THANDI SMITH: Bordering incitement - the cases of Duduzile Zuma & Julius Malema

OPINION

The arrest of former president Jacob Zuma brought with it mixed reactions from all corners of the nation. Given the events that have transpired over recent days, it’s reasonable to say it was a catalyst for a reaction that has caused and continues to cause widespread unrest and criminality with high levels of violence and vigilantism. What role has social media played in providing a platform to enable suggestive and inflammatory content encouraging the violence we have seen? We have witnessed how the conduct on social media by a handful of influential individuals and politicians have come under the spotlight for messaging that may potentially incite violence or are inflammatory, at the very least.

Twitter in particular has been used as a platform to share information, images, and videos of the latest violence, and much of the content has come under question for being false information, videos shared out of context or are old videos and often, blatant disinformation. There have been calls to desist from disseminating such content. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his address to the nation on 12 July 2021, said “we should refrain from posting and circulating inflammatory messages on social media, and from spreading rumours or false reports that may create further panic”. In addition to this, it is critical that we are also vigilant and question the content consumed from social media, as well as to verify content by relying on credible media institutions. But what happens when the very individuals who are meant to uphold our democratic principles are the same people posting inflammatory content?

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy and is a right, outlined in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. Like any other right, however, there may be limitations. What we have witnessed over the last couple of days are individuals with a particular amount of influence pushing the boundaries of the limitations of freedom of expression.

We have seen tweets from individuals such as Duduzile Zuma (examples here, and recently a fact-checked tweet here, which has now been found to be an old image, according to Africa Check). According to an article published on Tuesday on the Daily Maverick, there have now been claims that there are two Twitter accounts in Duduzile Zuma’s name that are in fact false accounts. There are various methods of removing false accounts that impersonate a legitimate individual, but these accounts are still active, which raises more questions than provides answers as to who is behind these accounts. The account in question, @DZumaSambudla continues to tweet to the 106.1K followers using the hashtag #FreeJacobZuma and continues to see high number of retweets and engagements. This account is clearly being used to tweet inflammatory content, which does not ease tensions nor does it condemn the violence experienced.

Even more concerning is the silence from Duduzile Zuma herself. If these accounts were imposter accounts, surely, we would have heard strong condemnation and a call to ignore these tweets by now? The content here may not necessarily be guilty of direct incitement to violence, but there should be some level of accountability. In these times, for any person in the public eye to be tacitly encouraging, through silence or omission or making inflammatory comments, is grossly irresponsible.

Another example are the tweets seen recently from Julius Malema (here is an example) that have come under fire, specifically, the tweets in response to the deployment of the South African National Defence Force. The issue here is that these tweets don’t meet the criteria as outright incitement to violence. We must also ask, however, if they are inflammatory, or could they possibly instigate violence? The answer is quite possibly, yes. We are currently in the lead up to our local government elections. Although not yet in an official election period, had these tweets been published during an official election period, the comments could very well be challenged as being in breach the Electoral Code of Conduct. Is this really what we can expect to see coming from publicly elected officials in office in order to uphold our democratic principles?

When you are in a time of crisis, the very people who are meant to uphold up our democratic principles should be doing just that. It is the responsibility of the elected Members of Parliament, the judiciary, and the executive to do so and to lead by example. When publicly elected members are silent, it suggests that they are indirectly condoning the violence we have witnessed over the last few days. Although we have seen a few statements coming from our various political parties, our publicly elected officials should be using every single communication channel available at their disposal to openly condemn the use of violence and de-escalate violence.

A failure by elected officials to consistently and explicitly condemn the violence again and again, whether by looters or those taking the law into their own hands, is a failure by those to live up to their oaths of office. In failing to act now, to quell violence and encourage peace, they are undermining the very the fabric of the institution they are there to serve and as a result, the very basis of a democratic society that gives them their power.

Thandi Smith is the head of programmes at Media Monitoring Africa. She previously headed the policy & quality programme, which focuses on a range of issues including media policy, regulation, digital rights, internet governance, and quality journalism. You can follow her on Twitter on @thandismith.

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