How South African female politicians harness social media

Reading Time: 5 minutes


Like many countries, South Africa grapples with the complex challenge of gender inequality in its political landscape. While strides have been made towards greater gender representation, female politicians still face barriers that hinder their full participation in the country’s democratic processes. However, in an era where digital tools are shaping the contours of political discourse, the power of social media as a modern public square has provided a platform where previously marginalised voices, such as those of female politicians, are amplified, ideas disseminated, and political landscapes transformed.

Our study

As media scholars who’ve published widely on media discourse, rhetoric and political communication, we recently published study examining the Twitter activity of six prominent South African female politicians. These women hailed from different political parties, each with unique goals and ideologies. These political figures were selected because they represent the three biggest political parties in South Africa. Also, they were chosen because our preliminary study showed that they were among the most active Twitter users from their respective political formations. Thirdly, all of them are senior leaders in their political parties. The objective was to explore how they navigated the digital landscape, harnessed the power of social media, and carved their presence in political communication. Using the digital public sphere theory as a lens, the study considers a hundred Twitter posts from female politicians from the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, and Economic Freedom Fighters political parties.

The profiles of politicians considered in this study as per their Twitter accounts on April 2022 were as follows:

Once the data were collected, a content analysis was conducted to categorise the nature of tweets and reveal how these politicians utilised Twitter for political communication.

This is one of only a few studies that has looked at participation of African female politicians in political communication in the digital public sphere.

Varied Content Reflecting Political Roles

The content of the tweets was closely tied to the politicians’ roles, portfolios, and political affiliations. For instance, Sisulu and Ntshavheni predominantly tweeted about their government roles, sharing updates and information related to their positions as ministers. Mpho Phalatse focused on her work as the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg. Their tweets were marked by a commitment to transparency and providing relevant information to the public within the digital public sphere.

Helen Zille’s tweets, on the other hand, often revolved around party politics, government matters, government ministers, and service delivery. This reflected her role as the chairperson of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Council. The study illustrated how the diverse content of these politicians’ tweets mirrored their roles, affiliations, and strategies for political communication in the digital space.

Metavoicing as a Trust-Building Mechanism

A notable finding from the study was the prominent use of metavoicing among these female politicians. Metavoicing involves actions like liking and retweeting content from other users. It is a trust-building mechanism, allowing politicians to participate actively in discussions while shielding themselves from uncivil messages and online harassment. This strategy empowers them to maintain their agency and continue engaging in political discourse.

Metavoicing enables these politicians to amplify the voices of others, reinforce positive narratives, and engage constructively with their followers. By doing so, they foster a sense of community and trust within the digital public sphere. This finding underscores the dynamic nature of online political engagement and the strategic use of social media to shape public perception.

Empowering Digital Engagement Patterns

Another of the study’s findings was the distinct temporal patterns in the tweeting behaviour of South African female politicians. Some, like Lindiwe Sisulu, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, and Mpho Phalatse, maintained a consistent and sustained presence on Twitter. Their engagement aligned with the principles of a deliberative public sphere, where public officials engage in substantive discussions with citizens and stakeholders. Their tweets were not just posts but active dialogues, reflecting their commitment to fostering meaningful political discourse. In contrast, figures like Helen Zille and Naledi Chirwa exhibited higher daily tweet volumes but less engagement consistency. They often focused on party political issues rather than fostering substantive public dialogue. The study revealed how the politicians’ tweeting patterns reflected their strategies for navigating the digital landscape and actively participating in public dialogue.

Why This Matters:

In an era where the digital landscape is reshaping the contours of political discourse, this study of South African female politicians’ engagement on Twitter highlights how these politicians are not passive social media users but active agents in shaping public discourse, challenging media biases, and using the digital public sphere to amplify their voices.

The findings also underscore the importance of social media as a platform for underrepresented voices to be heard. In South Africa, where gender disparities persist, the ability of female politicians to control their narratives on social media is a significant step toward greater gender equality. It disrupts traditional media gatekeeping and empowers these women to communicate directly with the public. Furthermore, the study tries to illuminate the complex dynamics of online political communication. It showcases the different strategies politicians employ to navigate the digital realm, from sharing government updates to engaging in partisan discourse and leveraging metavoicing as a trust-building mechanism.

In essence, this research is not just about Twitter or South African politics but about the evolving nature of political engagement in the digital age. It emphasises the need for digital literacy and media education for politicians and the public to navigate the complexities of online political discourse effectively. Ultimately, it shows that in the digital public sphere, voices matter, and how we use these platforms can shape our political landscape. As we move forward in this era of digital politics, understanding how social media empowers voices and fosters participation is crucial for building a more informed, inclusive, and equitable society.

Study undertaken by Dr Trust Matsilele and Dr Sisanda Nkoala 



Back to top button