President Jacob Zuma dealt another blow to both the South African economy and our collective psyche on Wednesday evening when he announced the firing, or “redeployment”, of Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene. The move resulted in a plunge in the value of the South African Rand as the markets signalled their lack of confidence in Zuma’s decision, and what it heralds for the future of the country.
Ordinary South Africans took to Twitter to voice their dismay and anger, generating thousands of tweets in a matter of hours. Tweets are still flowing in as I write this, but let us take a look at the roughly 30,000 tweets generated between Zuma’s announcement last night and this morning, to get a feel for how people have reacted to Zuma’s latest move. Warning: it ain’t pretty. Let us start by taking a look at how events unfolded on the night.
Nene succeeded Pravin Gordhan as finance minister and was widely respected for his honesty and work ethic, even if others did not always agree with his policies. Perhaps ousted former COSATU leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, said it best:
I never agreed with Nene policies inherited from GEAR framework but one thing I know about him is that he an honest man – not a thief— Zwelinzima Vavi (@Zwelinzima1) December 9, 2015
Indeed, many consider the finance ministry to be one of the few ministries still relatively untainted by the spectre of corruption, as the Democratic Alliance’s Phumzile Van Damme eloquently captured with this tweet:
The silver lining in government has always been the Finance Minister, and now even that is gone. Sad.— Phumzile Van Damme (@zilevandamme) December 9, 2015
…which is why South Africans from all quarters have reacted so vehemently against Zuma’s decision, which he has publically stated as not needing to justify. Condemnation of the move came from every side of the social and political spectrum, from the Freedom Front Plus to the Economic Freedom Fighters (via @Sentletse):
The useless ANC regime is self-destructing!— Sentletse (@Sentletse) December 9, 2015
Many weighed in with their speculations as to why Zuma fired Nene. Chief amongst these speculative reasons was Nene’s tough stance on SAA, and Zuma’s desire to protect its embattled Chief Executive Office and Zuma stalwart, Dudu Myeni:
So Nhlanhla Nene has been fired! Hope there no connection with a strong stance he took on SAA saga – can’t help but speculate about that— Zwelinzima Vavi (@Zwelinzima1) December 9, 2015
Nhlanhla Nene was reining in SAA. Was Dudu Myeni part of the reason he was fired?— Helen Zille (@helenzille) December 9, 2015
News reports from media houses over the past few months appear to lend some credence to such speculation:
It has also been speculated that Nene’s removal will help grease the path to the massive, but controversial, Russian nuclear power deal which some believe the country can ill-afford and which is driven primarily by the greed of tenderpreneurs within the Zuma government:
To get a real feel for what people really believe are behind Zuma’s motives, I searched for mentions of SAA-related terms and nuclear power-related terms. This gives us a quantification of where people believe Zuma’s motives lie. People clearly believe that it relates to SAA and Dudu Myeni:
Figure 1: Number of documents containing keywords relating to each topic (SAA and the nuclear deal) To get a real feel for how South Africans feel about Zuma’s latest move, we just need to see which tweets resonated the most with the general public. These were the top most retweeted tweets overall. They give you a feel for how people feel about Zuma’s shock tactics:
Nene tried economics 101 on SAA and he was shown politics 101.— Nikiwe Bikitsha (@NBikitsha) December 9, 2015
Pres Zuma doesn’t understand the depth of the crises he has unleashed by firing Nhlanhla Nene. New Minister was unable 2 run a municipality.— Helen Zille (@helenzille) December 9, 2015
Nene’s removal accelerates SA’s slide towards junk status; a downgrade now is more likely. Zuma’s economic legacy will be harsh on the poor!— Iraj Abedian (@IrajAbedian) December 9, 2015
President Zuma has again proven himself to be a President incapable of making the right decisions.— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) December 9, 2015
Nene’s firing is key to understanding how ANC works. Don’t cross Zuma’s path, even if it’s in SA’s interests, if you want to keep your job.— Helen Zille (@helenzille) December 10, 2015
Did the rating agencies fire the minister or the Pres responding to them. Either way, Zuma has just continued to screw up our economy.— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) December 9, 2015
The sacking of Finance minister could open the door for Jet, nuclear deal, SAA and many who have an unfunded mandate, directed by the Pres— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) December 9, 2015
From the above tweets, one might conclude that there was a lot of retweeting going on as average South Africans passively hung onto the words of their favourite politicians and influencers, but this is not the case. There’s a lot more than just retweeting happening. South Africans are passionately discussing the move amongst themselves. We can see this when we map the conversation network of all people talking about Nene’s firing. The resultant network is very inter-connected and “messy” implying a high level of organic engagement around this topic. This indicates that people are not just submissively retweeting pithy quotes; they are actively engaging… and they are mad. If I saw this pattern around a client that I was working with, I would advise them to do whatever was within their power to minimise long-term damage:
Figure 2: Each node represents a single user. We connect users when they talk or interact with each other. We then run a community detection algorithm on the network to identify the distinct communities of people talking amongst themselves.
