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The busy politician recently made time to answer a few questions about social media as a tool for engagement, how she uses Twitter, and why she wouldn’t follow ANC Youth League President Julius Malema.
Memeburn: You’re one of the few politicians in South Africa that has embraced the internet and social media. What has having a Facebook and Twitter on-line presence meant for you, and has it changed the way you do things?
Helen Zille: Having a Facebook and Twitter profile allows me to keep more in touch with people, particularly young South Africans and those who are part of the online community. I was amazed that anyone might be interested in what I do and who I meet. Now I know what people will be interested in.
MB: Why did you start tweeting?
HZ: Because it’s there. Social networks are an incredible new tool which enables me to speak directly to large numbers of people. It is at the cutting edge of personal interaction around the world.
MB: Where does a busy person like yourself, leader of the official opposition and premier of the Western Cape, find the time to tweet?
HZ: I can multi-task and can often tweet while I am in a meeting or a conversation. It is as easy as sending an SMS from my phone.
MB: Has a tweet you received played a role in influencing a political decision of yours?
HZ: Between Twitter and Facebook I have nearly 70,000 followers, so my colleagues receive the responses. They show some of them to me, and I am always interested to read what people have to say. I filter all the information that reaches me, from letters in the newspaper, to conversations. There are many influences that shape my decisions, and often people on Twitter are thinking along the same lines as I do on an issue.
MB: Have any of your tweets landed up in news stories in local or international media as quotes?
HZ: Yes. An example is when I tweeted about the state of Boxing South Africa and its website, which had been down for some time.
MB: What do you tweet about mainly? Do you tweet only about politics or also about your private life?
HZ: I generally tweet about what I am doing, who I am meeting, or my view on a particular issue.
MB: Do you feel that having an online presence brings you closer to your constituents?
HZ: Yes, definitely.
MB: Has tweeting made your role easier or harder?
HZ: Connecting with people is an important part of my role.
MB: Do you tweet yourself, or does someone tweet on your behalf?
HZ: A mixture. I am doing more and more tweets, but my support staff handle the responses. Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) was amazed to see me tweeting when I met him.
MB: Has a tweet of yours ever put you in a difficult or compromising position?
HZ: No, not yet, but I’m sure it will happen some day.
MB: Do you think having a strong social media presence has grown your constituency, and maybe expanded it to a different audience?
HZ: Many of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers are probably already DA supporters. However, social networks allow me to interact with them, and many others.
MB: By tweeting, aren’t you just engaging with a small elite?
HZ: All technological breakthroughs start with a small “elite”. Think about cellphones, for example. Now just about everyone has one. The same will happen to innovations such as Twitter.
MB: What is the DA policy on tweeting? Can any politician Tweet their personal and private views?
HZ: We don’t have a policy on tweeting. Our policy is that the internet must be used to maximise open communication and we encourage the expansion of its use.
MB: Do you think the value and influence of Twitter is overhyped?
HZ: No, I’m not aware of the hype.
MB: Who are the most interesting people you actively follow on Twitter?
HZ: Boris Johnson has some forthright and quirky opinions.
MB: Do you prefer Facebook or Twitter for the type of posts you make and the level of interaction they provide?
HZ: In SA, Facebook is far more widely used, so at the moment I can communicate with more people through Facebook.
MB: If the real Julius Malema were on Twitter, would you follow and engage with him?
HZ: I prefer to follow interesting people.