South Africa’s Political Landscape and the Perils of Social Media Infamy

Social media has scarred the reputations of many prominent people. Offensive tweets, reprehensible opinions or sometimes, just poorly timed efforts at edgy humour, have even ended the careers of a couple of notable celebrities. Politicians – in contrast – appear to enjoy more leeway. Donald Trump is by the far the most infamous example. His perpetual racist and sexist meltdowns on Twitter have actively aided his presidential career, appealing perfectly to the hate-filled, libidinal fascist malice of his support base.

Instances that have occurred in the past recent weeks in relation to the Covid-19 lockdown and conversations being held at a confidential state level revealed comparable dynamics on South African social media. First to feel the wrath of social media shaming was Somizi Mhlongo, along with Transport Minster aka our Minster of Nice Times, Fikile Mbalula. Mbalula is known for brushing shoulders with and regularly being in the company of South African celebrities, as well as propagating a somewhat celebrity like persona himself on social media. Somizi has worn many titles in his professional career; actor, choreographer, South African Pop Idols Judge and Metro FM host. However, it was an ill-advised foray into Instagram controversy that got him into trouble after he sarcastically claimed that “Mbuks”, as he affectionally calls his chomza in the video, was feeding him sensitive information about the lockdown. 

This self-described ‘bad joke’ got the entertainer in serious trouble, as his statements quickly went viral and Mbalula had him charged with spreading misinformation under the lockdown restrictions. After paying bail, Somizi will have to attend court in July. There have been no repercussions faced by Fikile himself for discussing confidential state matters, and actions taken against other politicians who have been implicated in lockdown social media scandals also pales in comparison to the strict and rapid actions taken against Somizi. Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni- Abrahams, was snapped enjoying a family meal with former deputy minister of higher education and training Mduduzi Manana. While Manana quickly deleted the photo of his luxurious house, the flagrant violation of lockdown rules riled many South Africans. The image conveyed deep hypocrisy, as politicians who have pleaded with and instructed ordinary people to self-isolate, were flagrantly defying the very same rules. Indeed, Manana was not the only politician to have allegedly posted incriminating social media posts.

But unlike Somzi, Ndabeni-Abrahams has emerged relatively unscathed. Although charges have been pressed against her, she seems to have escaped relatively lightly, having only been suspended from her job for two months. It seems clear that this is a case of powerful people applying the law selectively to benefit their political allies. Social media is a double edge sword for the famous but then again, how do we even begin to reconcile the absurdity of politicians – read civil servants – who have also assumed or display a celebrity-like performativity? Social media can be an enormous source of influence, exposure and cultural clout. But it can equally reveal one’s personal flaws, political ignorance and social bigotry to the world.  Fame, it seems, breeds hubris and the arrogant delusion that intemperate words won’t come back to haunt you- in real time!

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