Why the Twitterverse turned on South African politician Julius Malema

A spokesman for politician Julius Malema threatened to 'shut down' Twitter after fake accounts making fun of Mr. Malema surfaced. South Africans responded by making Malema, known as "Juju," one of the most popular topics on Twitter Friday.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters
African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema dances as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma opens the National General Council of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in the coastal city of Durban on Sept. 20, 2010.

It was perhaps inevitable, when a prominent fiery South African politician threatened to bring down Twitter, that South Africa’s growing number of Twitter-users would have a conniption.

Faced with such a threat, one prominent radio disc jockey suggested that South Africans to spend the better part of their Fridays ridiculing the politician, Julius Malema, and it seems that the Twittersphere has responded. At one point on Friday, #JujuFriday was the fourth most tweeted term.

Twitter, which restricts messages to just 140 characters, tends to encourage the sharing of headlines and snappy repartee.

This is where Julius Malema, head of the African National Congress’s Youth League, comes into the story. Mr. Malema, better known for singing violent songs about shooting white farmers and throwing BBC reporters out of press conferences than for his own snappy repartee, is not known to be a frequent user of Twitter. But there are at least 22 different Twitter users out there who tweet in his name, often quoting Malema’s past misstatements – or Malemapropisms, if you prefer – or simply channeling what they imagine Malema would say in a certain circumstance.

Somehow all this tweeting came to the attention of the ANC Youth League’s spokesman, Floyd Shivambu, who issued an email statement promising to contact Twitter to find out who set up those fake Malema accounts and to “shut down Twitter.”

From the reaction, you’d think the Youth League had threatened to nationalize South Africa’s gold and diamond mines. (Well, he actually did threaten to do that, too.)

Many Twitter users responded to #JujuFriday with gusto. (Juju is apparently Mr. Malema’s nickname). But there were plenty of others who found the exercise “distasteful,” and even counterproductive, at a time when the news media’s relations with the ruling ANC party is at an all-time low, and when ANC leaders are considering a brand-new media appeals tribunal to regulate the behavior of local reporters.

Ivo Vegter, a columnist for the Daily Maverick and a frequent critic of Malema and the ANC, tweeted, “ I find it distasteful. Like humiliating the fat kid says more about you than about the victim.”

Mabine Seabe said, “All that #JujuFriday is going to do is foster divisions whilst ignoring the real issues SA faces.”

Andy Hadfield, a self-described “digital native,” asked, “Chaps. What is this Malema icon / Juju thing actually going to achieve? Aren't we proving Gladwell's point that social media = weak protest?”

The very fact that Mr. Hadfield could assume that his readers would know who Malcolm Gladwell is – a New Yorker writer who wrote “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice" – suggests that the residents of the Twittersphere and the South African youths who support Malema – poor, rural, disaffected – live in two very different worlds.

– Follow Africa Bureau Chief Scott Baldauf on Twitter.

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