I visited South Africa last October, bringing with me a perspective shaped by my deep respect for Nelson Mandela and the long walk to freedom he took with his African National Congress [ANC].
But times change and so do the natures of political parties once installed in office. The history of continental Africa is filled with freedom struggles that resulted in new tyrannies.
I was in South Africa to address a student body mostly comprised of young adults who were born after Mandela took office and were coming of age at a time when he had left public service to spend his twilight years with family.
I was very much surprised to discover that most people I talked with were deeply opposed to the ANC. I repeatedly heard charges of pervasive corruption. The best-known social media activist uses the Twitter handle “PigSpotter,” to report where ANC police set up checkpoints to pull over motorists and shake them down for bribes.
Most of the people I met in Capetown supported the Democratic Alliance, the opposition party that has taken over the Western Cape province under the leadership of an ex-investigative reporter named Helen Zille. While the party she leads is far from overtaking the ANC nationwide, Capetown is a formidable and important stronghold.
Zille rose to attention while working for the Rand Daily Mail in the late 1970s, where she exposed the facts behind the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody. Police said it was caused by a hunger strike. Zille uncovered that he had been beaten and tortured by police. She became active in anti-apartheid groups including Black Sash, a white women’s resistance group of the 1970s.
In 2004 she was elected to Parliament, then Capetown mayor where she was credited with making inroads against crime, drug abuse and unemployment. She now serves as Premier of the Western Cape, a position equal to being governor of a large US state.
Additionally, she heads the Democratic Alliance and is thus the face of the opposition party.
Zille’s interest to me and the Pioneers of Social Media book project is that she and the DA seem to be using social media in a great many ways. This interview was conducted coincidentally, simultaneous to the recent events in Egypt. making the effectiveness of social media against oppressive governments particularly relevant.
Q1. Can you give me an objective sense of the differences between the ANC and the DA? What percent of the country backs the DA? Why is it so much more popular in the Western Cape than elsewhere in So Africa?
The Democratic Alliance has a vision of a prosperous South Africa in which each person has the opportunity, and the wherewithal, to reach their full potential.
We understand that South Africa’s hard won democracy enjoins us all to work day and night to see South Africa succeed as a country. We see a bright future for South Africa, where a person’s race is not a determinant of his or her success.
The ANC is the party that led the struggle against Apartheid. It has a proud history. Sadly though, it has now completely lost its moral compass, and has no vision for the future. The ANC, like so many former liberation-movements, has become an investment club for the well-connected elite. The DA is now gaining support in all communities across the country, commanding almost 17% nationally, and 52% in the Western Cape, where we now govern.
Q2. When, how and why did the DA start using social media? How has it evolved?
The DA began using social media in late 2008, when we underwent a rebranding exercise. We began by re-engineering our web presence, making it more engaging, interesting and interactive. At about this time we also launched our social media presence, originally as a way to recruit volunteers. However, it has grown so exponentially that it is now a very effective way to communicate with our supporters, and for them to communicate with us.
Q3. Did social media play a role in the DA’s Western Cape victories? How so? How would the DA use it moving forward.
The 2009 National Election saw an unprecedented interest from young people. This is undoubtedly linked to the evolution of political communication in South Africa to the point where it now intersects (in the case of the DA) with the youth’s primary means of staying connected: Facebook, Twitter, and mobile internet.
Q4 What social media tools do you personally use? How about other DA representatives? Does the DA use MXiT [So. Africa's most popular social network]?
I use Facebook and Twitter. Other DA representatives use Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, and Youtube extensively. We don’t currently make use MXit, but we have recently launched a mobile social media platform aimed at young people called Motribe.
Q5 What is the DA’s fundamental strategy with social media? How will it help you gain greater support among So Africans.
Our presence on social media is very important to us. It allows us to communicate directly with our supporters, sometimes several times a day, without the filter of the partisan media. It allows South Africans, especially young people, to understand more clearly what the DA is doing to build South Africa’s future.
Q6 To become the majority party, DA must gain the support of the huge percentage of the population which is not affluent, educated and connected, but also those who are impoverished and may not even have cellphone connection. Can social media help?
There are now more than 50 million mobile phones in South Africa. More people in South Africa access the internet via mobile phones than via computers. So yes, social media can help us to reach poorer South Africans who may not have ‘traditional’ access to the internet.
Q7 One DA detractor tells me that the DA [like most Americans in politics] uses social media to try to get the word out and campaign contributions in. The DA, this person argues, really doesn’t engage with constituents all the time, and doesn’t use it as a listening tool. How would you respond?
We have not yet made any use of our social media platform as a means of raising funds. We use it purely as a means of communication. While it is difficult, for obvious reasons, to respond directly and publicly to the more than 160 000 people that follow us on Facebook and Twitter, we do take careful note of all that is said and posted – and where appropriate, we do respond privately.
Q8 Do you see a role for social media in mass education issues such as health? I refer to So. Africa’s alarmingly high incidence of AIDS.
Yes, absolutely. Social media is now the primary method of contact among South Africa’s youth. There are huge opportunities for a wide range of positive educational messages to be broadcast via this medium. Health related messages are important, and the One Love campaign used social media successfully.
Q9 In view of recent events in Egypt, can social media play a role in regime change in So Africa?
Social media influences politics by making people more informed of what is happening, when it happens. Governments can no longer keep information hidden from the public. It is the triumph of accountability over secrecy and suppression. In that sense, yes, social media can assist regime change.l