Hand-held tech can help hold government to account

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. But in 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. Technology is not a panacea to all social problems, but it can act as an amplifier – providing citizens with access to critical information about MPs and Parliament at a scale and cost never before possible. Technology can give a voice to the voiceless and help mobilise citizens to hold government to account.

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 Mxit
FunDza, 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 examples.

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 township.

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 revolution
It 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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