Twitter is the fastest-growing social network in South Africa, according to the South African Social Media Landscape 2014 research study. The number of South African Twitter users has doubled in the last year from 2.4 million to 5.5 million. And South Africans aren’t just using it to tweet about their favourite TV program or celebrities. Outraged by Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, local tweeps have recently taken to Twitter in their numbers with a message to the government and Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk. #ExpelIsraeliAmbassadorToSA was the number one trending topic in South Africa on 14 and 15 July, even surpassing Germany’s victory in the World Cup and news of Nadine Gordimer’s death. “Israel”, “Palestine”, and “Gaza” have consistently featured in the top 10 trending topics in July, and everyone from Simphiwe Dana to Chester Missing and Tannie Evita have weighed in with their condemnation of the attacks.
South Africans are also engaging the media via Twitter. PowerFM’s Eusebius McKaiser recently asked the question “Is the War on Gaza Justified?” to Lenk and academic Na’eem Jeenah. McKaiser encourages his Power Talk listeners to interact with him via Twitter using the hashtag #PowerTalk. A Twitter search reveals that the majority of users who sent in comments and questions with that hashtag were overwhelmingly pro-Palestine. According to McKaiser, the show with Lenk and Jeenah generated “unprecedented topical interest.” The podcast, made available on SoundCloud, spread like wildfire on pro-Palestine timelines, and has been downloaded more than 1 500 times, making it the station’s most downloaded podcast ever.
According to Muhammed Desai, national co-ordinator of BDS South Africa, Twitter is also bolstering the consumer boycott of Israeli products, with many users posting pictures of creative protests of Israeli products in stores. It has also made retailers more accessible to consumers, and chain-stores like Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay have had to field numerous queries about their decision to stock Israeli goods and fresh-produce.
Twitter is also being used to mobilise solidarity for Palestine. Various forms of protest action have taken place in every province in the country, with 30 000 people marching in Cape Town, 15 000 in Durban and over 7000 in Sandton. Twitter activists are showing their support in the real world, and retweets and favourites are being translated into feet on the ground. Desai calls this a “repoliticisation of the middle classes”, as young South Africans increasingly identify with the Palestinian liberation struggle.
Promising to hit back at the South African Twitter backlash, local pro-Israel group, Likud South Africa, is currently co-ordinating a consortium of professional marketing and production houses in Israel and South Africa to advance Israel advocacy on social media.
An erratic tweeter, @Suraya_Dadoo prefers to communicate in more than 140 characters, and is the co-author of Why Israel: The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid: A South African Perspective (Porcupine Press, 2013).
(This piece originally appeared on Page 13 of The Star News and Page 6 of The Mercury on 4 August 2014)