Politics & Media

The rise of social media in African politics

By Gavin DavisFacebook Africa

Opposition parties in Africa have struggled for decades in a media environment that favours incumbents. Of 54 African countries measured in the Freedom House 2012 press freedom index, only five were considered to be “free”. Press censorship and pliant public broadcasters mean that elections can be fixed before the first vote is counted.

State control of the media is not the only hurdle preventing parties from getting their message to the electorate. Many face the invidious choice of either giving journalists “petrol money” or having their press conference ignored. “It’s a pity that, as the party advocating for a corruption-free society, we find ourselves embroiled in this vice,” says Kasekende Bashir of the Liberal Democratic Transparency (LDT) party in Uganda.

Social media have the power to change all this by permitting parties to bypass the gatekeepers—reporters, editors and government officials—who shape or control the press agenda. The Arab spring in 2010–11 revealed how social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube revolutionised political communication in North Africa.

In Africa only about 16% of the population have internet access—less than half of the world average of 34%, according to Internet World Stats, an online demography site. A shortage of electricity and broadband infrastructure, coupled with the high cost of hardware to access the internet, mean that most African countries find themselves on the wrong side of the global digital divide.

The good news is that a mobile revolution is sweeping the continent and bridging this gap. More Africans have access to a mobile phone than clean drinking water, according to Jan Hutton, telecoms director at Nielsen, a market-research firm. After Asia, Africa is the world’s largest mobile phone market, with 700m mobile connections. By 2016, there will be 1 billion—a mobile phone for nearly every person, according to a 2012 report by financial services firms Frontier Advisory and Deloitte.

While not every mobile phone has social networking capabilities, this is changing too. At the end of 2012, smartphone users accounted for 6% of Africa’s total mobile subscriptions; this share is forecast to rise to 18% by 2017, according to Thecla Mbongue, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, a market-research firm.

Once mobile take-up reaches critical mass, social media may well become the only game in town. Many political parties realise that they need to be ahead of the game now if they are to win votes in the future.

At a conference on political communication held in Cape Town in November 2012, opposition parties from the Seychelles to South Sudan highlighted the rising significance of social media in their communications strategies. All agreed that starting the right conversations on social media and steering engaged followers in the right direction are the keys to future success. These online conversations among many individuals are gradually supplanting the one-way “broadcast model” of communications.

In Botswana voters no longer trust the media and are turning to social networks for their news, reported Winfred Rasina, spokesman for the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). He spends an average of two-and-a-half hours daily updating the BMD’s Facebook page and interacting with potential voters.

Only 7% of its citizens access the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union. But “Botswana has a population of only 2m people, which means that word of mouth travels quickly,” he says.

Trust in traditional media is in decline, particularly among the youth, says Fungisai Sithole, chief of staff of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.

“The current generation does not want to be treated as the ‘other’. They want to be engaged, they want to talk, they want to contribute,” she says. To get around the drawback of low internet access and the high cost of smartphones, the party has developed a bespoke platform that uses text messages to interact with voters and members.

Another party finding innovative ways to reach the electorate is the Civic United Front (CUF) in Tanzania. It has linked its social media platforms with popular youth websites and trained a team of young activists to respond to issues.

Abdul Kambaya, CUF’s national director for publicity, says that the success of this strategy is evident from the response it has elicited from its opponents: the party’s website was hacked and completely destroyed six months ago.

This is a cautionary tale. As more people begin to use social media for political engagement, so too will governments increase their efforts to curtail it. Finding ways to circumvent state censorship with sophisticated social media strategies will be a key objective for African opposition parties in the years ahead.

The mobile revolution is a potential game-changer in Africa, where media gatekeepers have exerted too much power for too long. Once the social media groundswell breaks, a political tipping point may well follow.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance.This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of ‘Africa in Fact’, the journal of Good Governance Africa and republished in Rhodes Journalism Review, no. 33, 2013)

For liberalism to succeed we must dispense with dogma

By Gavin Davis

Democratic Alliance insiders have long identified a serious threat to our project: the proliferation of DA members whose own values are fundamentally at odds with the party.

We must be wary of those who see the DA merely as a platform for publicity or a path to power. There is no point winning elections if we cannot implement a programme of action grounded in our vision of an open, opportunity society for all.

