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South Africa’s social media election

With only a few days to go before Election Day in South Africa, political parties are as active on social media platforms as they are on the streets. How big a role will social media play in these elections, and is this the future of political campaigning?



Kenya showed the way last year and now it’s the turn of the country with one of the most active Facebook and Twitter markets on the continent. First some background.

The rise of social media on the African continent is old news, with Facebook-analysis site identifying the continent as Facebook’s fastest growing market already back in 2011. That was when Facebook had 25 million users in Africa; it now has 52 million, with numbers increasing fast by the day. That’s still only 5% of the population, which explains why Facebook sees the continent as the one with the greatest growth potential.

50 million in the context of a billion might be small numbers, but when you consider Africa’s youth bulge, it’s no surprise that politicians and political parties are increasingly taking their campaigns online; some have been at it for a while.


Portland Communications’ Kenya office revealed a couple of years ago just how active the continent’s social media users were on Twitter, too. And the more switched on politicians took note. In 2012, Africa’s top-tweeting politicians included President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has sent 2,460 tweets to date and whose account account (@UKenyatta) boasts 410K followers; and President Kagame (@PaulKagame), who now stands at 2,384 tweets and 343K followers (and whose Twitter strategy appears to follow his political one in that his account follows exactly 0 tweeters).  Also, seeing as it is never too late to join the party, President Museveni (@KagutaMuseveni) sent his first tweet just a week ago and boasts 27K followers. He too, follows no one. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s use of social media played an instrumental role in his election campaign last year, and now it’s South Africa’s turn.


South Africa: #Born free and connected
South Africa is the continent’s most active country by volume of geo-located Tweets (you can see just how active in the Portland Communications graphic below), and takes second place (after Egypt) in the Top 10 of African countries on Facebook (with just over 9.4-million active users). Not surprisingly, the country’s political parties have not been slow to take to social media to convince voters to buy whatever it is they are selling this season. The streets are still plastered with posters and politicians are still handing out the usual food packages and t-shirts, but to this they’ve added Twitter ‘Townhall meetings’ (the DA started doing this 2 years ago), Facebook Q&As and political debates, and Google Hangouts.

How Africa Tweets

66% of the South Africa’s 51 million population is younger than 35, and Business Daily Live, among others, already warned early last year that political parties who ignore the youth vote do so at their own peril. Young voters expect political parties to woo them via social media.

Follow me for my vote

Perhaps heeding this advice, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) embarked on a campaign to encourage the youth to register to vote – particularly first-time voters (those aged 18 and above), with social media as a key campaign tool. Following the campaign, 2.5 million South Africans registered to vote on the weekend of 9–10 November, 2013, and just over 1 million of these were registering for the first time. Most encouragingly, 80% of new registrations came from people aged 18–29.

So how are the parties doing?

Twitter wars
Debates have raged on both the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of the major parties. Twitter wars have kicked off between parties #CampaignCorruption and #ImpeachZuma hashtags trending as parties tore into one another, but how damaging or effective these hashtags have been is difficult to judge. Certainly, the more social media followers a party has, the more people it has to spread those hashtags. So how big a following do the parties have?


While the DA has traditionally set the pace in using social media for campaign purposes, it’s the ANC (@MyANC_) that leads with 116,000 followers (though it has sent only 10.8K tweets), followed by the Democratic Alliance (DA; @DA_News) with 76.1K followers (26.4K tweets). That said, people usually vote for personalities as much as parties (look at Obama’s first election), and DA leader Helen Zille leaves Jacob Zuma in the dust with 409K followers (compared to Zuma’s 318K (and Zuma’s account hasn’t been active since October last year; no doubt Zuma has had other things on his mind).

AgangSA (@AgangSA), the party with whom the DA attempted to merge, to disastrous effect, is in third position with 45.5K followers (6,554 tweets), and trailing last is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF; @EconFreedomZA) with 42K followers (and 3,658 tweets), but again, going by individuals rather than parties, EFF’s Julius Malema boasts 445K followers and many more tweets than the party’s official account.

ANC - Facebook

Standings are almost identical on Facebook, with only a swap in third and fourth position: the ANC has 135K ‘Likes’ and 22,706 people ‘talking about this’; the DA has 93K ‘Likes’, but 34,937 people ‘talking about this’. The EFF has 83K ‘Likes’ and 4,036 people ‘talking…’; while Agang SA has 35K ‘Likes’ and 2,154 people ‘talking’.

DA - Facebook

The figures paint a general picture, but they are no indication of how the parties will actually fare on May 7th. Who among us hasn’t “Liked” a Facebook page and forgotten about it less than an hour later? And people might be ‘talking’ about one party or the other but what they’re actually talking about is another matter. The DA’s Helen Zille has been a very active tweeter, but some of her tweets have attracted controversy [The DA is seen by many black voters as a racist party, although that didn’t stop it from winning the Ward 5 by-election in Makhado, which is almost 100% black].

Portland Communications’ findings tell us which subjects we tweet about, but are there more negative #Zuma hashtags than positive or vice versa? Who knows.


Top hashtags

Are people more engaged on instant messaging than they are on Facebook and Twitter? Again, hard to say, but some believe mobile instant messaging service Mxit will be just as influential in these elections (for the youth vote) as Facebook and Twitter. [Mxit is a free mobile instant messaging service, with more than 7-million active users, 6.5 million of which are in South Africa.]

More than 400,000 subscribed to the My ANC Western Cape Mxit app, prompting the party to launch a MyANC app on the same service. The DA’s Mxit app has almost 200,000 subscribers.

Is it the future?
The use of social media as a campaigning tool might be on the rise, it is not about to make all other forms of campaigning obsolete. At least not yet. As The Media Shop Group MD Chris Botha put it (in reference to EFF leader Julius Malema’s Twitter following and the unlikelihood of this translating into actual votes), “A couple 100 000 people in the context of about 30 million adults is really a drop in the ocean”.

In terms of mediated messages, TV still rules. Which is why the DA got so upset when the State broadcaster SABC refused to air their ad last month. The DA promptly uploaded it to their Youtube channel, demonstrating one of the strengths of new media platforms. (For a bit of light relief, take a look at a parody of that ad produced by one enterprising nightclub). The SABC refused to air the EFF’s ad, too, a couple of weeks later, and once again, Youtube was the answer. Malema and his supporters accused the SABC of bias and took their protest to the streets at the start of the week.

Julius Malema leader of The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), leads thousands of supporters march in protest to the South African Broadcasting Co-operation (SABC) in Johannesburg, 29 April 2014. (EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE)

Julius Malema leader of The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), leads thousands of supporters march in protest to the South African Broadcasting Co-operation (SABC) in Johannesburg, 29 April 2014. (EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE)

Getting back on topic, most votes in this election will be won on the back of ‘bread and butter issues’ and politicians rolling into rural and impoverished areas toting food parcels, and t-shirts that people will use as pyjamas once all the hype has died down. I’m no social media expert but our society will look very, very different before social media is seen as a genuine alternative to other forms of political campaigning rather than as something supplementary. Even America’s so-called ‘Facebook Election’ of 2008 saw Obama pressing the flesh from State to State, although his social media strategy was very instrumental in galvanising the crowds whose flesh was to be pressed. And perhaps that’s what will make the difference in this and future elections, not only in South Africa but in other general elections across the continent: not how many ‘followers’ a party has but how smart it is at getting those followers to ‘act spontaneously’ in spreading its propaganda (negative and positive) in creative ways, hitting the streets, and actually voting. Then we might start to see some surprising results. But watch out for the demands of that youth bulge.