Empowering Citizens in South Africa

South Africa is home to a strong and active civil society and a relatively well developed commercial technology sector. However the tech4transparency sector is still in its infancy, in part due to prohibitively high data costs ($12.3/month for a mobile prepaid tariff and $26.3/month for a broadband internet subscription), a shortage of developers, a lack of funding and low internet penetration (in 2008, only 8.5% of people had personal computers and only 7.7% were fixed broadband internet subscribers).

Nevertheless, the potential for growth in this area is significant.  100% of the country is covered by the mobile cellular network and in 2008, there were 92.4 mobile subscriptions per 100 people. The government is actively seeking to ensure that marginalised communities in rural areas and townships are given a greater voice and civil society is well aware of the crucial role that transparency has in strengthening a nascent democracy.  This has become particularly apparent as the government has recently passed a Secrecy Bill, which could make it a crime to leak, publish or possess information judged as classified by the government, with a potential sentence of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers and journalists who do not take heed.

During a recent visit to Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town, I was fortunate to come across some innovative organisations using technology in interesting ways to empower citizens to improve service delivery.  This post aims to provide an overview of their work.

Hillside Digital and the Siyakhona Initiative is training young people from disadvantaged communities to become professional citizen journalists.  They have created digital films and blog posts around critical social issues including xenophobia, corruption, HIV/AIDS and homophobia.  I was truly impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the team of volunteers which I met, who were selected on the basis of their active engagement with local NGOs.

In Alexandra township where I visited them, a call to action film about the growing rat crisis resulted in the launch of an initiative to bring awareness to the problem through a three day clean-up and education drive.  Government authorities have since engaged in the cleaning programme and they even managed to catch the attention of local and international media such as CNN and Al Jazeera.  They now plan to spread their successful model to all 9 districts in South Africa and to 18 different partners across Africa.

IDASA is an organisation that focuses on building sustainable democracies in Africa.  Whilst they do not currently focus on ICT based interventions, their ANSA programme (Affiliated Network for Social Accountability) supports accountability practitioners working in the tech space such as Sodnet in Kenya and Wougnet in Uganda.  They run capacity building workshops, enable collaborations and help practitioners access critical data (including budgets) needed for their work.

Does anyone else know of any strong organisations which aim to use technology to improve governance/service delivery and empower citizens in South Africa?  If so, please get in touch.