One of the fundamental rights we enjoy under the democratic state in South Africa is that of freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It is a position that many across the globe can only dream about. But recently I have come to believe that of the countries that enjoy this right, none has stretched its limit as we do. The so-called Free Zuma protests are a case in point.
Migrants, especially those from other African countries, are amazed that any South African can just pick up their cellphone and post on Facebook or Twitter, or even state in live public television interviews their disgust for the government and its president. Anyone can accuse government ministers of thuggery, murder and rape without the need to produce evidence.
There is a popular saying attributed to former Uganda dictator Idi Amin that, you may have freedom of speech, but freedom after speech cannot be guaranteed. Under the same code, many Zimbabweans died during Mugabe’s era when they mimicked the South African version of freedom of speech and attacked President Robert Mugabe on social media. Many ended up in the infamous Chikurubi Prison.
As of 2016 China, Iran, North Korea and Syria had closed Facebook and in 2019 Iran, China, North Korea and Turkmenistan closed down Twitter. In 2019, Facebook removed several pages, groups and accounts from its platforms in Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia and the UAE which were deemed to be inciting “coordinated inauthentic behaviour aimed at misleading social media users”. In 2021, Nigeria closed Twitter. Social media censorship seems to have come from both sides, but mainly from individual countries. Can we deem these acts to be a violation, or a protection of human rights?
The US is home to social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. However, after the Trump insurrection of 6 January, the US had to rethink the role of social media in society. Many insurrectionists were arrested following their social media postings.
Donald Trump himself and some of his followers were banned from these social media platforms. The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter had to appear in front of Congress to testify about the role of their social media platforms in the insurrection. Cambridge Analytica – the British-based firm that was used in the Trump campaigns to manipulate social media posts – went defunct in 2018 because of election scandals.
Back home in South Africa, knowing well the transgressions of the apartheid government on matters of freedom of speech and its abuse of the SABC, everyone expects all forms of media to remain beyond the reach of state controls. People throw their hands in the air at the slightest suggestion of media control.
Relevant questions should be asked. In the face of social media misuse that leads to the mobilisation of violence by the youth, unemployed and vulnerable, where properties and lives end up being lost, how should we manage access to social media?
It is obvious that since 11 July social media has been the main catalyst in the mobilisation of people in South Africa towards anarchy, resulting in the closure of the N3, the burning of road freight, and the burning and looting of shopping malls in KZN and Gauteng. The economic cost is in the hundreds of millions of rands – possibly billions.
At the back-end of these protests are brazen posts by individuals who are not censored and who continue to fuel the situation. Jacob Zuma’s daughter Duduzile Sambudla-Zuma has posted vigorously on Twitter with the hashtag #ShutdownSA, daring the government to release her father or wait to see for themselves what will happen. Her brother Duduzane Zuma has posted equally, threatening that he knows where the quiet KZN leaders live.
Under the hashtag #Gautengshutdown, a gentleman who calls himself The President, aka Ngizwe Mchunu, posts his Twitter video clips from Durban as he flies to Johannesburg to address the “nation”. Violating Covid-19 regulations, he addressed crowds of people in Johannesburg and led them to Kwa Mai Mai. Mchunu’s Twitter update, like Sambudla-Zuma’s, gives a three-day ultimatum to President Cyril Ramaphosa to release Zuma.
The obvious instigators and perpetrators of this economic sabotage are all over Facebook and Twitter and are not limited to those mentioned here. In the face of these social media postings of images and correspondences, many would argue that there exists clear evidence of online incitement for insurgency.
But we should equally be cognisant that social media platforms provide the police intelligence forces with evidence of where to look, what to expect and where to go to mitigate potential future transgressions. There are numerous documentaries on how the US and British intelligence forces have used social media to thwart potential terrorist acts.
This is, however, more easily said than done, because you need highly trained and competent police intelligence forces. South Africa seems to lack quality and quantity in policing. I am not sure that those who are already in our police force have evolved enough beyond carrying guns to dealing effectively with sophisticated crimes like cyber criminality.
It is also true that anyone can open as many Twitter or Facebook accounts as they wish, using aliases. This poses secondary problems for traceability of individual account holders.
Will the South African social media space remain free and open for public use, and will the intelligence services catch up with social media outputs to reverse the gains of the antisocial elements embedded in these social spaces? DM