2020 in review: the year crude populism and polarisation took hold

It’s become somewhat of a tradition for me to throw all the Twitter datasets that I’ve looked at throughout the year together into a single mega dataset to create a meta-analysis of the South African political landscape (see my analyses for mid-2016, the end of 2016, and 2018). My 2020 analysis is based on roughly 14 million tweets (see the Appendix at the end of this article for a breakdown of the data included). While Twitter is not representative of South African society as a whole, it is a place where politicians share their minds, define their narratives and marshal their ‘ground forces’, all in a symbiotic relationship with the media which further amplifies and legitimises what happens on Twitter. As a result, what happens on Twitter is often a leading indicator of evolving political narratives and movements. 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous years in recent human history and it’s led to some shifts in our political landscape so let’s take a look at what’s changed. To start with, here’s a high-level summary of the broad groups involved in South African political discussions in 2020:

A stylised summary of the interaction network behind the data, highlighting the main political voices in South African politics on Twitter.

The key insights from this data include the following observations:

The Ramaphosa government held the line

It’s good to see that Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, shows up so prominently in the data below. While not without issues, South Africa has had one of the more consistent, science-informed responses to the global pandemic. Policies and regulations have continued to evolve in step with the scientific consensus as the fog of war around the virus has lifted. Pandemic critics gleefully point out how regulations have changed over time as if these “inconsistencies” invalidate the government’s response, but really this just highlights government’s responsiveness.

South Africa’s COVID-19 response, while not flawless, was an unprecedented charge led by Minister Mkhize and related government health entities. The scale of their response is mirrored in their prominence as central authorities within the largest community on Twitter in 2020. It didn’t have to be this way. In Nigeria, for example, where trust in government is even lower, that country’s government was forced to recruit celebrities and influencers to get their COVID-19 messaging across as official health agencies’ voices were sidelined in Twitter conversations. In this vacuum of credibility, pseudo-medical social media influencers became the main source of COVID-19 information, making the distinction between official government information and conspiracy theories more difficult to discern. Similarly, we’ve seen the awful toll that COVID-19 has taken in the USA where the virus was treated as a partisan political issue.

South Africa’s COVID-19 response, while not flawless, was an unprecedented charge led by Minister Mkhize and related government health entities. The scale of their response is mirrored in their prominence as central authorities within the largest community on Twitter in 2020.

Luckily, South Africa has mostly avoided these scenarios. Even when the virus became politicised by groups such as the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), AfriForum and the DA, Mkhize managed to retain independent credibility while President Ramaphosa took the political heat. As a result, President Ramaphosa’s account was cleaved off into its own community that acted as a lightening rod for political attacks, freeing Mkhize and official health departments to get on with their work mitigating the virus’ impact. This was a real win for South Africa and the data bears this out.

Polarisation has taken hold

Having said that, things are far from rosy. This was the first year where the media and political party leaders did not sit together at the centre of South Africa’s political discourse on Twitter. One of our key strengths over highly divided countries such as the USA has been that we all get our facts from the same place, even if our interpretations of those facts veer off in vastly different directions. This year, EFF and RET groups have managed to muscle their way in to take more direct control of the narrative on Twitter by displacing the mainstream media from the centre of the conversation. At the same time, many white South Africans have receded into their own Twitter laagers, finding comfort in the conservative, MAGA-style narratives imported from the USA.

This year, EFF and RET groups have managed to muscle their way in to take more direct control of the narrative on Twitter by displacing the mainstream media from the centre of the conversation. At the same time, many white South Africans have receded into their own Twitter laagers, finding comfort in the conservative, MAGA-style narratives imported from the USA.

Increased polarization means that different communities’ filter bubbles, or echo chambers, overlap less and less even as their worldviews become crystallised in certainty due to being surrounded by like-minded voices that challenge each other less. Two key dynamics have led to our increased polarisation:

  1. The RET and EFF have merged into a single community on Twitter with a shared audience activated by their ever-more antagonistic race narratives, even as the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement’s nationalist, xenophobic message is coming up from behind to eat into this same audience in a race to the political and rhetoric bottom
  2. White conservatives are being pulled away from South African narratives towards imported MAGA-style US white right narratives that cast them as victims, rather than co-creators, of a new South Africa

These trends do not bode well for the integrity of our social fabric in the long run as we are lost if we can’t find each other.

