On Wednesday 9, Nhlanhla Nene was removed from his position as Finance Minister and South African social media went into overdrive. Nene was shifted out of the crucial portfolio following a statement by President Jacob Zuma declaring the respected minister had been replaced by little known ANC backbencher, David van Rooyen.
“Mr Nene has done well since his appointment as Minister of Finance during a difficult economic climate,” Zuma said in the statement as he ushered Nene out the door. Financial experts reacted in shock. The rand plunged from just under R14 to the dollar to over R16 at one point. And across twitter responses were largely condemnatory.
“This country just fired its finance minister, and now its currency is crashing” tweeted Business Insider.
“With two years to go before the duck is lame, is this the frenzy of end of term looting we see?” tweeted City Press editor Ferial Haffajee.
“The response afterwards further reinforces this, that it was just so untenable” - Phillip de Wet
For acting News editor of the Mail and Guardian Phillip de Wet the reaction from the South African Media on digital patforms had been largely one of incredulity and disbelief. “I think the reaction from both the South African public and the South African media has been WTF,” he said.
De Wet noted that there had been rumours and reports of a cabinet reshuffle for some time. Digital Content Strategist Razia van der Schuur was tracking social media and said it was one of the most vociferous responses in terms of traction on the various platforms in recent history.
“As we watched the rt's, (retweets) and shares comparably by various media houses, we could tell that this was certainly a big issue for weeks to come,” she said “All festive season special packages seemed to have been thrown out the window.”
Many media houses released stories that emphasised the social media response. The Sowetan ran one entitled 'Politicians react on Twitter to Nene's removal' and SABC news even created a Spotify post called 'Reactions to new finance minister'.
De Wet said that although a reshuffle was predicted by some, when Nene's name came up it was still shocking.
“The response afterwards further reinforces this, that it was just so untenable,” he said. But de Wet remained sceptical of how much of an impact social media had on government.
“The government are not concerned whatsoever with the social media response,” he said.
Shortly after David van Rooyen was named Finance Minister, a fake twitter account appeared that began tweeting under his identity. The National Treasury was forced to release a statement clarifying that the account was not official or van Rooyen's. It still racked up more than 4000 followers.
Still, Van der Schuur said that the media had been caught unawares – but responded quickly by firing up their digital operations.
“It was a bit difficult for some media houses to get the story up on their websites though, due to the fact that many weren't sure when the news was actually going to hit us - so at that time of night, staffing was limited,” she said, “But all in all, South African media was quick to get many keywords around the subject matter trending within minutes.”
But one glaring omission, according to Van der Schuur, was that media had apparently missed getting the common citizen to understand the scope of what was happening. “Not everyone is financial savvy and not everyone understands the role of a Finance Minister,” she said. “Not everyone knows how this important information is crucial for upcoming elections.” She felt that the placement of stories on the front-page of websites and newspapers needed to be more prominent so the audience could understand the extent of what happened in the last few days. “I look forward to see how media houses will talk to South Africans at large - on this matter, to best prepare them for choices they have to make later,” she said.
The response on social media included several memes becoming viral as well as the hashtag #ZumaMustFall. The latter was a play off of two social movements in 2015 that were heavily supported via social media – the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. In an analysis by the Daily Maverick some of the top 10 groups of commentators on Twitter of the Nene sacking were:
Mmusi Maimane and official DA community,
Helen Zille's community,
Business and political analysts,
Rand Daily Mail and FIN24 communities,
IOL communities and
other opposition parties.
As the Daily Maverick pointed out that “people automatically assume that he fired Nene to protect Dudu Myeni; the timing is just too convenient”. That's a reference to SAA board chairwoman, who had been reported to have confronted Nene and tried to change the terms of a re-negotiated contract with Airbus worth billions of rands. A third party was named which appeared to have no interest in aviation yet Myeni pushed the SAA executive to accept the new deal despite its obvious and negative implications for the airliner.
Finally, on Monday 14 December 2015, Van Rooyen was removed from his post as Finance Minister and replaced by Pravin Gordhan. Another wave of commentary rocketed around social media and on Twitter the Citizen posted “tweeps were quick to mock with tweets and memes on how quick David Van Rooyen left the new post”.