African Spring
Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

For the past week my Facebook stream has been inundated by a steady flow of photos of red berets and energetic exhortations to vote as one of the many ‘Fighters, Volunteers, Organisers, Commissars, and Patriotic Combatants’ of South Africa. Despite liking the page, not only – unfortunately – am I none of the above but – crucially – I am also ineligible to vote. I was only there for a six-day research trip to look at voter attitude in the run-up to the election.

For others, however, the online campaign by the Economic Freedom Fighters did seem to work. The party – which touts itself as ‘Marxist-Leninist Fanonian Economic Emancipation Movement’ and was only formed in 2013 when their leader, Julius Malema was expelled from the ANC – won 6% of the votes in South Africa’s general election last week. Their red berets became the quickest selling election item on Gumtree. The ANC beret came fifth.

It seems the up-and-coming stars of South African politics have seized on the opportunity social media presents. From my virtual affiliations, I could see the online space was as noisy as volleys of cars bumping through the shanty towns, their election messages trailing behind them on tannoy. Julius Malema has 456 thousand followers on Twitter, whom he entertains by comparing the Boko Haram kidnap to the Solange and Jay Z tiff or by littering his feed with photographs of cute dogs. His party has nearly 85.5 thousand likes on Facebook. The ANC only has 60 thousand Facebook likes and 125 thousand followers on Twitter. Mmusi Maimane, running in the provincial elections for the Democratic Alliance in the richest and most populous province, Gauteng, has 35.5 thousand followers. Apart from his sleek style, photogenic confidence and the fact he’s a black politician in a party which attracts the white vote, his nous on social media has drawn comparisons with Obama. The political broadcast in which he lambasts Zuma for the lack of jobs and excess of corruption, was banned by the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, reportedly after pressure from the ANC, and subsequently went viral on YouTube. Incidentally, the numbers don’t necessarily reflect that. Rather than being watched online which is more expensive, the video was downloaded and shared with many hundreds of thousands via SMS.

SA social media elections SQ

But how much does online debate affect the box voters tick? The evidence would suggest little. The ANC had a resounding victory with 63% of the votes: the small decrease is simply to be expected. No party can realistically expect to garner 70% or more of the vote unless they have just this moment liberated their country after 46 years of apartheid – at least, not in free and fair elections.

But why does social seem to have such little impact? In a country where more than 75% own a cell phone and, according to a 2012 UNICEF study, its citizens are among ‘the highest users of mobile technology and mobile social networking on the continent’, the election should have been a chance for newer political parties to reach the younger generation–the ‘Born Frees’–via social networks and mobile phones. There seem to have been many currents that would churn up social media swells: the poor provision of services or the luxurious cinema and heated swimming pool of Nkandla, Zuma’s private residence.

In part, the reason could be that the online space echoes the messages of traditional media or, more simply, bypasses them. The pages of Mxit, the South African free instant messenger which has over six million users, are plastered as enthusiastically as the highways with posters of the various candidates grinning benignly. But as Malik our taxi driver in Cape Town, told us you’re more likely to look for a wife on Mxit–like he did, and successfully too–than engage in political debate. People may have mobiles but political messages are mainly spread by passing on newspapers or crowding around a radio in the village. South Africa is extremely well-serviced by papers (there are nine dailies in Johannesburg alone), television and the radio and politicians rely heavily of rallies and public appearances. Of course this leads to moments that would seem like a PR disaster: the spectacle of campaigning politicians bumping over the townships’ pot-holed roads in their Bentleys and Rolls Royces. But issues that you would think would spark a riot on Twitter seem to have little impact. According to Alf, a South African business man, those in rural areas might not be able fully to comprehend the luxury of Zuma’s abode. The news he had spent one million rand on a cattle kraal would have been more quantifiable, familiar and of little surprise. As Alf put it, ‘They would expect all leaders to do the same and spend money on their own corrupt interests.’

The ANC seem too well entrenched, however flawed their representatives. The leader of the opposition, the DA’s Helen Zille, has also turned out to be the ANC’s greatest asset; many will not countenance voting for a white woman whatever her party’s proposals. And in a country where close to 40% of youth are unemployed, it’s not surprising there are hiccups. Bekkersdal, a township in Gauteng, was burned down in protests by disaffected youths. It still voted 70% ANC. As Alf put it, ‘A Catholic remains a Catholic, even if he doesn’t like the pope.’

Perhaps this will change. Even Nelson Mandela predicted the ANC would reign for thirty years before its supporters would lose zeal, opposition parties exercise clout and liberation leaders kick the bucket. If Mandela’s correct, this would imply only one more election in which the ANC will dominate effortlessly; after 2019, everything is to play for. The mess of the Gauteng municipal elections is perhaps a sign of what is to come. When the ANC vote threatened to dip below 50%, which would have meant the ANC would have form a humiliating coalition in the province home to the government, ballot boxes from Alexandria township, traditionally DA, mysteriously vanished and the count was momentarily suspended. The DA and EFF naturally raised concerns at this. If Maimane rises through the ranks to replace Zille and started to become a threat, Alf had no doubt he would be investigated by the South African Revenue Service on some empty pretext or otherwise subjected to damaging distractions. Malema was. It remains to be seen if he can keep his nerve and if the support he can wield on social media will be enough to secure his survival.

But perhaps this is beside the point. The key worry is also whether South Africans bother to venture to the polling station at all. Out of almost two million potential voters aged 18-19, only one in three is registered to vote. That means well over a million young people have as big a political say in South Africa as me. But just as apps have been successful spreading information about AIDS or how to ensure a smooth pregnancy, perhaps the most we can hope for, naively perhaps, is that social media will lead to political engagement. This is only possible if it there is a credible alternative; then, however much the ANC exert power, popular opinion is difficult to quell. But first the Born Frees must throw off the shackles of apathy. For apathy, as Rousseau might have said, is the most insidious of servitudes:  ‘One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are’.

(Names have been changed)


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