The main communities involved

[Important caveat: community detection is a statistical process that looks at the other users that each user interacts with. Interactions can take place for a number of reasons. Just because a user is allocated to a specific community does not necessarily mean that they share that community’s ideology or agenda]

Below is what the South African political landscape looks like in 2020. Think of it like a map of South African politics where each community in a different colour can be thought of as akin to it’s own ‘country’:

Overall interaction network based on a 4,000,000 sample of 13,929,837 original tweets authored in 2020. Each Twitter user in the dataset is a node. Nodes are connected together when users interact with each other by retweeting or @mentioning each other. Node size represents influence based on the number of retweets or @mentions that user received. The Louvain modularity algorithm is used to identify distinct communities in the data, which are represented in different colours.

What stands out about the network map compared to previous years (see here, here and here for some comparisons)? One of the main observations is that a community consisting of key news media and political party leaders no longer sits at the very centre of the map as it has in past years. Tito Mboweni, who some speculate might be Ramaphosa’s successor sits alone at the centre. The news media sits somewhat off to the side in the pink community together with key government health entities, demonstrating the prominence of COVID-19 in news coverage, while political leaders sit within their own political communities, interacting more within their own echo chambers than they have in the past.

Say what you will about South African politics, but one thing that we’ve always benefitted from is a central media voice working in tandem with political leaders from all parties, who come together in a central debate of ideas at the core of the network. Unlike highly polarised countries such as the USA, where partisan news and ‘facts’ are generated within completely independent echo chambers, South Africans still get their news and facts from the same sources. How we interpret those news and facts often differs substantially, but we have still historically departed from the same place. The displacement of the news media and the receding of political leaders into their own echo chambers is a worrying trend that could undermine this strength of our democracy.

The displacement of the news media and the receding of political leaders into their own echo chambers is a worrying trend that could undermine this strength of our democracy.

So, who is doing the most shouting to displace the central conversation? To help us understand this, below is a summary of the main communities in terms of size (how many users they have) and activity level (how much they are tweeting). Bubble colours link back to the community colours on the above network map. Bubble size indicates the proportion of all users in the data assigned to that community. Communities above the diagonal line are more vocal and passionate than we would have expected (i.e. they generated more tweets than we would have expected given how many users are in that community) and played an out-sized role in shifting our narratives:

Summary of the top communities discussing South African political and social issues. Communities above the diagonal line were the most vocal.

From the above bubble map picture, we can see that three groups are particularly vocal and passionate in South African politics: the EFF and RET groups, the white body politic and the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement. They are each having a large impact on our national conversations.

Conversely, we can see that the slightly less political Black Twitter incl. Paid Twitter community, which one might assume represents the voice of the ‘average (wo)man on the street’, is less vocal than we’d expect given their size. This is actually not surprising given the high prevalence of paid influencers in this community whose incentive is to drive shallow engagement stats such as retweeting instead of organic, authentic conversations. They do this by sharing a mixture of competitions, pop culture, gossip and politics. As a result, its influencers might succeed in getting average users to like and retweet their content but they do less well than the other communities in driving engaged, sustained conversations.

Consolidated populism – a race to the bottom

When a party taps into emotive ideas that already have some currency with their supporters to gain political traction, even if those ideas are not good for society in the long-run, they risk opening a Pandora’s Box that can have an uncontrollable, runaway social effect. The EFF and RET groups have traded on racial antagonism to harness very real frustrations around sky-high racial inequality and festering wounds from the past. They do this by tapping into powerful negative emotions such as fear and anger to drive their political momentum. The EFF appears to have joined the RET faction by increasing its racial antagonism towards white South Africans at events in Senekal and Brackenfell. The resulting convergence of narratives is mirrored in the data, where we see the RET and EFF groups statistically included in the same community for the first time. This means that, after years of speaking to separate audiences, 2020 was the year in which their audiences converged, at least on Twitter.

