Posts Tagged ‘MobiSAM’

The citizen-first bloggers

Rod 1

 

Rod 1

As standard journalism business models corrode in the potent chemical soup of online technologies, fragmenting audiences and vanishing advertisers, the industry urgently needs models that re-engineer the relationships between journalists and their publics. Legacy news outlets have long adhered to sacrosanct conventions of independence, balance and fairness, but more nimble news start-ups could offer different mindsets and values. One critical shift is the welcome commitment by some news entrepreneurs to much higher levels of engagement with media audiences.

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The complexities of the conversation

Water protest

Tuesday 26 August, 4:35pm, outside Grahamstown Pick ‘n Pay.

“Having water issues hey?” I ask a colleague as she struggles to load two freshly bought 5 litre water bottles into her hatchback. “I’m actually sorted for drinking water, this is to flush my toilet, they have made the bottles cheaper saving me R12,” she says slamming shut the boot of her car.

R24 spent for the convenience of flushing a toilet.

It’s been a rough week for the people of Grahamstown, with most households having to solve the surprising amount of challenges posed by almost a week without running water.

This is not the first time the town has gone without water for more than a “couple of days,” with some gaining local fame for their take on public protest. A student dressed in full ‘shower-ready’ regalia joining a march in 2013.

These developments come as no surprise to most local Grahamstownians who have, “seen a steady decline of service delivery and municipal competence over the past 20 years,” says long-time local businessman, parent and concerned citizen Roy Gowar.

“We have seen things go downhill, yet very few people have been willing to take a stand. We need to reestablish the old Grahamstown ratepayers association, I know of many people who would be interested,” he says lightly banging a pen on his desk, driving his points home.

People are serious, people are angry; sparking discussion and picking up momentum as the week’s hardship progressed to near breaking point with the situation going “Grahamstown-viral”. With various Facebook groups aimed at supplying Grahamstownians with near-live coverage of the repairs to the vital water-service infrastructure gaining popularity.

One of these pages, Grahamstown municipal services outage reporting is run by a private individual acting in their own capacity as concerned and connected citizen.

By the quality and speed of the updates I imagine a figure glued to the screen of her computer, ear to the phone with a direct line to the various private contracted teams of engineers that have been labelled the hero’s of the town.

One post by Lynne Giese Grant responding to the news that a new pump had finally been installed saying, “I can’t wait!! Thank you, Amatola and MBB. You guys should be the ones getting the Freedom of the City!”

MobiSAM and PSAM, two organisations aimed at developing the public’s right to information working with the aim of increasing – and in some ways forcing – increased government accountability also proved extremely valuable in terms of their institutional presence and input in during the week.

The MobiSAM Facebook page, having direct ties to infrastructure repair teams across the town, updated the public and developed a collective following of close to 1500 people as the week progressed.

This sparked a unique symbiosis between maintenance contractors, a public service accountability monitoring organisation and the wider Facebook public, with all parties sharing information on a near hourly basis. Something never before seen in the history of the town’s various service delivery related crises.

These spaces, facilitated on a platform that I would risk to suggest, has become almost ubiquitous with middle-class social interaction, served as a meeting place for mostly concerned similarly minded individuals to share information.

But mostly to vent; the comment streams dominated by a collection of tired clichés relating to “bad governance”, and how “crap” the municipality is.

This brings me back to the comment made behind the safety of a large oak desk, “We have seen things go downhill, yet very few people have been willing to take a stand,” made by my landlord, who pays the Makana Municipality close to R20 000 per month in property rates.

For a town beleaguered by a history of close to weekly protest action of some sort, resulting in smatterings of “quick-fix solutions” to endemic issues of maladministration in the extreme, its inhabitants have, up until a day ago, failed to bring about effective political action.

The question arises; who has to speak, to whom, to be heard? And more importantly how does one speak?

The change from benign spaces offering updates on regular municipal service outages, to spaces sparking flashes of debate (although much of it tainted with fear, anger and at times racism) and collective participation seem to signal the political potential of these platforms as spaces where the private and the public converge around issues impacting not only the individual planted in front of his screen, but his neighbour too.