At the same time we must be aware of those who use the spectre of ‘illiberal tendencies’ to shut down legitimate debate and discredit people. Such bullying tactics are the hallmark of authoritarianism, not liberalism.

Alan Paton once described liberalism as “a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness…” His point was that, besides a commitment to the rule of law and individual freedom, liberalism is about empathy, mutual respect and the ability to see other people’s points of view.

For liberals, this means dispensing with the dogma and grappling with some of the great questions we face, such as: what does it mean to be a liberal in Africa? Is there a place for notions of community within the liberal framework? Are liberalism and religion compatible? The list is endless.

The DA’s National Spokesperson Mmusi Maimane attempted to tackle one such question in an opinion piece published in the Sunday Times this week. In it, he interrogated the concept of ‘Africanness’ and its place in our democratic discourse following Jackson Mthembu’s attack on Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Maimane argued that nobody has the right to unilaterally decide or prescribe what is or what isn’t African. Furthermore, traditions and cultures are constantly evolving and, as such, are open to the interpretation of each individual.

Maimane went on to say that his identity as an African comes from a sense of shared history and an emotional connection to the continent. He argued that, for him, the idea of Ubuntu sums up his Africanness and that, in his view, being African means being part of a community.

That is how Mmusi Maimane chooses to self-identify as an African. He was not forcing his identity on anybody else; he was stating what Africanness means to him.

When Barack Obama talks about something “inherent in the American spirit”, nobody accuses him of being illiberal. Likewise, when Nick Clegg talks of inculcating an inclusive, positive British identity, his liberal credentials are not questioned.

And yet a former DA staffer suggested in his blog yesterday that Maimane’s column signalled the erosion of the DA’s liberal values on the grounds that:

  1. Maimane suggested that ‘Africanness’ was a uniform, immutable concept
  2. There is no such thing as Ubuntu and, if there was, it would be anathema to liberalism
  3. There is no such thing as community, that it is an artificial abstraction incompatible with liberalism

The first argument is intellectually dubious because Maimane explicitly rails against uniform notions of Africanness, asking: “What right does Mthembu or anyone else have to prescribe identity to others?” Maimane’s intention was to describe what Africanness means to him without being prescriptive. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.

The second argument is worth having. It is true that the concept of Ubuntu is ill-defined. But, because of this, it is difficult to ascertain whether it is compatible with liberalism or not. Since both concepts are open to contestation (even if liberalism is far better defined), it is feasible for a person to self-identify as a liberal who believes in Ubuntu.

The third argument was the subject of fierce academic debate between communitarians and liberals in the 1980s. It fizzled out when somebody made the point that one could be an individual in the context of a defined community – as long as group rights were not permitted to override individual rights.

Like Africanness, liberalism cannot be defined and prescribed by any one individual because – for one thing – it is not static. Liberalism is constantly evolving, particularly as it is applied in new contexts on our continent and across the world.

This is something that liberals should celebrate and not feel threatened by. Pluralism gives rise to debate and introspection. It brings a freshness and energy that invigorates our project.

We must guard against self-appointed custodians of liberalism unilaterally deciding what liberalism is and what it isn’t, and who is in and who is out. If we do not, you can be sure that authoritarianism will follow.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance. This article appeared in Politicsweb on 22 January 2013.

Social Media as a Game-Changer for Opposition Parties

By Gavin Davis

A great deal has been written about the power of social media in politics. Everybody says the future is digital and that political parties ignore social media at their peril. But is social media really a game-changer? If so, how exactly is social media rewriting the rules of the political game? And how can political parties leverage social media to win votes?

Is social media a game-changer?

The short answer is: Yes, of course it is. Social media is revolutionising the way that humans interact with each other. It is breaking down the distinction between public and private. We are constantly “available” to each other on social networks. Our social worth is increasingly defined by how many “friends” or “followers” we have and how many “retweets” or “likes” we get. People have even been known to lose out on a job opportunity just because their Klout score was too low.[1]

If the rules of social engagement are being rewritten, it follows that the rules of political engagement are changing too. But this doesn’t mean that political communications professionals must throw out the rulebook and start again.