The EFF and RET groups’ common audience is not the main story in 2020 though. While the EFF and RET focus their attacks on “whiteness” and “white monopoly capital” (WMC), it turns out that attacking foreigners is actually a more effective political lever. Even more cynical political actors have further lowered the bar by focusing their messaging on a more basic fear of The Other in the form of foreign nationals. In doing so, the #PutSouthAfricansFirst (PSAF) movement (as well as, to some extent, Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA and Mzwanele Manyi’s ATM) has come from behind to gazump the race politics of the EFF and RET by tapping into and fanning the flames of latent xenophobic tendencies within our society. PSAF offers up foreign nationals to marginalised South Africans as a more tangible target for their anger and frustrations than the rarefied concept of white monopoly capital. In the process, they have set us on course for a race to the bottom, along a track laid down by the EFF and RET groups (it should be noted however that the EFF has strongly maintained a pan-African position and have been mercilessly attacked by the PSAF as a result).

The below network map shows the consolidation of the EFF and RET audiences (in blue) and the extent to which that audience has been eaten away at by the #PutSouthAfricansFirst nationalist, xenophobic movement (in pink):

Close-up of the combined EFF, RET and PSAF communities highlighting the sub-communities involved

Notably, poet, musician and artist, Ntsiki Mazwai, stands out as a leader within a sub-community within the larger PSAF community. Her content is stridently Black Conscious (BC) in tone but she is not a supporter of PSAF. In fact, she has criticised the movement for being dangerous. Her BC content does however resonate with the same audience as that being tapped into by PSAF.

RET members, ever the cynical political pragmatists, seem to be slowly embracing the new attack on foreigners. Mzwanele Manyi, key RET player, former Gupta associate and briefly owner of their media empire, is now the Head of Policy & Strategy for the ATM Party (itself accused of being a RET puppet party designed to steal votes from the Ramaphosa ANC faction – see here, here, here and here) which is one of the groups leveraging the PSAF narrative. In addition, further strengthening the tie between the RET establishment and this new nationalist, xenophobic movement is the attacks on foreigners by the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) (see here, here and here), whose prominent members include its leader, Kebby Maphatsoe, and Jacob Zuma cheerleader, Carl Niehaus. From this data it would appear that PSAF is steadily eating into the radical, populist base of the EFF and RET groups, and at least some in the RET group might be in on this shift. This is obviously all speculation at this point but could they be bringing the machinery that they pioneered with the Guptabots to bear in promoting this movement?

The main groups trading on nationalism and xenophobia under the #PutSouthAfricansFirst banner is a mixture of political opportunists, including new parties, old RET hands, and pseudo-anonymous accounts linked to Mario Khumalo’s South Africa First Party. This image is adapted from my earlier PSAF article here.

Frantz Fanon’s observations seem appropriate here. Fanon observed that post-liberation societies often end up eating themselves as the circle of inclusion becomes smaller and smaller, and more people are considered The Other by those in power for politically expedient reasons; starting with foreigners, and ending with their comrades.

White South Africans – the modern swart gevaar and MAGA-style narratives

The South African white body politic is possibly the most ideologically diverse community on South African Twitter. It has many distinct sub-communities that run the gamut from far left liberals to far right conservatives, and everything in between. However, even as radical populist groups consolidate in a race to the political bottom, many white South Africans are being cleaved away from the country’s main discussions through the injection of US MAGA-style narratives and techniques, including the establishment of a parallel media ecosystem built around alternative news sources and political commentators such as Jerm, Renaldo Gouws, Willem Petzer and Big Daddy Liberty, amongst others, in a model that mirrors that of the USA (and other parts of the world experiencing similar dynamics). Essentially, the South African white body politic is being attenuated through Western political techniques that facilitate polarisation through the creation of insular echo chambers.

Here’s what the white body politic looks like on Twitter, from liberals and progressives to far right conservatives and, prominently, an Alt-Right/MAGA overlap with the USA community that sits like a cancerous growth to the side of the white body politic. Alt-Right/MAGA overlap with the USA community members are as likely to be South African as American (including many expats), and they focus on popular US right wing issues such as an absolute veneration of Donald Trump, white genocide, QAnon and other popular MAGA talking points. This is also the South African community where Twitter has suspended the most users for either posting material that contradicts its community guidelines or for acting in inauthentic ways that might be indicative of bots and sockpuppets, and it is through this community that some of the most extreme ideas colonising our local white narratives are espoused.

