In the second such effort on social media in as many months, The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa took to their Twitter and Facebook accounts last week to engage South Africans in what they called a social electronic dialogue on values, ethics and nation building through a series of daily debates. The name they chose for the debates, the “NPC Jam Sessions”, was every bit as precious as my 50-something-year-old mother greeting me with a “Yo dawg!” Nonetheless, this is another indicator of a shift in how the South African government, starting at the top, plans to engage with the public in future.
In February, before President Zuma delivered his State of the Nation Address, @PresidencyZA asked South African Twitter users what they’d like to hear the president to talk about in SONA 2011. Hardly shrinking violets, South Africa’s twitterrati chimed in asking for potholes to be fixed, corruption to end and education to be made a level playing field. And in the speech, President Zuma acknowledged the input received from social media and, specifically, a Facebook comment on The Presidency’s page from one Bongokuhle Miya who wrote that his hometown of Umzimkhulu is in an appalling condition, with burst sewerage pipes, lacking drainage systems and domestic animals roaming around town.
The government’s social media engagement operation is not quite at the level and complexity of that by the American government, for example, but South Africa’s growing digital community has become a voice that the government is realising it would do well to listen and actively solicit for opinion. The numbers (and events elsewhere on the continent) support this.
Every report on internet usage and penetration in South Africa indicates an upward trend, especially for mobile internet whose increased usage, according to a recent study, appears to be driven by social media applications such as Facebook and MXit. While South Africa’s digital community at the moment is nowhere near representative of the broader public, it may very well be in the near future given the rate it is growing. South Africa, as one of Africa’s largest mobile phone markets, is likely to be among the leaders of the exponential growth in mobile data traffic on the continent that Cisco’s VNI Global Data Traffic Forecast for 2010 to 2015 predicts.
As for the NPC Jam Sessions – so named because they were hosted by the National Planning Commission, a ministry within The Presidency charged with developing a draft long term vision statement and strategic national plan for the country – they were relatively unsuccessful on Twitter. Compared to the State of the Nation Address (whose hashtag, #SONA2011, and accompanying drinking game trended globally), the NPC Jam Sessions generated far fewer tweets. On Facebook, however, they seem to have sparked some discussion. The initial questions were quite lofty, asking users what the Constitution meant to them and how the statements there in, such as “heal the divisions of the past”, can be given meaning on a day-to-day basis. This generated varied responses, from complaints about the Constitution’s availability in other languages to accusations of discrimination against white South Africans through affirmative action policies. To the question, “What values and ethics should anchor the national vision?”, one user suggested that South Africa needs its own version of the American Dream. And on building patriotism among South Africans, this response was poignant and cutting: “Dear Mr President, please advise me on how to be patriotic whilst I am a 29 yr old black male & unemployed, still living with my mother who is also unemployed. Waiting in anticipation for your answer.”
Judging from the responses, it is unclear if the sessions achieved what they set out to do. If they intended to raise more questions than answers, then its mission accomplished. At the very least, the commission has gleamed the divergent ideas and perspectives that await them when eventually take their sessions on the road and attempt to engage South Africans in person on what the national vision should look like. What is also clear is that this growing accessibility of the government and dialogue can only serve to strengthen South Africa’s democracy.