Protests against rising tuition fees and declining university conditions have been a mainstay of South African political life in the post-Apartheid period. And protesters are not without cause. Tuition fees (and, correspondingly, student debt) are high, universities remain exclusive, and study conditions are often far from optimal.
The most recent wave of protests began in earnest on Oct. 19, with protests that had been simmering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) rapidly gaining momentum. Although not well covered in the mainstream international media, information about the protests was shared widely in social media. Protesters and journalists provided updates, photos, and video of marches across the country. The corresponding hashtags #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutDown trended worldwide on Twitter.
From Oct. 14-16, the hashtag #WitsFeesMustFall received roughly 20,000 tweets per day. On Oct. 19, #FeesMustFall had started to trend, with just under 50,000 tweets, and on Oct. 20, it was tweeted roughly 75,000 times. Oct. 20 saw the protests spread to numerous other campuses around South Africa, including the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Stellenbosch University (SU), and Rhodes University (RU).
For the first two days, Oct. 19 and 20, protesters focused their attention on their universities, and the administrations, demanding that fee hikes be lowered for the coming academic year. On Oct. 21, students in Cape Town took their march from the universities to the National Parliament, attempting to disrupt the mid-term budget speech being delivered by Nhlanhla Nene, Minister of Finance in the African National Congress (ANC) government.
On Oct. 21 and 22, the protests became truly national, no longer isolated to university campuses. The primary hashtag #FeesMustFall was featured in well over 200,000 tweets, and #NationalShutDown featured in just over 100,000. (By contrast, the official hashtag for the South Africa vs. Wales rugby world cup quarterfinal match (#RSAvWAL) topped out at around 25,000 tweets on one day.)
The protesters, whose marches had been largely peaceful, were met by public order (riot) police, tear gas, stun grenades and tazers (for example, see this video of students singing South Africa’s national anthem as a stun grenade goes off). On Oct. 21, 29 students were arrested and detained by police. Unsurprisingly, Oct. 22 was another day of mass protest, and on Oct. 23, students (and many others) engaged in a day of action, notably including a march on the Union Buildings, the administrative centre of South Africa. In the late afternoon, President Zuma announced the ANC government’s response, a capitulation to the immediate demands of the students — 0% fee increases for 2016.
These events, and the rapid changes in the political dynamics therein, provide an opportunity to study the reaction of political parties to public protests in a dominant party democracy like South Africa. Political response to the protests varied over the course of the week, and by political party. How can we know this? By analyzing the messages parties broadcast via their official Twitter accounts. Twitter allows us to study politicians’ real-time responses to events, which is particularly useful in countries where mobile phones (and thus access to social media) are the primary tool for media consumption.
To analyze political response to the ongoing protests, I collected the tweets and retweets from official Twitter accounts associated with South Africa’s three major political parties: the African National Congress (ANC: @MyANC_), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF: @EconFreedomZA), and the Democratic Alliance (DA: @Our_DA).
The two primary opposition parties, the DA and the EFF, have unsurprisingly both jumped on the protests as a vehicle for their own agendas. This makes much sense — the DA struggles to find support among young black South Africans, while the EFF’s manifesto is on the extreme end of redistribution, so calls for free education are a logical fit. Yet there are subtle differences in both the ability of the parties to respond, and the strategic approaches they take. The DA, a wealthier and more institutionalized party than the EFF, had a faster and more coordinated public communication campaign. Further, the DA attempted to shape the Twitter narrative to target the ANC’s minister of education, Blade Nzimande. By contrast, the EFF appears to have simply shown solidarity with students, largely following the students’ narrative rather than attempting to shape it themselves.
What do we learn from Twitter about the ruling ANC? Their response to the protests appears to be a quintessential example of patronage politics. While the protests were focused on university campuses and administrations, the ANC encouraged them very gently from a distance. Once the protests targeted the ANC, its president and its ministers swiftly changed tack, first adopting a stoic repressive silence, and then a rapid outreach to students and policy capitulation.
The frequency of public communications changed with the rise of the protests. The ANC out-tweets its opponents dramatically throughout October (considering the whole month allows us to see contrasts in behavior), though its communication frequency changes over time. For instance, the party did not tweet at all on Oct. 16 or 17.
In terms of frequency, the DA comes in second, with a lower but fairly constant frequency of tweets per day throughout the month. The EFF appears to be the least prolific user of social media. Again, these patterns make sense — the ANC has by far the most resources of the three parties, and has over 230,000 twitter followers, a large market for it to address. The DA and EFF, by contrast, have fewer followers (170,000 and 82,500 respectively) to target, and the EFF, a relative newcomer to the political scene, lacks the organizational capacity that the DA has generated in the last decade.
