Political parties are taking a page out of the Obama campaign playbook. For the first time in South Africa, they're using technology to woo voters.
Political parties are taking a page out of the Obama campaign playbook. For the first time in South Africa, they’re using technology to woo voters. You can watch the ANC’s first television advert on their YouTube channel, join Cope’s Facebook group, or follow Helen Zille on Twitter. You can do all these things if you’re in the 10% group of South Africans with Internet access.
So far, so Barack. But among South Africa’s 45-million citizens, there are 35-million cellphones—a statistic that seems to have escaped election campaign managers. Are they missing the point?
With a cellphone South African voters can join the UDM via SMS, download an ID election ring tone, make a mobile donation to Cope, or subscribe to the ANC’s weekly SMS news alerts. But information on how to do this has to be found on the Internet. You won’t find it on any election poster.
Chris Rolfe, CEO of mobile solution provider Mobilitrix, says he’s disappointed local political parties haven’t used their billboard campaigns to draw voters in to cellphone interactions. He says USSD—where users text a string of numbers to a provider and receive information in return—could help parties to connect with potential voters. Users with even the most basic cellphones could request localised party information in their language of choice, sign up for news updates, or participate in polls and surveys.
“We have the medium here,” says Rolfe. “It’s not the Internet like in America; it’s the cellphone.”
Outside the US the cellphone has played a key role in political change. In the Philippines SMS messages were instrumental in rallying over 700 000 people to call for the removal of president Joseph Estrada in 2001 and in 2004 Spain’s Socialist Party swept to victory following a grassroots cellphone campaign.
For the most part, political parties in South Africa still rely on traditional media like print, radio and TV to reach voters. Forays into the Internet are largely experimental.
DA chief strategist Ryan Coetzee and the ANC’s Jessie Duarte agree that their online presence this year provides a foundation to build on for 2014, when the Internet will be a more accessible, more critical campaign tool. But in the five years running up to that, why not try to reach voters by capitalising on the most widespread technology we have available - the cellphone?