Any successful communication strategy – whether it is executed online or offline – needs to be “on-message, in-volume, over time.” To be on-message, political parties need to define their message and stick to it. To be in-volume, parties need to find every opportunity to push that message so it becomes indelibly associated with the party. This needs to be done in a sustained manner, over time.

Social media does not change these fundamentals of political communication. What social media does is offer new and exciting ways for parties to get their message across to voters in a way that resonates with them.

In what way is social media a game-changer?

Answering this question requires an understanding of how social media is different from traditional media. There are two key differences.

The first difference is that the gatekeepers present in traditional media are absent on social media. The volume of a party’s political communication in newspapers and on TV and radio is determined to a greater or lesser extent by who the reporters, editors and owners are. If they like you, your party will do well. If they don’t, your party will struggle.

By removing these gatekeepers, social media frees up the democratic space. This is particularly important in countries where the state has an influence or even a controlling stake in the media.

The second difference is that social media is interactive. Audiences are no longer passive consumers of political information; they are active participants in a conversation. Opposition parties need to start the right conversations and manage those conversations in way that builds and sustains relationships with voters.

So, social media is a game-changer because it allows for direct and meaningful engagement with voters in a way that was not possible before. Opposition parties that understand this and leverage social media accordingly will do better than those who don’t.

Social media as a game-changer in South Africa

Some people might argue that social media is not a game-changer in South Africa because too many people are without access to it. This is a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line, the most unequal society on the planet. The minority who live out their lives on Twitter and Facebook are literally – and virtually – in a different world.

The statistics appear to support this conclusion. Out of a population of around 45 million, only 5.3 million South Africans are active on Facebook and 2.4 million on Twitter.[2] By contrast, 25 million South Africans get their news from radio, 22 million from television and 15 million from newspapers. On this analysis, political parties would do well to stay focused on their traditional media strategies and not worry too much about social media.

But this surface reading belies a tectonic shift taking place in South Africa and the continent at large – the mobile revolution. Today, 30 million South Africans use mobile phones – more than the number of people with access to radio or television. More people in Africa have access to a mobile phone than clean drinking water.[3]

The advent of the mobile revolution is apparent in the way that South Africans are increasingly using their mobiles to interact with each other. Mxit – an instant messaging platform designed for low-end mobile phones – already has over 10 million users. According to a recent study, 7.9 million South Africans now access the internet on their mobile phones.[4]

Internet access is set to expand rapidly as the cost of broadband, data and smart phones decreases. Already, both Facebook and Twitter are expanding in South Africa at a rate of around 100,000 users each a month. The urban to rural ratio of these social networking sites may be 2:1, but the rural population is catching up fast.[5]

The mobile revolution is redefining the way that parties interact with voters. Political parties need to make sure they are part of the conversation.

How can opposition parties leverage social media effectively?

The rules of the political game are changing. Here are seven simple rules for opposition parties who want to win:

1. Pay attention to your Klout score and how it is calculated

Understand the meaning of ‘true reach’ (how many people you actually engage with), ‘amplification’ (how often you influence the people you engage with) and ‘network impact’ (how influential your audience is). The more a party can improve these, the more influence or ‘klout’ it will have on social media.

2. People do better than organisations on social networks

The Democratic Alliance Facebook page has over 21,000 fans, but the Leader of the party, Helen Zille, has more than 216,000. Over 13,000 people follow the DA’s twitter account; Helen Zille has nearly 182,000 followers. The reason is simple: people use social networks primarily to connect with other people.

3. Be responsive and authentic

People want to connect with real people in a meaningful way. And they quickly work out when the person controlling the account is not the person pictured in the avatar. This explains why Helen Zille’s Klout score is 81, but President Jacob Zuma’s is only 66. She tweets in her personal capacity and he doesn’t. She is engaging and responsive on social media; he isn’t.

4. Go viral

Virality is to social media what newsworthiness is to traditional media. To maximise coverage on TV, radio and print, you have to be newsworthy. But to get volume on social networks, you need to get people to ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ what you say. And to get serious volume, you need to go viral.

One way to go viral is to be the first to break a story. Another is to present a new angle on a trending topic that nobody else has thought of. Pictures go viral which is why it is worth investing in infographics or taking photographs that people will share and retweet. A call to action – such as a question that demands an answer; or an opportunity to vote in a poll – can help a tweet or post go viral.

