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12 May 2014 15:29
A growing body of disgruntled youth lacks relevant channels to engage in democratic processes. South Africa's future depends on their active participation. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
This year has seen a record number of
protests across South Africa. People are taking to the streets to vent their
frustrations with corruption, poor service delivery and broken promises.
the digital age, are there better ways for citizens to get their voices heard?
The vast bulk of South Africans have a
mobile phone and internet penetration is growing fast.
The recently launched People’s Assembly website enables all citizens
to track their MPs. You needn’t be in the dark any longer. You can trace their
previous experience, access a register of their special interests and follow
their appearances in Parliament and committees. You can also follow parliamentary
proceedings, track Bills and find out how to engage in democratic processes
like campaigns, elections and petitions.
Eighty-three percent surveyed by Parliamentary Monitoring Group – the
organisation behind the People’s Assembly – didn’t even know where their local
constituency office was situated, a disconcerting sign for democratic participation
beyond the ballot box. It’s time for this to change. The site enables users to
locate their local MP’s office at the click of a button and find out how to
channel concerns to them. In the future, perhaps these offices will provide a
viable alternative to agitated protesting.
A growing body of disgruntled youth lacks
relevant channels to engage in democratic processes. South Africa’s future
depends on their active participation. Organisations are exploring innovative
ways to use mobiles and the web to ensure they are better informed and,
perhaps, spurred to take action.
Literacy platform on MxitFunDza,
an organisation which aims to develop a culture which promotes reading for
pleasure, has developed a literacy platform available via Mxit or online. In a
range of South Africa’s languages, it uses serialised stories-focusing on
issues that really affect young people-to engage tens of thousands of readers. Users
can add comments, participate in writing competitions and self-publish.
Their “Rights” story project uses
storytelling to help young people understand the rights enshrined in South
Africa’s Bill of Rights. Starting with Freedom of Security, they use
storytelling to show how these rights impact on their daily lives, using real life
For most people, their primary concern is
seeing improved services in their communities. They’ve waited long enough. Hillside
Digital Trust worked with community members in Alexandria to expose giant
rats which were plaguing the township – eating clothes, destroying food stores
and biting babies. Citizens felt their plight was ignored until six citizen
journalists created a movie highlighting the issue and screened this across the
Horrified, citizens responded by working
with government to establish a clean-up campaign which sparked both community
and departmental action. This resulted in more effective management of
sanitation services, but there’s a long way to go.
In Khayelitsha, citizens can use a wide
variety of channels, including SMS to report problems in basic service delivery
through the Lungisa platform, developed
by Cell Life. Reports on local issues
like blocked toilets and piling up litter reach the organisation on an online
map. Their dedicated team then liaise with the city council to ensure
complaints are actioned and remarkably, 80% of reports have been resolved.
The tech revolutionIt can be a challenge to incentivise
citizens to report and even more so to ensure that the reports lead to service
improvements. The Social Justice Coalition
and Ndifuna Ukwazi are integrating a similar
platform into their wider water and sanitation campaign. Groups like these, who
have strong community presence and are experienced mobilisers, can utilise
technology to strengthen their evidence based campaigning. They’ve already
improved toilet provision and have brought a janitorial service to the area,
but there’s much to be done to ensure systemic improvements, which deliver
improved services in the long term.
The tech revolution is far from over. South
Africans have only just started taking notice of technology’s potential to open
up democracy. Initiatives remain small and disparate and many citizens don’t
even know that they exist.
There is a need for stronger partnerships. Civil
society, the press, community mobilisers and techies need to work together to
ensure that citizens know how, when and why to utilise these powerful
resources. Together, they can ensure that data and platforms are integrated
into campaigns that lead to real changes on the ground, driven by citizens, unleashing
the power to create the change they have long been waiting for.
Dr Loren Treisman is an executive at The
Indigo Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts
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