Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

Two years ago, British actor and comedian Stephen Fry announced that he’d decided to leave Twitter — he said it had transformed from a secret swimming pool in a magic garden to a stagnant and dangerous pond into which "too many people have peed".

Fry later returned to Twitter, but his description of the social media site that currently has an estimated 261-million international users as "frothy with scum, clogged with weeds and littered with broken glass, sharp rocks and slimy rubbish" arguably still resonates.

"If you don’t watch yourself, with every move you’ll end up being gashed, broken, bruised or contused," he wrote.

This is particularly true in SA, where much of social media discourse seems doomed to rage-driven shouting, insults and the apparent assumption that everyone who doesn’t share your view is not only wrong, but probably evil.

So why would a recently retired 77-year-old want to dip his toe into this toxic pond?

Perhaps, it could be argued, former president Jacob Zuma doesn’t have anything to lose. As someone who had spent years being characterised as the giggling Voldemort of SA politics, Zuma has never been a media darling — and has repeatedly accused the press of being part of the plot to undermine him as a force for the economic emancipation of SA’s poor.

That rhetoric has suffused Zuma’s litigation against the state, including his recently launched application for a permanent stay of his corruption prosecution.

Since at least 2008, Zuma has maintained that he is being targeted by the media because he is a champion of the poor and a driver of radical economic transformation. That mantra would also pervade the Gupta-sponsored Bell Pottinger Twitter campaign that portrayed "white monopoly capital" as the villainous force behind that "targeting".

So, when Zuma posted his first tweet — on December 14 last year — it wasn’t to court the media or seek the favour of mainstream political commentators. It was, it seems, to channel his views in a way that was unfiltered by that same mainstream media.

"Hello everyone. I have decided to move with the times, to join this important area of conversation, because I hear that many people are talking about me, as well as others are calling themselves Zuma in many ways," Zuma stated in a video message.

"I have felt it is necessary that I join in and be part of the conversation and join the people in their discussions."

Wearing a bright floral shirt and sitting in front of a white piano, Zuma concluded with a line that could be expected of a grandfather exposed to social media for the first time:

"It’s me, former president Jacob Zuma."

That tweet quickly went viral, being liked more than 28,400 times — and getting over 6,000 responses. Within a month, Zuma’s followers had increased to over 161,000, against the 393,000 attached to the account of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been on Twitter for four years.

Certainly at the start of his Twitter career, Zuma seemed to receive a great deal more love than his successor does.

When Zuma’s account posted a video of him playing soccer with children, the usually hostile Twittersphere appeared to melt.

TV personality Bonang Matheba, herself one of SA’s most-followed celebrities, responded with a broken-heart emoji. "You look happier without us Baba," she tweeted.

Zuma answered: "I have missed everyone, I said we would meet somewhere. Being here has reunited all of us. I am here now."

While Zuma was subjected to huge levels of abuse on Twitter during his term, Zuma as a former president was largely treated as a long-lost, much-loved uncle returning home.

EFF leader Julius Malema — whose party has been almost entirely responsible for a series of court rulings that have left the former president facing nearly R30m in legal bills — tweeted: "Welcome Baba" almost as soon as the Zuma account posted its first video.

In many of the tweets directed at Zuma, the term "Baba" — meaning "dad" or "father" — was commonly used as a form of respectful, affectionate address.

Data scientist Kyle Findlay, who conducts in-depth analysis on Twitter accounts and trends, says Zuma’s account was initially "one-directional", essentially a site where Zuma could broadcast his views without necessarily engaging with the feedback that he received.

Taking it up a level

That may have been fine when the Zuma account was simply posting videos of innocuous soccer matches, but the former president is now using his account as a vehicle to post his views on controversial issues, specifically the land debate.

After two weeks on Twitter, his account posted two videos in which he stated that there had been too much debate about land expropriation without compensation, and suggested that land should be nationalised — views far more in line with those espoused by the EFF than by the ANC.

"My information says European countries don’t sell land to private people or companies. It is in the hands of the state. If you want to use it, you lease it. Why in our case should it be different?"

Zuma said he has become convinced that the drafters of the Freedom Charter were "more advanced than us".

"Because they talked about nationalisation of the land. And that’s what the developed countries do. No land is sold to individuals."

With these videos, Zuma moved outside the realm of adoration reserved for his friendly uncle incarnation, and into that most dangerous of Twitter activities: having an opinion.

Users were quick to point out that he was expressing views long held by Malema, who had been ousted from the ANC under his leadership.

"As much as your opinion is valuable and appreciated why did you not implement all these changes when you were president? Why did you allow corruption to grow under your leadership, why not work for the underprivileged people of SA?" one user responded, in a refrain that was repeated in multiple other tweets.

The honeymoon was over.

In just two weeks, Zuma had learnt that there is a lot of broken glass on the bottom of the Twitter pond, and you really need to be ready to feel pain if you put your foot down with too much certainty.

In the days following his land tweets, the Zuma account also began taking on another of Twitter’s most favoured activities: trolling. The targets of his ire were, unsurprisingly, the very mainstream media outlets that he has blamed for unfairly portraying him as a corrupt criminal.

While president, he rarely responded to the hundreds of news articles written about him and his alleged corruption and outsourcing of key presidential decisions to his friends the Guptas. If and when Zuma’s spokespeople responded to such reports, it was to deny them in broad terms, often with little to no countervailing details.

This trend has continued with Zuma’s response to the evidence led in the state capture inquiry, in which he has been portrayed as hellbent on pursuing a nuclear build project with Russia that SA could simply not afford — one that could, according to economists, have bankrupted the country.

Thus far, Zuma has reserved his comments.

But, on Twitter, and unfiltered by the army of advisers and media liaisons that once stood between him and the questions of a myriad reporters, Zuma is far less reserved.

Responding to a Sunday Times report that Ramaphosa planned to confront him for allegedly being divisive, Zuma tweeted: "You keep lying about my name @SundayTimesZA whose agenda are you serving? Are you unable to sell your newspaper without mentioning the Zuma name?"

He also chastised News24 for running a story about his 24-year-old fianceé Nonkanyiso Conco’s Twitter account, in which she allegedly stated that he was "fresh and fit".

Conco has since denied that the account is real.

"Shouldn’t you have asked her first before spewing your lies? @Sesona_Ngqaks @News24 there is nothing to clarify, why have you not retracted the story and issued an apology?" Zuma tweeted. (News24 has now apologised unreservedly.)

In just a few weeks, Zuma went from being a friendly Twitter uncle to actively trolling the news organisations he has repeatedly blamed for his political marginalisation. Twitter may prove to be the perfect space for Zuma to express such responses, and to challenge narratives that he feels are inaccurate or unfair.

The real test, of course, will come if and when Zuma is challenged in the social media space by his political allies or opponents, inside or outside the ANC.

Whether he is tweeting directly, or his account is being managed, his words will reverberate in a country on the brink of crucial national elections.

Zuma’s tweets could potentially leave a lot of blood in the water of SA’s small but influential Twitter pond. It’s just a question of who gets cut by his words — and how much they end up bleeding.