Seemingly out of nowhere, the ANC had social media savvy. The reason was not hard to find, write Verashni Pillay and Mmanaledi Mataboge.
The ANC drew on the expertise of former Congress of the People (Cope) communications strategists to give the party a fresher face for the Mangaung conference.
The Mail & Guardian identified at least five former Cope communication officers in the party's renewed and social media-savvy communication team for the ANC's 53rd national conference.
But Senzi Ngubane, the ANC's online development officer, who co-ordinates the 13-member social media team, said she didn't know anything about them. Social media darling Shaka Sisulu, one of the leaders of the team, attributed the remarkable turnaround in the party's communications to a grassroots movement.
He said the people in question had left the ANC and returned as part of a normal process. "It's an organisation that reconciles even with its oppressors. So when people left and then came back to the ANC, they would most likely have more to prove. They were not given preference over anyone in any way and don't have any leadership positions."
But sources said Cope's former communication officer, Lunga Kepe, led the production of video content and a former Cope member, Onkgopotse JJ Tabane, had been instrumental in strengthening the ANC's commentary published in various media before the conference. A senior former Cope member was asked to bring in "people he knows can do the job and people he trusts".
Three sources said that it was the beginning of the renewal of the ANC's publicity and media strategy. They said the ruling party approached former Cope communicators because it wanted the sort of product the breakaway party initially used to make a name for itself. "The ANC request was more to say we are helpless," said an insider.
Just a year ago, the ANC's social media strategy was almost nonexistent. The party had a gratuitous social media presence in the 2009 elections with blogs that were never updated. In the 2011 municipal elections, the party made token nods to the social media, albeit laughably late. President Jacob Zuma launched his official Twitter profile slightly more than a month before the elections. On the same day, at the behest of the social media-savvy Sisulu, several ANC leaders in Gauteng got together to talk social media. But it was too little too late.
Meanwhile, they took a virtual beating from the opposition: Cope was impressive with its use of various platforms when the party was still the flavour of the year, using Twitter and Facebook to form its network while its branches were still being built up.
The Democratic Alliance has had a remarkably good social media strategy since 2009, inspired in no small part by the viral wave that carried Barack Obama to the presidency in the United States.
In the hype that followed Cope's split from the ANC in late 2008, the nascent party, with little structure or organisation, relied heavily on social media to get its message across. The party would later be torn apart by internal disputes, but the campaigning on Facebook in particular attracted much attention.
Fast-forward to Mangaung 2012 and the ANC now has a robust social media presence that has come from seemingly nowhere. The social media team were particularly impressive: young men and women, stylishly dressed and wandering around the media centre with cellphones in hand.
"It's a temporary team for the conference, but we're planning on growing it after this," said Ngubane. "Most of them are volunteers, while some of them have been drawn from provincial offices."
The once neglected @MyANC_ Twitter account swelled to 34 000 followers after there was a sharp uptake from the start of the conference on Sunday.
A YouTube account created for the 2009 elections was dusted off and video uploads started happening in earnest, featuring interviews with the president and updates from the conference. And the party's Facebook page, which has 14470 fans, finally received regular updates.
But a former Cope communicator said the ruling party was "too distant to be able to achieve" a fully modern communications plan.
"They're now able to do this because it's an event. With Cope, it was an everyday thing."