5. Traditional content does not always work on social media

Don’t use Facebook and Twitter just to upload press releases. Press releases are designed to get stories in newspapers and on television and radio. They seldom work outside that context. Your audience wants to have a conversation with you; reading your press release aimed at somebody else alienates them.

6. Know your brand and target market

Bad political communication is saying whatever comes into your head on whatever issue takes your fancy. Good political communication drives a message that resonates with your target market on the issues they care about. This message needs to be developed based on an understanding of your brand offer and who your target market is.

7. Invest time and resources in social media

Don’t just set up a Twitter or Facebook account and hope they will take care of themselves. Political parties need a person in charge of social media – somebody to make sure that tweets are responded to, that the comments section is moderated, that content is uploaded regularly, that the various platforms are integrated. A good social media strategy, like a good communications strategy, requires time, effort and resources.


For opposition parties in South Africa and elsewhere, social media is unquestionably a game-changer. With the exponential growth of mobile, it won’t be long before it is the only game in town.

Political parties who adapt to the new rules of the game will do better than others. The challenge is to work out how best to communicate on-message, in-volume and over time on social networks. If opposition parties can meet this challenge, they may not be in opposition for very long.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance.This is an edited extract of a paper presented at the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Social Media (R)evolutions International Online Conference on 25 September 2012


[1] Seth Stevenson, What your Klout score really means, Wired 24 April 2012

[2] World Wide Worx, Social Media breaks barriers in SA, 4 September 2012

[3] Jan Hutton (Nielsen), Mobile Phones Dominate in South Africa, 30 September 2011

[5] World Wide Worx, Social Media breaks barriers in SA, 4 September 2012

Centenary Celebrations & Stockholm Syndrome

By Gavin Davis

Letter sent by Independent Newspapers to prospective advertisers

This glowing endorsement of the ANC, written on an Independent Newspapers letterhead alongside the ANC logo, was itself accompanied by an endorsement letter for the feature authored by ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete herself.

In response, the Independent Newspaper Group Editorial Director Moegsien Williams denied there was anything unethical going on. “As a rule, there is a ‘Chinese’ wall between the commercial and editorial units of our company primarily to protect our editorial integrity,” he said.

It is too early to tell whether the advertising campaign – which is set to run once a month for the entire year – will influence reporting in the group’s newspapers. And it remains to be seen exactly how the feature will look and whether or not it will be clearly marked ‘advertorial’. What is apparent is that the newspaper group has engaged in a practice that could lead audiences to doubt its independence.

Perhaps even more troubling was the City Press’s campaign published in the newspaper and online to find South Africa’s most ardent fan of the ANC. It reads like this, in ANC colours:

Are you the biggest ANC supporter in the country? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us in an sms or email why you love the party or send a picture that shows your support. Great stories and pics will be published. SMSes charged at R1.50. SMS your name, followed by the keyword ‘ANC’ and why you love the party to 34580 or email your story (max 350 words) or pictures and contact details to web@citypress.co.za, Closing date: 28 December 2011.

Screen grab of City Press home page

If the call had been made for readers to send in their honest views of the ANC – whether good or bad – there would be little cause for complaint. The problem is that the City Press made no attempt to elicit any views on the ANC besides the overwhelmingly positive. It is doubtful that any feature published based on these vox pops alone could be anything approaching ‘balanced’.

When the DA raised questions about this, City Press Editor Ferial Haffajee went on the defensive: “Can the DA really dictate how the media covers the ANC centenary? I’ve had a threat for our call to find the biggest ANC supporter,” she tweeted. “Any media study will find the DA gets way more than its proportionate share of coverage,” she tweeted later.

But this misses the point. It is not the DA’s intention to dictate how the media covers the centenary. And we are not particularly concerned with how much overall coverage the ANC gets in relation to the DA either. If the DA punches above its weight media-wise, it is because the party works hard at getting its message across.

All the DA is asking for is fair and balanced reportage of the ANC centenary celebrations. This will mean recognising both the achievements and shortcomings of the party in an informative way.

If newspapers want to advance press freedom, they will do well to avoid falling into the Mantashe trap. Now is not the time for Stockholm Syndrome.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance. This article first appeared in the The Witness on 6 January 2012.