Monitoring and Analysis of Hateful Language in South Africa: A Second Deep Dive

Note Written by Caleb Gichuhi, Senior Specialist at PeaceTech Lab

As South Africans head to the polls in a pivotal national election today, politicians have seemingly been unable to steer clear of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric during public rallies. The result? A massive trigger in the use of hateful terms on social media platforms.  We’ve been monitoring and analyzing trends throughout the country for several weeks to understand and offer insights on the potential relationship between hateful language on social media and instances of violence on-the-ground. We’ll have a series of reports coming out for the next two months (you can read the latest one here and then sign-up to receive the rest). But we realized, we don’t just want to present the data to you — we also want to explain the effects.

Umlungu and White Monopoly Capital

Remarks like the ones from ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule urging voters in Philipi to not vote for umlungu [white people] and further stating that “umlungu can’t improve the life of a black man” on April 13th set the stage for a polarized racial discourse on social media. By invoking racial divisions that are rooted in apartheid, such remarks have provided an empowerment illusion to the marginalized – suggesting that a simple action they take can “correct” their situation. In this instance, that action was to not vote for umlungu.   

While the ANC veterans addressed the situation by slamming Magashule, their approach can seem to be self-preservatory as they pointed out their party ideals but failed to advocate for unity amidst a divisive situation. This resulted in interesting discourse on social network platforms: some, such as the Premier of Western Cape Province, Hellen Zille, welcomed the criticism of Magashule by ANC while others agreed with Magashule and didn’t see a problem, instead defending him by accusing the ANC as being part of the white monopoly capital. 

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What is interesting is the similarity in volume patterns between the term Umlungu and white monopoly capital, at least from April 13th to the 19th. The Lab has witnessed similar patterns in other countries, such as South Sudan, where two hateful terms are used together to emphasize a narrative or are used separately by two groups opposing each other on a specific topic. Here, we see a case of the former, where supporters of Magashule’s remarks argue that there was nothing wrong with Umlungu and that the ANC is just part of the white monopoly capital.

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There is however a departure between the two terms on April 20th; white monopoly capital increased in volume on the day that the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) joined the exclusive Inanda Club in Sandton and was accused of being part of the white monopoly capital. Comments were seen on social media such as “Seriously you dumb if you think #juliusmalema is for black people he’s under white monopoly trying to convince us he’s an African child and he’s all for land, wait till he gains power and has to start paying all these loans that keep EFF moving, I’ll vote for my rotten ANC”.

Umlungu also spiked on the 24th after President Ramaphosa went to Durban to visit flood victims. Social media users accused him of visiting the white communities first even though they were the least affected. Hateful content on social media in relation to offline activities suggests that South Africans continue to view the activities of their leaders from a racial lens that can be used to stir up divisions.

Coincidence or Incitement

Recently the SA Human Rights Commission decided that remarks made by EFF leader, Julius Malema, were "problematic" but did not amount to hate speech. This came amidst a national debate on whether or not phrases like “kill the farmer kill the boer” sang by politicians like Malema in public gatherings were the reason behind an increase in farm attacks in South Africa.

The realization of the utterances as problematic has, however, not stopped the EFF leader from using these phrases. On April 13th, he sang “kill the farmer kill the boer” at Mme Selina Maropeng’s funeral and the following day, the phrase’s volume spiked on social media platforms. Seven days later, there were 13 farm attacks and three farm murders, according to AfriForum. A slight bump in the term is seen as social media users condemned the attacks and blamed them on songs and chants like the one Malema did.

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Network map:

The visualization below shows a network of social media users that have used the term umlungu. The color grouping show users who have shared the same content or discussed a similar topic while using the term. Click on a node to read the content of the posts.