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Social media buzz

July 2, 2012

The social media buzz has caught up with one of the leading opposition parties in South Africa. Instead of relying on old traditional communication systems, the DA uses Twitter to communicate with its members and voters.

A picture of Lindiwe Mazubuko walking on a red carpet
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is one of the leading parties in South Africa. Over the years it has enjoyed tremendous growth under the leadership of Hellen Zille. It is in control of 28 municipalities across South Africa including Cape Town. In an exclusive interview with DW, the leader of the opposition in parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, reveals that her party was using the social media to reach out to the public and its voters. She was amongst a five member panel who presented discussion on innovative methods of political education in transformation countries during this year's Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn.

DW: What can social media do in fostering political change?

Lindiwe Mazibuko: I think social media in South Africa and probably in other parts of the world is one of those underestimated tools for communication. South Africa is a very young country and about two thirds of the population are under the age of 35. social media is an important medium through which political parties can communicate directly with voters. And not only to impart information to them but also to find out what the issues closest to their hearts are and what their views are about their countries political situation. What we have discovered through social media is that young people in South Africa are not politically apathetic. They do care about what is happening out there. They simply don’t care for the manner in which information is imparted to them. We also found out that some political parties are very much trapped in the past. They communicate directly with voters by sending leaflets out and putting posters on lamp posts. But political communication has moved on from there. We in the DA are at the cutting edge, I believe, of championing of a new kind of political engagement by talking to voters and with voters on social media. We have things like what we call Twitter Town Halls, where we will have a group of DA leaders on Twitter for hours answering questions from any member of the public and you can follow the debate with a hash tag. I recently had a discussion on social network in South Africa called MXit which is the biggest social network in South Africa.

What kind of issues do young people mainly raise when you debate with them on social networks?

They talk about the same issues that adults talk about. They talk about education and the economy. They want to live in a country which has oppotunities which allows them to advance themselves. They want teachers who are present in class all the time teaching. They want to finish school and find that there is an opportunity either to study further or immediately contribuiting to the country's economy. They want to work, they are not lazy or disconnected. They are enthusiastic citizens but nobody has taken the trouble to communicate with them on a platform or manner which resonates with them.

A close up of South African opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille
Helen Zille's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is in control of 28 municipalities across South africaImage: picture-alliance / dpa

And how do you really manage to ensure that all the youth from all walks of life to be online and to participate on those debates?

No, actually that’s the interesting thing about South Africa. We have over a hundred percent mobile phone penetration rate. There about twenty percent more sim cards in South Africa than there are people, which means that even if every single person in South Africa does not own a cellular phone, like newborn babies, they certainly have access to a cellular phone. So what we have discovered is that most South Africans are getting online via mobile phone technology. The smart phone and even some basic phones are becoming the primary means through which people are able to access the Internet. For example in the DA, every website we have has a corresponding mobile website which is actually the most important platform because it's reached by the most people. The social network MXit that I was talking about earlier is specifically designed for people who don’t have a smart phone. So if you have a very old technology or basic technology handset, you can still communicate on MXit, because all that it does is that it sends texts and there is no pictures. It uses the Internet as a means of transferring information but the information is transmitted cheaply about one South African cent per message and efficiently because it is done over a broad network. And so what it means is that there is an entire section of South Africans from all walks of life and all backgrounds who don’t necessarily have desktop computers or laptops but who are able to communicate directly with politicians.

Is there any political issue where the position of the DA has changed because of the feedback you got from social networks?

That’s a very good question and the answer is no. Not through social networks. But there is a policy that we had in the DA some years ago, that changed as a consequence of what we got back through research feedback. We had a policy that said every South African should be entitled, if they are unemployed, to benefit from a basic income grant, as a means of survival while they look for work. We did a survey that asked the question of what would you do if you had R120 a month as basic income grant. We thought people would say that they would buy porridge or maize or paraffin for electricity. Instead, 80-90% of them said that they would spend the money on transport to go and look for work. So what we have learnt is that even for people who have nothing, there is an understanding that they don’t want the state to hand money to them so that they can remain perpetually independent. People want the opportunity to work. And what that survey did, is that it changed a lot about how the DA viewed policy making and gave us an opportunity to restructure our message in a way that didn’t take for granted that only people from a certain background believe in the importance of work opportunities and not just handouts. And its influenced a lot of our policy making as a result.

Twitter logo
Lindiwe Mazibuko and her colleagues are taking shifts to answer questions via twittterImage: twitter.com

We have a party in Germany called The Pirates and their ideas are very far reaching. They for instance say that party conferences or even cabinet meetings should be broadcast as kind of video conferences on Facebook or something that users can directly get in and directly say that this is something we want or don’t want so that there is the greatest amount of transparency that can be. Is that a concept that you could also imagine for South Africa?

In theory it is, yes. I think that one of the things that we have learned in the DA about being both the party of the opposition and a party of government is you can propose one thing as the opposition and then once you hit the government it becomes a huge challenge not just for pragmatic vote winning purposes but because there is only so much to go around. I like the idea of being very public in terms of communicating with voters, how you make decisions and how you formulate policies. And in the DA that is what we do, I tweet from parliament, I tweet from committee meetings, and most of my colleagues in the DA caucus do the same. Social media present politicians with the opportunity to be more engaging and to be less closed door about their approach to policy making and elections.

Interview: Daniel Pelz
Editor: Asumpta Lattus