In the run up to the 2014 elections, who has the chops to build SA’s social media ‘Obama moment’?

As South Africa’s election season approaches, it’s no secret that the question most likely to keep campaign managers up at night over the holidays is how to court the youth vote. The born-frees (those born after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994) have come of age, and with unemployment for 15 to 34-year-olds sitting at over 40%, even their older siblings and cousins are wondering what precisely the struggle means to them. All are waiting to hear what the candidates have to say about their future. Some of the candidates seem to be waiting to find out, too.

While the messages are still in the works, it seems that everyone is agreed on the crucial medium to crack: social.

The trailblazer here was, of course, Barack Obama, or rather his staff of young digital ninjas, who harnessed social media to such powerful effect that they were able to raise 70-million campaign dollars in one month of primaries, without holding a single fundraiser. Indeed, the campaign got people worldwide so excited about politics that some gave it credit for turning out the vote in South Africa’s 2009 election too.

The opportunity for South Africa’s own Obama moment in 2014 is tangible: the country’s politicians are speaking, for the first time, to a generation who owe no one their loyalty. Whoever has the clearest and most coherent voice stands a real chance of gaining their allegiance.

The players have recognised the potential, and the role that social media can play in realising it. Some, like Helen Zille and Julius Malema, are already well-versed in this kung fu, with over 350,000 followers on Twitter apiece. The ANC has taken the lead on Mxit with an app aimed at the million-strong Western Cape user-base, most of which sits in the 18 – 24 sweet spot. Mampela Ramphele’s Agang, too, has announced its intention to launch a social media drive. While it is still largely theoretical (a bit like Ramphele herself), we know it’s gone straight to the source, engaging Obama’s 2008 campaign masterminds, Benenson Strategy Group, as consultants.

The candidates have made it to the right place at the right time, but the real question remains, who’s got the best pick-up line?

So far, the plays that have got the most press have come from the Democratic Alliance’s quarter. Social media was key to the #KnowYourDA campaign, which bit back on rumour-mongering around the party’s propensity to “bring back apartheid”. Its guerrilla outdoor campaign against the e-toll debacle** also created some organic social media buzz.

But when we look at how the DA is approaching the youth in particular, things get a little hazy.

Ahead of registration weekend earlier this month, DASO, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation, launched #MyFirstTime, a YouTube spot aimed at turning out the youth for registration. Playing on the expected titular double entendre around losing one’s voting “virginity”, it’s a disarming piece of comms that hits a sweet-yet-sassy note worthy of Glee. It proved effective in creating awareness, if not necessarily appeal.

Disappointingly, it seems that the DA is also cribbing from Obama’s playbook: the idea would appear to have been lifted from a spot created for the 2012 presidential campaign in the States.That’s not the part that concerns me, though. The Obama spot used the gag to speak to the issues, the take-home being that the youth are empowered to solve their problems by voting in the right guy. The DA’s spot offered no reason to vote other than suggesting that it was somehow edgy and vaguely daring.

With all due respect to Mbali Ntuli and her team, as well as Zille: it’s an election year; the stakes are high. The DA can’t afford the kind of amateur hour that played out in 2012, when DASO ran roughshod over the youth mindshare with a woefully naïve campus poster campaign that neither spoke to the party’s platforms nor bolstered its message, and yet embarrassingly received more press than any comms their parent body came up with in the same year.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time trying to figure out what resonates with youth markets, here is my two cents: political parties really, really need to stop talking to the crucial swing vote demographic of 2014 as if all they care about is being cool.

To an extent, one could level the same criticism at the ANC’s “Skothane” spot, which suggests that voting is the best way of establishing street cred.It’s all just a little condescending. The youth have real problems. It may be their first time, but politicians dismiss the need to appeal to them on the issues at their peril. We need them to believe their vote can make a difference, but no-one so far is showing them how. Well. Almost no-one.

The Monday afternoon in the run-up to the registration weekend brought this interesting snapshot of prevailing trends in SA:Popping in on the centenary celebrations online, I was reminded that there is one candidate who takes the youth pretty darn seriously. Suffice to say that while some parties are busy reminding them that they have the right and the power to vote, others are reminding them that they have the right and the power to start a revolution.

Which proposition do you think they will find more edgy and daring?* It bears mentioning that Malema may have acquired some of his followers by unorthodox means: having famously called for Twitter to be shut down in reaction to the number of satirical accounts making a mockery of his good name, he went on to acquire the most popular of these and now uses it in an official capacity.

** …which journalists have thus far refrained from calling “Tollgate-gate”.

Image: GovernmentZA (via Flickr).

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