kudos does not mean that the content is of any worth. Populism, cynical marketing tricks and general stupidity make for fertile ground to give a veneer of dignity to rubbish content … @FiftyShadesofShit …

Agree, don’t agree? Let us know your take on social media’s importance for political parties in South Africa, Papua New Guinea, wherever.

6 thoughts on “Twits or Twitterati: Social media & South African politics

  1. Interesting read, and perhaps something we need to be a little bit concerned about with dear ‘ol JuJu with his buffalo-like antics… and this powerful tool of Social media at his hands.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, will definitely interesting to see how the numbers will become a point of reference within the parties over the next few months to come. I am sure there will start be a lot of movement shortly once the elections are in the limelight again.


    • Exactly. We will update the graphics and stats in closer to the election to see what trends emerge. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. At least our politicians aren’t sending Anthony Weiner style pics via twitter (yet!). Imagine if Zuma cottoned onto that…

  3. Thank you. Reprobate always defuddles new issues. Excellent research and conclusions in a brilliant tongue in cheek writing style gracefully softens the blows of disconcerting insights.

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