The Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) response to a derogatory tweet sent out by one of its senior leaders, likening ANC voters to dogs, might prove to be something of a damp squib.
The party’s new leader in Parliament, Mmusi Maimane, faced his first test with the incident but took some time to respond, eventually promising to revisit the party’s social media policy following outrage sparked by the tweet.
But the party’s current social media policy, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, would have already prohibited the tweet. It is unclear how additions to the existing social media policy would help matters.
Yet calls for action against the politician responsible for the tweet has not been forthcoming as the party’s new leadership in Parliament has responded slowly and almost reluctantly to the outrage.
The newly-appointed deputy chief whip of the party in Parliament, Mike Waters, tweeted a picture of dogs queuing to urinate on a poster of President Jacob Zuma earlier this week. The picture was edited to include the words: “Voting Day. Make your mark.” The ill-conceived image followed an uproar over a cartoon published by Eyewitness News (EWN) showing ANC ministers and those who voted for them as clowns, and referring to voters as “poephols”.
The tweet by Waters was posted on Monday night and taken down after encountering a backlash from Twitter users.
By Tuesday afternoon the party had yet to respond, with newly appointed national spokesperson Phumzile van Damme telling eNCA.com that she could not comment concerning the picture as Waters had “profusely” apologised to the public.
But the apology, sent out by Waters in an extremely brief tweet in the early hours of Tuesday after sustained pressure from Twitter users, was considered a poor response by many angry Twitter users.
Hi all. If I offended anyone in any way I apologise.
— Michael Waters (@MichaelWatersMP) June 3, 2014
“As long as an apology begins with “if”, it’s not a sincere apology Mr. Waters!” tweeted one user, Khanyi Kubheka.
Waters told EWN he would respond with a written statement later in the day but none was published on the DA website and Waters did not return a message to the M&G asking for a fuller statement.
Later on Tuesday, Maimane told the SABC that the DA accepted the apology and would be reviewing its social media policy in response to the uproar.
“We are in process of reviewing our social media policy. It’s important to put on the table [that] the tweet was in bad taste, not something we stand for. I was comfortable that his apology was genuine. It’s not consistent with the spirit of where we want to go,” said Maimane.
‘Unnecessary risk or embarassment’
But the party’s current social media policy tells party representatives not to “create unnecessary risk or embarrassment to the party by their misuse of social network sites or the internet”.
In addition, unacceptable behaviour listed in the policy includes: “Publishing any material that could reasonably construed as discriminatory on the grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”.
A code of good practice in the same policy advises representatives to “think twice before posting”, saying:
“If you wouldn’t say it at a conference or to a member of the media, consider whether you should post it online. If you are unsure about posting something or responding to a comment, ask your whip for input or contact the communications department.”
The fact that it was Waters, a deputy chief whip and a senior MP, who sent out the tweet is all the more embarrassing for the party given the existing policy.
It is not the first time the DA has run into trouble on social media. The party’s leader Helen Zille has been constantly criticised for her abrasive persona and aggressive and often insulting tweets on Twitter. Yet she has stated she insists continuing on the platform despite being warned by her advisers in the party to stop tweeting.
‘Missus class’, refugees, professional blacks
Zille has been notorious for tweets that have seriously misstepped around racial issues, a damaging habit for a party fighting to change its image as dominated by white leaders and interests.
In February this year, Zille tweeted that journalist Carien du Plessis was “so terrified that she will be damned by her own complexion that she has to bend over to prove her political correctness”, and that Du Plessis was trying to “desperately to hide the Missus class from which she comes”.
In 2012, she labelled pupils from the Eastern Cape, who move to the Western Cape in search of a better education, as “education refugees”.
In 2011, she landed in trouble when she told popular singer Simphiwe Dana not to be “a professional black” on Twitter in a discussion about whether Cape Town was racist.
A number of DA leaders have told the M&G the party was unhappy with its leaders’ “many altercations on Twitter“.
Problematic tweets by senior leaders spills over into other media, posing a headache for members on the ground who have to justify their ill-advised remarks and how it is used by their political opponents, DA representatives have told the M&G.
While the DA has been slow to counteract the damage caused by Waters’ tweet, the ANC has reacted rapidly, with its new spokesperson Zizi Kodwa capitalising on the misstep by calling it an insult to black South Africans.
“They [DA] have failed to convince the electorate of their policies. They have nothing to offer except to continuously insult the intelligence of people of this country and attack their leadership,” said Kodwa.
The tweet has reinforced the perception of the DA as racist – a blow for the party as it battles with its image and the issue of transformation after a series of damaging incidents.
The party was criticised late last year for its handling of a vote for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in Parliament, which it backtracked on after an outcry from critics.
Mazibuko vs Zille
Last month, one of the party’s strongest black leaders Lindiwe Mazibuko left her post as parliamentary leader abruptly to study at Harvard university in the US, sparking an internal row in the party that emphasised the widening gap between Mazibuko and Zille, who accused her former protégé of freezing her out, despite Zille having “never done as much to promote any person’s career in the DA before”.
Mazibuko was replaced by Zille’s later protégé Maimane, who is seen as more compliant to Zille. The M&G understands that a collection of young people in the party who have pushed for greater transformation have been increasingly sidelined by strong socially-conservative elements within the party.