We can also derive a breakdown of the top communities talking about Nene’s firing from the conversation network to get a feel for the constituencies involved. In this case, the top fifteen communities encompass about 50% of all people talking about the event in our dataset, and they collectively generated 63% of all tweets:
Figure 3: Breakdown of the top fifteen communities talking about Nene’s firing. Community descriptions are given by the author and are mainly based on the influential accounts that are most prominent within each community.
The community centred around talk radio stations such as POWER987 News, SAfm, Jacaranda News, and specific personalities such as Tim Modise and John Robbie, stand out as particularly vocal having generated 10% of all tweets on the topics. The community around Mmusi Maimane’s and the official DA accounts was also particularly vocal, having generated 7.9% of all tweets in our dataset.
Notable by their relative absence in this community breakdown are the black consciousness activist groups that have stood out so prominently in discussions around topics such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall in recent months. There is one clear exception to this though in the form of the “Female activists and opinionistas” community, whose vocal female influencers appear to include many vocal transgender activists and proponents of intersectionality. Does this group represent the cross-over between youth interests and more general political engagement perhaps? One could spend some time coming up with interesting theories around who the groups are within the South African discourse that drive action but perhaps that is another article.
So, in conclusion, where does this all leave us? Well, a few interesting observations stand out for me:
Firstly, the storm is still raging on Twitter and the anger has come from a diverse range of groups. Seething castigations have come from every political party (except for the ANC itself, which has remained mum; I truly feel for any individual still trying to make a meaningful difference from within the organisation). The volumes of tweets being generated by average users are also not being driven primarily by young, black millennials. This in itself makes it a different kind of outrage to what we have seen in the past few months. Despite this, while not on the scale of a #FeesMustFall, volumes are significant given my experience in tracking these events over the past few years.
If we look at the shape of the conversation network, we see that it is very engaged. This means that people are taking this topic to heart. Again, if it was my client at the centre of this storm, I would advise them to enact damage control measures immediately in order to mitigate long-term harm. The question though is whether the Zuma camp even really cares about any harm that it might cause to itself or the country at this point? Surely the mere act of Nene’s firing in itself demonstrates an utter disregard for the people of South Africa and their perceptions of the ANC?
Finally, it’s clear that Zuma is fooling no-one in terms of his intentions. People automatically assume that he fired Nene to protect Dudu Myeni; the timing is just too convenient. Whether this is the main reason or not is beside the point at this stage. The public believes it is the case and Zuma does not feel the need to justify his actions, again displaying contempt for the country.
What more is there to say other that it is clear that Zuma has chosen his path, and we South Africans either have the option of riding along with him as he grinds our country into dust, or deciding for ourselves what we want for our family, our friends and our countrymen, because it’s clearly not the same thing as Jacob Zuma wants. Have we finally reached the point where most South Africans are no longer willing to sit back and just take it? Have the successive blows of xenophobia, Nkandla, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall washed away our apathy and galvanised a broad-base of South Africans in their anger? I feel like we will not have to wait long to find out. DM
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" ~ Sir Isaac Newton