Get in on the conversation

Last week’s political fiascos (gosh, the choice of links is dazzling — MalemaTerre’BlancheVisagie … or Malema?) brought a new kind of revolution to the social media landscape in South Africa. The frenzy of activity in a week of political theatrics brought new local subscribers to twitter and ramped up comments and campaigns on Facebook and news sites. Social media and social accountability have begun to escort our democracy along a new path.

Accountability checks the power of political leaders — and encourages people to take an active part in society, making sure that government is doing what it should. For a democracy to function well, there must be some sense of accountability by politicians — and some sense of participation by citizens.

Which brings me to the question — how exactly do people participate in a democracy? The most obvious way, of course, is by voting. But that only happens once every five years. So what about the rest of the time? How do we react when we don’t like the antics of the ANC Youth League, or the AWB, or anyone in-between? Ostensibly these (and others) are political parties who represent us and our views. So if we don’t like what they are saying, we need to speak up.

Some of this has to do with the way we view ourselves, and our role in building democracy. Being a “voter” is one thing, but being a “citizen” is entirely another. The first assumes that building a democracy is the government’s job. But the second — being a citizen — involves active participation in those in-between times.

Last week we certainly saw some speaking up, and some participation. Comments on news sites, Twitter and Facebook showed that this is a subject close to our hearts — the lack of leadership was enough to jolt people out of their quiet apathy. David Smith calls social media a weapon against state censorship:

“People are tweeting across Africa, particularly in South Africa and Kenya. Every day I see messages from aid agencies, embassies, marketing firms, media organisations, NGOs, politicians, journalists, citizen journalists and countless others with access to phone or computer. In countries such as Zimbabwe, it has become one more valuable weapon in the war against state censorship.”

In the last few days thousands of people have signed a Facebook to remove Julius Malema as the head of the ANCYL. While this is no youth league voting procedure, it shows frustration from online citizens who feel that their representation in the local and international media has been hijacked by someone they strongly dislike — and they want a platform to talk about it. The youth league’s own website hosts a blog for Malema’s official views, but doesn’t appear to have a strategy to counter the twitterati — unless ignoring them counts as strategy. Countering the recent speakZAcampaign, the ANCYL claimed they had 800 000 members behind them (audited youth league member numbers not verified), so wouldn’t be taking any notice of the “desktop activists”. Politicians should note that it can be politically hazardous to ignore citizens’ opinions.

There are obvious gaps in the conversation — not all citizens are online. But Facebook is big, and mobile is even bigger (an awfulstatistic, but more people today have access to a cellphone than a clean toilet!). We also need to keep in mind the reality that social media is just another tool — its value is only explicit in the content we create and share, so social media can also be used for political posturing.

Social accountability is not only about participating in the conversation — it should also encourage transparent behaviour in politicians — and this week, the ANC announced that following “savage criticism from the opposition and media”, they would be selling their stake in Hitachi Power Africa which has just received an Eskom contract for the Medupi station, valued at R38 billion. The ANC said they had done this to “show integrity in how they raise funds”. Accountability and transparency win this round.

This past week has shown that South Africans are using social media to have conversations about what we want our future to look like (and not!) and thus as an accountability tool.

Despite Africa’s digital divide, we should start to value more carefully the power of online activism — many actions that can lead to positive change are in fact virtual — even in Africa.

If you want to make a difference in your community, try one of these:

Get in on the conversation

– Go to news sites and join in the conversation. Have your say about how this country is not going to the dogs and we’re going to make it work. Get the positive vibes flowing:
– Join our blog conversation

Start discussions in your community

– Talk to your friends and neighbours — get together in your lounge, or school hall and talk about how you can sort out the issues your community is facing.

Start a petition

Other online initiatives

– (Green skin) anti-racism group on Facebook

Talk to your children

– Talk to your children about difference, about tolerance. Help future generations to create unity and appreciate diversity.

Share your skills and make a difference — get out from behind your walls …

– Try an initiative like Just Do It (JDI) — get your friends together and start talking about how you can share your skills and make a practical difference —

Support others who are helping

– Sign up and add a small amount (R5 makes a difference!) to a project that helps others. There are so many opportunities to help:

Join your CPF

– If you are concerned about crime, join up at your CPF and talk with others in your community about how to take back the community

First published on thoughtleader here –