After last year's historic US elections, much analysis has focused on international interest in now-President Barack Obama's campaign, and it's potential to impact on voting patterns in upcoming South African elections.
Obama's victory has been partially attributed to his support in two key constituencies: youth and first-time voters. Exit polls suggest that 66% of under-30's voted for Obama, and 68% of first-time voters.
In South Africa, parties are equally interested in capturing the support of these constituencies. More than a million new voters aged 18 to 29 have registered in the lead-up to April elections, and the total youth vote now stands at 6 million out of 23 million voters overall.
Obama's success with young voters has been credited to his campaign's unprecedented use of media and new technology, including electronic communications and a massive internet presence.
To this day, the campaign website - barackobama.com - is always up-to-date. Registered users receive personable emails from Barack, first lady Michelle, and campaign manager David Plouffe. Barackobama.com links to a number of related sites, including baracktv and mybarackobama.com, or "myBO".
Obama's online store offers supporters hundreds of branded memorabilia, which go beyond conventional badges and bumper stickers to include t-shirts by Vera Wang and Beyoncé, a Diane Von Furstenburg tote, and even a hat by South African milliner Albertus Swanepoel.
Amazingly, an iPhone application developed for the campaign allowed users to re-organise their contact lists according to friends and family living in crucial swing states.
But one sidebar on barackobama.com best summarises the campaign's electronic footprint: Obama Everywhere. Here the site links to virtually every well-known, and some lesser-known, online communities and networking sites: Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Digg, Twitter, Eventful, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, Faithbase, Glee (Gays, Lesbians and Everyone Else), Eons, MiGente, MiBatanga, and AsianAve.
For Obama, this was a crucial tact, given that 7 in 10 Americans are online.
Statistics differ in South Africa, where only about 1 in 10 people have internet access. How important, therefore, is it for parties to take to the virtual campaign trail?
A number of political parties have updated their online profile ahead of elections, with mixed results.
The ANC has launched a dedicated election site at myanc.org, which is far more streamlined and user-friendly than the party's homepage. Beyond standard content, such as the Election Manifesto, users can participate in online discussions, view photos, and register for email and sms updates. Several desktop wallpapers are available for download, as well as a ringtone of Mina Ngo hlala nginje. A parallel site has been developed for cell phone users at myanc.mobi.
Myanc.org also usefully links to a number of other platforms and sites. Videos viewed through a YouTube link, and a Twitter group has developed a small following. The site also links to a Facebook group populated by a modest 4,704 members, although related groups exist such as the more vehement "100% ANC group": self -described as for ANC loyalists who shun "the bandwagon of bitterness and political wilderness being bandied around by Terror Lekota and his political renegade friends."
Party President Jacob Zuma has attracted 3,570 Facebook supporters but has equally spurred a proliferation of anti-Zuma groups.
Emerging opposition party COPE has fared very well on Facebook, with close to twenty thousand members: perhaps reflecting the demographic of the party's support base. Unexpectedly, or maybe with particular foresight, Facebook supporters are treated as a constituency unto themselves, and were represented by delegates at the COPE national conference in December.
COPE has also done well to develop personal Facebook profiles of leadership: here, we can see that Party President Mosiuoa Lekota is a "fan" of former president Thabo Mbeki, party Deputy President Mbhazima Shilowa, and of himself, as well as of Afrikaans rockers Krimineel. Second Deputy President Lynda Odendaal apparently prefers Johnny Clegg.
COPE's website, however, is overloaded with information in tiny typeface, and content is somewhat drowned out by a busy online discussion forum and an enormous list of bloggers.
Comparatively, the DA's website is relatively clear and well-organised. But surprisingly, it takes a visitor a fair bit of navigating before reaching dedicated election content. The page also features an online discussion forum, several blogs, and a range of electronic newsletters, though disappointingly these appear to be available only in English and Afrikaans.
The DA has also launched a new website at contributetochange.org.za, but it seems to be mainly a hub connecting volunteers, and as such is under-utilised.
The DA has been more successful in the use of other media platforms, including a media gallery on zoopy.com. Leader Helen Zille's Twitter feed is appropriately personalised and has a moderate following of 635, although some critics suggests that it is over-used for party announcements, rather than status updates. A recent message reports: "I'm in Itsoseng - the ANC council has failed to provide running water, and the potholes are big enough to fish in. People deserve better."
The ID, in contrast, has done relatively little to tap into new media: perhaps an after-effect of the online defamation of some members in the past, and Leader Patricia de Lille's call for government regulation of blogs. While the website does link to a Facebook group, this connection is relatively hard to find, in part explaining the groups' paltry 190 members.
The ID website does offer a free download of an election ringtone, to the theme tune of 1980's octogenerian sitcom The Golden Girls, with updated lyrics: "Thank you for voting ID/ You like us more than the ANC/ Don't vote for Zille/ You must vote for Patricia de Lille."
The ID also offers an intriguing "Lifestyle Plan", comparable to a corporate rewards programme. Party members "automatically qualify for a range of discounts, services and benefits at our partnered service providers," but unfortunately, these are only viewable by party members.
Like other party homepages, the main UDM website is fairly basic and over-crowded with information. But the party's new election site (udm2009electionscampaign.co.za) is a definite improvement. Professing a "youth voter revolution", the site features urban cityscape imagery and youngsters sporting tattoos and Mohawks, while highlighting campaign issues of interest to young voters.
The IFP, on the other hand, have done woefully little online, beyond limited updates to the party website, such as a link to the IEC to confirm voter registration. Although an IFP Facebook group is populated by 130 members and a Buthelezi for President appreciation page has been set up, the party leader himself does not appear to have made the jump to cyberspace.
Many of these parties appear cognisant that a well-developed internet presence will appeal to more techno-savvy voters, albeit a small segment of the population, and one still largely defined by race and class. Some have made interesting strides in using new technology.
A common shortcoming, however, seems to be the disjuncture between attractive and user-friendly new campaign sites, and outdated and unsightly homepages.
Beyond elections, parties should aim for homepages that offer better access to both new and archived information, connect leadership to members, and respond to online appetite for pictures, downloads, social networks and phone applications.
Particularly perceptive parties would also do well to expand on cell phone communication strategies, given that this would bring access to a far wider spectrum of voters.
The 2009 election campaign will still largely be waged on the ground, in print media and over radio waves. But with expanding internet access and a growing youth vote, there are certainly important lessons to learn from Obama's ability to reach millions of supporters, at only the click of a mouse.
By Kate Lefko-Everett
(This article was first published in the Weekend Argus, Daily News, Pretoria News.)