What is clear from much what was posted online – the activity having died down now that water supply has been reestablished to those who frequent facebook – is a clear belief and feeling of victimhood.

Bickford (1997) suggests that victimhood cannot always automatically be regarded as an assertion of powerlessness or innocence stating that victimhood is at times an assertion of the exercise of unjust power.

It is this notion of asserting the exercise of unjust power – by taking-on as citizen, the position of victimhood – and the complexities involved in articulating and understanding these issues that came to mind as I eagerly “reposted” MobiSAM updates to the social media pages of all the local Grahamstown media. This and the fact that many who are able to act from a position of relative power in relation to local government are willing to spend R24 each time we flush the toilet.

As the week progressed and discussions as well as tempers flared the situation reached its inevitable climax with the online organisation of a collective march on City Hall organised by PSAM and the ever engaged UPM.

What is most interesting here is that the event, a page on Facebook, was created by an individual, and relied on “shares and likes” to make its rounds on Facebook.

Calling for a section 139, placing the current local municipal council under administration the event scheduled for 12noon on Wednesday 27 August, yielded the desired results. Leading to the demands made by the parties involved being met unconditionally on Thursday 28 August.

Here Heller’s (2009) notion of “effective citizenship” understood as all citizens’ rights and capacity to exercise free will, therefore freedom to shape their citizenship status and act on it, seems to align with Chipkin’s (2008:13) notion of democratic practices which involve the rituals and traditions which we as South Africans use when engaging as active citizens.

The above example then seeks to illustrate how these norms and practices associated with effective citizenship are changing in the face of Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s), but more importantly how citizenship and it’s practices are legitimated.

Therefore returning to my initial question: who has to speak, to whom and how, to effect change?

For reasons of explanation I use the notion of a “conversation” to illustrate interaction between various spheres or groups of political life in Grahamstown.

Connecting the dots I conclude:

Under normal, water running in the taps, conditions two largely separate conversations take place with regard to civic life in Grahamstown. The stress of a waterless week however resulted in what I attempt to map below.

Middle-class people with access to ICT’s and platforms like Facebook to speak to each other, which allows for the emergence of individual pages such as the Grahamstown municipal services outage reporting page.

NGO’s like MobiSAM speak to private contractors who supply radically transparent information on their progress to MobiSAM which distributes is back to private middle-class individuals fuelling their rants and debates.

While this is happening, organisations like the UPM is speaking to those who do not necessarily have access to ICT’s, supplemented by local traditional media such as radio and print, fuelling debate and conversation between individuals.

The water crisis heightens and tensions rise, so an individual on Facebook calls for collective action in the form of a protest march on City Hall.

The middle-class conversation picks-up this call and circulates it on various platforms, including traditional media who in many ways manage to broadcast the message further than the comfortable confines that come with regular internet access.

The conversation grows to include (the ability to imagine needs to be stressed here as it too is a result of the preceding events) what is imagined as a possible Makana Unity League made up of various civic organisations around town which aims to bridge the gap between the two spheres of conversation, the one middle-class the other working class (I use these terms as denominators of access to ICT’s mainly).
This collective conversation agrees to meet physically, bound by space and time and come together in the form of a protest march speaking as a single collective voice – for a hour or two happy to concede difference and unite – insisting on immediate action.

It is this convergence of conversation and the ways in which the conversations take shape, falling into the traditions and practices of South African “democratic practices” (Chipkin 2008:13) that enables the individual as well as the group, albeit for only a week, to bring about effective citizenship and to the relief of all a free-flushing toilet.

By: Hancu Louw

 

References:
Bickford, S.1997 “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy and the complexities of Citizenship. Hypatia, Vol. 12, No. 4, Citizenship in Feminism: Identity, Action and Locale.
Bickford, S. “Emotion Talk and Political Judgement” in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 73, No. 4. October 2011, Pp. 1025 -1037.
Chipkin, I. Democracy’s People. 2008.
Heller, P. 2009. “Democratic Deepening in India and South Africa” in Journal of Asian and African Studies SAGE Publications.

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