Although all three parties reacted to the protests on social media, the DA’s response was clearly the most well-coordinated and pointed. The DA’s frequency jumps three-fold from a daily mean of roughly 25 tweets to 75 on Oct.r 20 and 21. Once the mass protests are established, on the 22nd and 23rd, tweets drop to lower levels, though they are still above the monthly mean. Likewise, the EFF’s frequency of communications on the 21st of October was far higher than the monthly average, but the party was slower on the uptake, and fades as the protests continue, suggesting that much less energy is committed toward communication by the EFF than by the DA. The ANC’s communications during the protest are systematically but not abnormally high, compared to the rest of October. They drop notably on October 20th, but the party is back to its prolific self on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd.
But what do the tweets actually say? Message content gives a sense of the parties’ strategies in response to the protests. A simple way to visualize tweet content is word frequency clouds. Note, for instance, that on the 19th of October, when the protests are just beginning to grip Wits and UCT, the DA is very quick to orient their public messaging around them. This maps well to the previous finding that the DA was the fastest party to move on the protests, where their tweet frequency jumped more rapidly than the other parties. Their tweets are almost exclusively focused on education, with the most prominent term being “blademustfall”, a reference to the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande.
The ANC, however, is busy elsewhere on October 19th, focused on the Hamas visit to South Africa, and on Palestine. In fact, the ANC does make mention of the protests (e.g. “witsuniversity” and “freeeducation”). Recall that while October 19th was the start of the protests, they were at this point still focused on universities and not government. The ANC, it seems, was happy to score points by endorsing the protests while the ire was not focused on them.
The EFF, meanwhile, has little content of interest on October 19th, with only a brief mention of fees. By October 20th, however, the EFF has a single-minded narrative — “feesmustfall”, and an exclusive focus on education. The ANC, on Oct. 20, is again talking about “freeducation” (supporting the students who are making demands of universities), but still has time and energy to focus on other issues too. The same day, the DA is exclusively focused on the protests, while also building in name recognition for its leader, Mmusi Maimane, who visited (and was rejected by) protesting students on UCT’s campus.
Oct. 21 — the day the students march on parliament — is when the strategies diverge most notably. The DA and EFF are now working the same angle — all education, with repeated demands for President Zuma and minister Nzimande to address the students and their grievances. Note, however, that the DA and EFF are split in their use of key hashtags — the EFF is focused on “feesmustfall”, the primary hashtag of the student movement, while the DA is more overtly political, still demanding (and attempting to build a narrative around) the resignation/firing of Blade Nzimande. Crucially, the ANC is now utterly silent on the issue of fees, free education, and students, and returns its focus to the Hamas visit to South Africa.
Come Oct. 22, with students still protesting, threatening marches on the Union buildings in Pretoria, the camel’s back is broken. The ANC capitulation begins, and it changes tune dramatically. Now nothing but education matters, and, crucially, the communication strategy is focused directly on “students”. While the EFF is still talking exclusively about “feesmustfall” (and the DA has jumped onto this bandwagon and has left “blademustfall” behind, having failed to sustain the hashtag), the ANC is focused on welcoming students to Luthuli House, talking about the importance of education, and building a connection between the party and the students.
We can see this as the ANC attempting to use patronage politics (its favorite tool) to de-escalate the situation. The students have made themselves known, they have demonstrated a legitimate threat, and now the ANC welcomes them in, will listen, will talk, and will make commitments to them. The opposition parties, which control scarce resources themselves, can make no promises, and have no counter to this strategy.
Indeed, some of the ANC’s tweets have been remarkable. Consider, for example, the following:
In both tweets, the ANC is clearly signaling that it is the party students should trust, rely on, and engage with. In the first tweet, the purpose is clear: The ANC stands with students on the issue of free education (or lower fees). The second tweet is even more instructive: Here, the ANC is attempting to merge itself with the student movement, blurring the lines between protesters and the incumbent regime.
On Oct. 23, while students are marching on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the DA pushes the same line as the day before, with added references to its leadership (who joined the march) and students. Curiously, the official EFF twitter account is silent, possibly because their resources are exclusively dedicated to the march. The ANC continues to place students front and center of its communication strategy, legitimizing their complaints and grievances, and attempting to establish itself as the party that cares for them, with words like “meetings” and “outreach”.
Twitter data gives us insights into the communication strategies of dominant parties and pretenders to the throne. In South Africa, the ANC remains essentially all powerful. In the face of this month’s protests it seems to have adopted a strategy of patronage politics, including and compensating those who threaten their power. But opposition parties, which don’t have those strategies available to them, attempt instead to score political points and shape public narratives in the face of mass protest. Whose approach is most successful remains to be seen.