Close-up of the White body politic community highlighting the sub-communities involved

Until recent years, white South Africans dealt with their own issues in their own way, keeping a low profile as the spectre of Apartheid still loomed large. As recently as 2017, AfriForum made a point of avoiding mentioning disputed talking points such as “white genocide” even as the international White Right started circling around our conversations. In the last three or so years though, the link between South African white conservatives and international White Right narratives has only grown stronger, to the point where many white South Africans know more about US politics from a pro-Donald Trump perspective than they do about local politics. And, we’ve increasingly seen US conservative-libertarian arguments such as calls to #EndTheLockdown, claims of a manufactured pandemic and conspiracy theories such as QAnon enter our own politics, especially within a few weeks after the initial March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown started.

A QAnon conspiracy theory sign at a 2020 Move ONE Million march. Source

The DA has given up the middle ground somewhat by receding into the white body politic to a greater extent on Twitter. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, they appear to be working harder to appeal to the white, conservative aspect of their base than the non-racial, liberal, progressive South African constituency. This is best seen in the party’s whole-hearted adoption during the 2020 lockdown of the farm killings issue that is so pertinent to the conservative white community. This is probably a symptom of the white body politic being pulled away from the core South African conversation due to the injection, and adoption, of US and global white right narratives which have hardened some conservative aspects of the white body politic against inclusive, Rainbowism ideals. The DA now needs to appeal to a white body politic that lacks a strong centre, straddling its traditional liberal values and the fast retreating white conservative bloc, all while somehow appealing to liberal, progressive South Africans of all colours.

The DA now needs to appeal to a white body politic that lacks a strong centre, straddling its traditional liberal values and the fast retreating white conservative bloc, all while somehow appealing to liberal, progressive South Africans of all colours.

Many white South Africans know more about Trumpism and US politics than they do about politics in their own backyard. They only engage with local issues through the lens of scaremongering narratives that promote a modern ‘swart gevaar’ through highly emotive and skewed interpretations of issues such as farm murders, land expropriation and radical left populism.

I’ve previously covered the ways in which US politics are skewing our own debates here and here. Local alternative media commentators have worked hard to further fan the flames of fear amongst their audiences by promoting misleading versions of events that feed into the modern swart gevaar. For example, recent runaway veld fires that were caused by unrelated service delivery protests were attributed to the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s singing in Senekal of an old struggle song that includes a line about burning the boer. While these are reprehensible lyrics, and while similar lyrics such as “shoot the boer” have been deemed hate speech, there is no evidence to link this particular singing of the popular protest song to those fires however much alternative media commentators trip over themselves to make such spurious links. Similarly, black journalist, Nick Motloung, was filmed setting fire to a white wooden cross commemorating farm murders. While one can debate the ethics of his actions, they were quickly seized upon by alternative media commentators with Motloung’s action being positioned as a ‘necklacing‘ – a highly emotive, loaded term for South Africans and one that personifies the cross as a human being – presumably white South Africans.

…all sides often act from a kernel of true lived experience beneath the political posturing and we could all do well to work harder to empathise with the other sides’ position.

This willful sensationalising of events has likely further contributed to the hardening of race relations between far left and far right (read: black and white) South Africans, and is the kind of scaremongering that alternative media commentators trade in to whip up fear and anger in their audiences, driving them away from the rest of South African society. Granted, their job is sometimes made even easier by the actions of the EFF and RET groups, although all sides often act from a kernel of true lived experience beneath the political posturing and we could all do well to work harder to empathise with the other sides’ position.

Are we being manipulated?

This brings us to one final question: is the increasing polarisation of our society an inevitable consequence of any human society or is it being artificially encouraged by vested interests, implying that it is something that we can counteract and mitigate?

In the case of both the black populist movements and the white body politic, there is some indication that the polarising dynamics we are currently experiencing are not completely organic in nature but there are no smoking guns. The RET faction has a history of using bots and sockpuppets to create their narratives (they benefited from the Guptabots after all), some have also claimed that the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement is being amplified through inorganic means, and my past research has shown that the most suspicious behaviour on South African Twitter occurs at the interface between local white conservative and international MAGA conversations.

