South Africans Want Their Government's Hands Off Social Media

A slum in South Africa. South Africans want their government to focus on issues, such as, improving lives of of its citizens. Image source: Used with permission

South Africa's Minister of State Security David Mahlobo has shocked and angered social media users in the country after saying that the government is contemplating regulating social media to counter false narratives and the spread of fake news.

Ironically, there have been multiple scandals this last year that connect Mahlobo's ruling party the African National Congress (ANC) to fake news sites promoting positive news about the government, propaganda botnets used to redirect focus away from controversies in the government, and a black ops” local election campaign intended to disempower opposition party campaigns and empower a pro-ANC agenda on social media.

At a press briefing on 5 March, 2017, Minister Mahlobo added that social media has become a space of negative and “untrue” opinions and added that “even the best democracies” are regulating social media.

South Africans immediately reacted to his statement on Twitter with the hashtag #HandsOffSocialMedia. They accused Minister Mahlobo, President Zuma and the governing party the African National Congress (ANC) of trying to control expression and discourse in the country.

In its 2016 Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House, a US organization that monitors human rights and democracy-related issues around the world, gave South Africa a solid “free” score for its “Net Freedom Status”, but it gave the country's media only “partly free” score. The ANC has dominated the political landscape of South Africa since the first all-race, post-apartheid elections in 1994.

South African radio host and Twitter user Miss.V tweeted:

Freedom of expression is protected by section 16 of chapter two of the Constitution of South Africa, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Social media use is rapidly growing in South Africa's population of 55 million. According to the Social Media Landscape 2016 report by World Wide Worx, South Africa has 13 million Facebook users, 7.4 million Twitter users, 8.28 million YouTube users and 2.68 million Instagram users. And social media platforms are increasingly becoming popular tools of political expression and debates. Hashtags, for example, have become one of the most popular ways of organising protests, building movements and expressing anger over political decisions in the country.

In 2014, President Zuma was ordered by a court to repay $16 million in taxpayers’ money spent on his private home. He repayed $542,000 in 2016. The scandal has dogged Zuma's presidency and triggered several unsuccessful impeachment bids by the opposition.

Zuma has denied taking bribes, and has appealed against the ruling. Tweet Guru, a Cape Town-based, self-described social media influencer, also shared this commentary:

Thato Lephole reminded South Africans:

The next election is slated for 2019. The ANC, which led the fight against white minority rule, will face off with two parties – the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. ANC suffered historic losses against them in local elections last summer.

There is a growing trend in Africa of governments curtailing online freedom of information and expression particularly during elections or civil unrest. Writing on Quartz Africa, Abdi Latif Dahir noted that African governments increasingly disrupt internet communication to control the flow of information and “to keep a lid on simmering anger on the ground.” The article argued that government-directed internet outages became the rule rather than the exception in 2016 on the continent.

Countries that have shut down the internet during elections or civil unrest in Africa include Uganda, Burundi, Gabon, Cameroon,  Democratic Republic of Congo, The Gambia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

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