South Africans have yet to discover the real power of social media
Wireless communication and social media platforms have provided citizens with previously unimaginable possibilities to engage politically. For example, during the 2012 United States presidential elections, the Barack Obama campaign launched a smartphone app so users could register, donate and link up with like-minded supporters.
The use of online communication is also reaching beyond open democracies to places where fewer political avenues exist. China’s retiring premier Wen Jiabao has had live web chats with the public since 2009. When public sentiment rose against Iran’s leadership, its government, in response, began promoting patriotic ideals online.
South Africans are also increasingly using new media platforms. The first Twitter map of Africa, by Portland Communications, shows South Africa as home to the most active tweeters on the continent. The 2011 census indicates that about 90% of the population own mobile phones — on which the internet is available — a sharp increase from the 32% who owned them in 2001.
So the number of people who will overcome the physical barriers to wireless engagement can only increase.
But this does not always translate into more political engagement. Social media tools become what we make of them. At the moment, neither the South African government nor the public are using social media as vigorously as elsewhere.
Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba is one of the few politicians who uses his Twitter account to post new developments and speak to the public.
The presidency’s Facebook page regularly posts new information but, until I sent queries for this article, there was virtually no response to users’ comments, queries or criticisms.
Leadership will have to engage with the maturing born-free, post-1994 generation — an important constituency less motivated by memories of the liberation struggle and more fixated on socioeconomic delivery.
The ANC has signalled its intention to use social media in the 2014 elections. The Democratic Alliance launched its social media strategy in 2009.
The recent entrance of social activist Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang into the party-political arena raises further possibilities: she has declared her willingness to consult citizens, a process that could be accelerated by social media.
But South Africa is deeply divided into different cultural, language and socioeconomic groups, which shows in the way wireless technology is used. Wealthier users regularly comment on issues but that does not mean their opinions translate into political action.
According to the author-journalist Malcolm Gladwell, network societies work because they are efficient, but they lack consensus and rarely ask users to forfeit anything or to do much more than hit the “like” button.
Still, as a University of the Witwatersrand report, The New Wave, shows, a new group of internet users has emerged. They are young, black and from a low-income group. For now, they tend to use the internet in basic ways: for quick information and to socialise. That, however, is likely to change over time.
As the political leadership adapts to new public diplomacy strategies, citizens will acquaint themselves more and more with new technology. The pieces of the game exist but the users ultimately make the rules.
Yu-Shan Wu is a researcher on the global powers and Africa programme of the South African Institute of International Affairs