South Africa's campaigns embrace technology

April 14, 2009 - 0:0

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) -– In a country where political campaigns rely on door-stepping and dusty rallies, South African politicians are cautiously embracing technology from television to Twitter.

The campaign for general elections on April 22 has been the most heated since Nelson Mandela ended apartheid 15 years ago, and is taking place under new rules allowing parties to buy TV ads for the first time.
Only the largest parties can afford such a luxury -- the dominant African National Congress (ANC) which is tipped to sweep to another victory, and the much smaller opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
Both their efforts have been light and positive, and neither party can afford to air its commercials very often, with the ANC taking the opportunity to broadcast images of Mandela as president, reinforcing the party's liberation legacy. All the main parties are trying, and sometimes stumbling, to reach young voters through online social networks.
“Given that this year's elections are billed as the most competitive yet, parties are looking at all avenues -- online and offline -- to capture the hearts and minds of voters,” web entrepeneur Matthew Buckland told AFP.
Following the recent techno-driven campaign of U.S. President Barack Obama, the main parties all have websites with blogs, videos, donation links, and the chance for voters to express themselves.
The ANC is on most networking sites, the DA regularly uses Twitter while the ruling party breakaway Congress of the People (COPE) has placed its toehold on Facebook.
Shortly after prosecutors last week dropped corruption charges against ANC leader Jacob Zuma, the DA launched a special website with a petition and a donation basket for a legal effort to revive the case.
But in the flurry of online chatter, political leaders are notably absent, said Jude Mathurine, new media lecturer at Rhodes University.
“The beauty of online in Obama's model is that his key advisors and he took the time to engage with users online. Our leaders do not take the time to join in online chats, encourage questions and emails to MPs, or even Twitter.”
A quick Internet trawl reveals the cracks: the ANC's dedicated elections blog was 20 days out of date as was COPE's last Twitter snippet.
One study found the parties' use of the Internet has been stymied by uninspiring content, little opportunity for voter engagement and downright poor performance. Not that many South Africans would notice, because only 10 percent of the population is online, but researchers note that number grows every year -- especially among young voters who are an increasingly important part of the electorate.
Analyst Arthur Goldstuck predicts that Internet use will double by the time the next general elections are held in five years.
Mathurine said that by 2014, young South Africans who grew up with mobile phones and the Internet will constitute the country's biggest voting bloc.
Buckland said radio and billboards are still more influential media for campaigning but says the potential is evident even now.
Sixteen million people voted in the 2004 election and South Africa has a web population of some five million people and a huge mobile audience, he points out.