Black populist movements have a history of narrative manipulation. The EFF have no qualms in pushing spurious narratives (e.g. here and here), although there is no evidence that they actively employ disinformation techniques on social media. Meanwhile, the RET faction came into existence completely through false means thanks to the Guptabots at the height of the State Capture period. If it wasn’t for the Gupta media empire, Bell Pottinger and key RET players, this community would probably not exist today. This article shows the first appearance of the RET community (under the BLF and Gupta media) that I am aware of, while this article details my exposure of the fake Guptabots, and this article shows the last time the Guptabots were active (when NDZ lost at the ANC54 conference), although their legacy persists to this day. In addition, this article shows that Iqbal Survé’s (who controls RET-aligned Independent Media) Ayo Technologies, has also benefitted from fake sockpuppet accounts. Basically, the RET faction will clearly use any means at its disposal to gain political leverage. Given the confluence of RET individuals and organisations with the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, and given others’ claims of coordinated manipulation around this movement, it would come as no surprise that these RET techniques continue to experience new life within this nationalist, xenophobic movement (although I am still waiting on smoking gun evidence of such manipulation).

White South Africans have something else going on. As my past research here and here has shown, much suspicious activity (based on where Twitter is suspending users) occurs within the overlap between local conservative and US MAGA-style conversations. South Africa is often used as a poster child for the international white right, where issues such as land expropriation and farm murders are held up as cautionary tales of what happens when devious global forces are allowed to enact their “white genocide” agenda. As such, white South African narratives are increasingly being colonised by US MAGA-style narratives around nationalism, fear of The Other and white victimhood, and MAGA narratives are key global disinformation battlegrounds.

The question remains though, are we driving each other apart or are we being driven apart? It’s probably a bit of both – the best way to drive people apart is to encourage their latent differences and let human nature take its course. The world of digital disinformation has evolved from the days when dozens of operatives sat in a small room in a foreign country, working furiously to manipulate other countries’ politics. The new model uses ideologically (and economically) aligned local intermediaries to do their dirty work. This model has several benefits including better local domain knowledge, plausible deniability and scalability. So, it is likely, although still to be confirmed, that local groups might be receiving support and guidance from foreign interests who care about South African policy on, for example, nuclear power or even simply wish to make us weaker, and thus more pliable, by sowing division as Russia did in the USA.

For now, we continue to be driven apart and it is each of our’s responsibility to resist giving in to the fear and anger used to enact this process. Next time an article, tweet or post makes you frustrated, angry or afraid, maybe don’t reshare it or post that angry response. Instead, take a deep breath, step back from the screen. Rather give your online energy to the things that help shape the South Africa we all want to live in.

Appendix: the data

This analysis started with an initial dataset of 13,929,837 tweets, from which I randomly sampled 4,000,000 tweets for ease of processing. The time period covered here is January-November 2020. The data covers the following topics:

#ClicksMustFall, #HandsOffPublicProtector, #MAGASA, #PutSouthAfricansFirst, #QAnonSA, #SAMediaMustFall, #ThulasNxesiMustFall, Ace Magashule, AfriForum, Alt-Right influencers, ATM & Mzwanele Manyi, BLF, Brackenfell High, Busisiwe Mkhwebane (Public Protector), conservative influencers, Covid19 South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, Democratic Alliance (DA), Dudu Myeni, Duduzane Zuma, #HandsOffCIC (EFF), EFF VBS conference, Eskom and related terms, farm murders, FW de Klerk, Gavin Watson, Helen Zille, Iqbal Survé & Sekunjalo companies, Johan Rupert, liberal influencers, libertarian influencers, Maria Ramos & Trevor Manuel, the Mpati Commission PIC inquiry, Pravin Gordhan, Public Investment Corporation (PIC), RET influencers, SARB, Senekal farm murder, Shamila Batohi, Soweto Shutdown, State Capture Inquiry, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams & Mduduzi Manana scandal, Stratcom, Suidlanders, Supra Mahumapelo, The People's Dialogue (ActionSA), Tito Mboweni, VBS Bank, and Zandile Gumede

This is obviously an incomplete list of political issues and actors so one needs to bear this in mind. However, given the volume of data, I think we are still getting a fairly complete view of the political landscape.

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