This is why South Africa fell in love with WhatsApp

While WhatsApp has not released its official user numbers for South Africa, there is no doubt it is the most popular social service in the country.

It takes the number one spot in the Android, iOS, and BlackBerry app stores – and is big enough to worry Vodacom and MTN.

South Africans love WhatsApp – to the point where they are already thinking of going to the mattresses as trouble between the messaging app and mobile operators brews.

WhatsApp is popular mainly because messaging on cellphones has evolved in the past 10 years, while SMS hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced in the 1990s.

This is how WhatsApp grew to the powerhouse it is today in SA.

2005–2009: The Era of Mxit


When Mxit launched in 2005, it gave many their first taste of cheap mobile instant messaging.

Even though data wasn’t cheap in 2005, Mxit brought the cost of 160-character messages down from roughly 30c–80c, to under 1c.

However, complex network billing systems meant that if you only sent a single message with Mxit, you would actually be billed 1c or 2c as a minimum.

Mxit wasn’t perfect, though. It only ran on devices that had a Java ME runtime, and mobile developers might remember the fragmentation horror that was.

Chat participants also had to be online at the same time to send messages to one another, which meant that Mxit wasn’t a complete replacement for SMS.

2009–2013: The Epoch of BlackBerry Messenger


Although BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was first released in 2005, the service really took off in South Africa after the release of the BlackBerry 8520 in 2009.

With is launch, BlackBerry had all the elements needed for a runaway hit:

  1. BlackBerry Internet Service: a cheap, flat-rated mobile Internet package
  2. BlackBerry Messenger: a store-and-forward text messaging service that was streets ahead of SMS
  3. BlackBerry 8520: an affordable, 2G-only mid-range smartphone

BBM was also not a drop-in replacement for SMS, though.

You had to have a BlackBerry to use it, and you had to swap BBM PINs with people you wanted to communicate with.

However, it did have features such as picture messaging, read receipts, and group chats – which SMS could not offer.

2013 onwards : The Aeon of WhatsApp

WhatsApp header

WhatsApp’s rise in SA actually overlapped with BBM’s period of popularity. Unlike those that came before it, though, WhatsApp was a replacement for SMS.

Instead of making you create a username or swap PINs, WhatsApp used your phone number to identify you.

Like Mxit, and unlike BBM, WhatsApp was also available on many different devices.

By 2013, WhatsApp was estimated to have unseated BBM as the most popular mobile instant messenger in South Africa – and quickly grew to surpass even Facebook in number of active monthly users.

Why do we love WhatsApp? SMS is expensive and rubbish

What SMS would cost, if it was billed like data Per MB price SMS
Amount of data 1MB 140 bytes
Vodacom prepaid ad-hoc R2.00 0.0267c
Other prepaid ad-hoc R1.00 0.0134c
Vodacom 30MB bundle R0.40 0.0053c
Telkom SIM-Sonke ad-hoc R0.29 0.0039c
Vodacom 20GB bundle R0.05 0.0007c
MTN 5GB+5GB Dataaa! R0.04 0.0005c
Telkom Internet Starter Pack R0.04 0.0005c
Cell C Giga 100 R0.02 0.0003c

Compared to instant messaging services, SMS is extremely limited and expensive.

Services like WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, and others also offer voice and video messaging on top of picture messages and group chat.

Many of these, including WhatsApp, also let you make Skype-like voice over IP calls to other users.

All this considered, it’s easy to see why we love WhatsApp so much. It is simply better than anything mobile networks have to offer.

WhatsApp ending BlackBerry and Nokia support

WhatsApp, Gmail, and Facebook Messenger eat your mobile data in the background

SA mobile networks’ dirty secrets about WhatsApp and Facebook

WhatsApp vs SMS: how much a message costs

Why BlackBerry lost its cool-factor in South Africa

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This is why South Africa fell in love with WhatsApp