Technology can help change activism for the better.
A few years ago, an isolated community in the North West province faced eviction from their land, but the power of the simple cellphone changed that. Cellphones harnessed the power to connect people in numbers, coordinate action, secure legal expertise, and engage the community, the media and wider public on latest developments. The residents of Rooigrond, rather than feeling like just another poor community, in a poor province, in an unequal country felt empowered to drive change.
The lessons from this experience eventually led to the founding of amandla.mobi. Since its launch, amandla.mobi has mobilised over 40,000 people across issues of injustice. Through a partnership with the SOS Coalition, we enabled 4500 people to submit public submissions to USAASA in four languages, leading to R3 billion being set aside by government to fully subsidise 5 million poor households with set top boxes.
Later, we set up an event-organising tool on the amandla mobi site that helped members and allies organise over 70 Marikana Day memorial events in 2015. amandla went on to force the Department of Higher Education and Training to release their ‘no-fee varsity’ report, and supported the Fees Must Fall movement in various ways, including crowd-funding airtime for protest leaders to coordinate protests. More recently, we successfully campaigned to shut down two crowdfunding campaigns for racist Real Estate Agent Penny Sparrow that had been started on US-based crowdfunding platform youcaring.com
All that said, we can never claim we were alone in creating change. There are always multiple forms of activism co-existing, ranging from litigation and protesting to citizen journalism and lobbying. amandla.mobi was founded because digital activism had become the exclusive domain of predominantly white, male, middle-class South Africans who used petition platforms to push, among other things, rhino conservation.
amandla.mobi runs campaigns on issues affecting South Africa’s black majority, particularly women because we are disproportionately affected by any and all injustices. We are working hard to challenge the digital and linguistic divide by running mobile, multi-lingual, multi-issue campaigns.
This year we have launched awethu.mobi, a campaigning platform that puts power in the hands of the public. This is the first local South African platform of its kind. Since launch, I have frequently been asked whether we are endorsing “clicktivism”, which some see as the antithesis of traditional organising. When a campaign is designed, we work with others to do a power analysis – a classic activism analysis of where power lies – and how everyday people, through using their voices, networks, time, creativity, money and vote, can put pressure on and influence a decision maker. Often, the initial entry point of a campaign is individuals adding their name to the demands of a campaign, but this is only the first step.
Clicktivism would be people signing a petition and that’s it. People who sign amandla.mobi campaigns are sent updates and given other ways to take action, including attending protests, organising events and directly contacting decision makers, amongst other options.
Most critically, for those who opt to continue campaigning on other issues, we measure how many people we engage then take action on a different issue. Often they don’t just join a campaign, but instead take more and more actions.
Unlike other campaign platforms, which develop business models around selling people’s data, amandla.mobi neither sells nor discloses personal information. amandla.mobi is a South African founded and initiated public benefit organisation that works with local activists, CBOs, NGOs and social movements from the ground up, rather than the traditional global north top down approach of online petition platforms.
While we are ruthless and unapologetic about disapproving any racist, sexist, classist, ableist and homophobic campaigns, we cannot completely stop pointless clicktivism campaigns being set up on awethu.mobi. But in our experience, many activists have carefully considered campaigns, and they use our tools to have a greater, more tangible impact in the real world, at a bigger and faster rate.
Students at the Durban University of Technology recently successfully campaigned to support over 1000 graduates who had not received documentation to show their credentials. The students, who had agreements with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, were not issued with their diplomas or results statements, and said failure to pay was not their fault.
Without a doubt, all forms of activism must be critiqued and interrogated. But we cannot ignore that new technology has always had an impact on activism. When easily accessible printing technology became available in South Africa, posters and pamphlets became another means via which activists were able to spread their message. What makes current technology so different? The creative use of technology to amplify the work of those being silenced and ignored, and to bring critical social issues to the foreground is a significant way of democratising digital tools.
Tech is not going to disappear. We need to harness it creatively to build the world we want, rather than leaving it solely to those whose only interests are profits, exploitation and worse.
* This post was originally published by The New Age.
* Disclaimer: The author of this post is the executive director of amandla.mobi and also worked on the project in Rooigrond referred to in the piece.
– Featured Image: Woman talks on her cellphone outside a shack in a township from Getty Images.