How do you build a culture of participation?

What does it mean to empower people to participate in projects and politics that might improve their own lives?

How do you seed participation in a way that promotes sustainability after the initial impetus?

15 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, following decades of political mobilization by anti-apartheid movements and organisations, these questions are still burning brightly in South Africa.

Since 1994 ‘belonging to something’ has fallen off significantly in South Africa. Religious affiliations, belonging to a sports clubs, even union membership is down, often sharply. Many lament the apparent lack of involvement and ‘apathy’ among the youth, particularly the ‘born-frees — young people who came of age in a democratic South Africa.

Indeed, some blame the very ANC-led government that benefited from high levels of popular organisation in the past, for encouraging a sense that ‘government will provide’, and fostering a sense of ‘entitlement’.

One important facilitator of participation is of course media — and local media in particular. When organisations spring up, they need a means of attracting interest and support, and getting their message out. Diverse media, offering a multitude of platforms, is an important part of participation in local and national politics.

Media encourage debates, raises awareness and provide a spur to participation. Or does it? And how does it do that, in resource poor environments? And can a new kind of media, based on cell phone sending and receiving, make a difference?

This is some of the background to the contextual dilemmas of the Iindaba Ziyafika (“The news is coming”) project getting of the ground in our small town, Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. (Guy Berger, who led the team that won the Knight Foundation Challenge Grant, has blogged extensively about this project elsewhere on this site).

The Iindaba Ziyafikaproject has multiple aims including:

• To foster both ‘citizen journalism’ and greater access to news and information by creating open-source software that allows two-way communication between the town’s newspaper, Grocott’s Mail (the oldest independent newspaper in South Africa) and the community, mostly through cell phone-based systems;

• Opening a citizen’s newsroom, to help all community members participate in creating and receiving news and information.

• Teach young people the poorer parts of Grahamstown (and eventually all school goers) how to use their cell phones to be part of the news making process.

But in addition to these specific aims, the project also aims to shift levels of participation in both news creation AND in enhancing and uplifting the lives of people in Grahamstown, one of the poorest areas in South Africa.

Specifically, in addition to trying to create “a new kind of local newspaper, one using new technology to communicate across social fault lines of language, race, class and age,” the project sets out to: “produce a more vigorous local dialogue, a community truly in conversation with itself”.

Moreover, and “ultimately” the project is hoping to contributing, in however small a way to: “a more representative, shared and participatory ‘public space’ that will result in better, more democratic decision making in the communities”.

As I complete my first two months at the helm of this project, I’ve had to grapple with a number of inter-related dilemmas:

• First, what does the current ‘local dialogue’ look like? And particularly, how do young people, our project’s main target audience, get involved or excluded from this dialogue?

• How do we measure the current level or quality or quantity of local dialogue, to be
sure that Iindaba Ziyafika plays some role, over the next three years, in making ‘more vigorous’.

• How participatory and representative is local politics and the ‘public space’ right now?

• How might causing cell phones and newspapers to do “new things together” as the project has undertaken to do, and has started to do, contribute to causing ‘better more democratic decision making come about”.

I believe there is a great danger in projects such as Iindaba Ziyafika being implemented and measured purely at the level of the ‘well constructed anecdote’. For example, we already know (from speaking with lots of people) that politics in Grahamstown is fairly elitist, although possibly not as much as the country as a whole. However, beyond its elite nature, political meetings are fairly well attended, but we are currently in the run-up to an national election in April: participation falls off dramatically in non-election years.

But who is participating?

What do we know about their class and gender status, their age, their agendas, and their motivations?

How does the politics of patronage play out locally and to what extent is local politics ‘identity’ driven as opposed to ‘issues’ driven (the distinction between two kinds of politics is in any case undercooked in my view: one’s take on any given set of ‘issues’, and one’s sense of identity are usually deeply interrelated).

And this is just in the political sphere. What about jobs and the economy, health and well being, educational issues, and crime and social justice?

In short, how do we get beyond the anecdote? How do we move beyond a story-based analysis of the ‘current conjuncture’ – where we are in terms of democracy, levels of participation, the role of the various medias – to something a little more solid (or a lot more solid if we can figure out how to do that)?

Without a more comprehensive empirical base, I’ve been worried that we’ll only have a different set of anecdotes at the end of the project. While we obviously do hope to be able to tell different and better stories in three years time, we need to bed these stories in both a clearer analytical framework, and in empirical data that are as rigorous as possible.

To achieve this, we are exploring:

• Creating a deeper understanding of the current political culture in Grahamstown. While part of this will necessarily be anecdotal, it needs to develop a conceptual framework and some basic data that we can relook at each year that our project rolls out. We are exploring working with other university-based academic departments, such as Sociology, Political Science and Anthropology to collate as much information as we can about Grahamstown. Even basic demographic data is hard to come by! We might have a colloquium, and we should certainly create a paper or papers through we can capture and share insights about the social and political culture in Grahamstown.

• To create basic data sets, we are going to need to convene focus groups and supplement these with broader surveys. We want to establish some kind of baseline for current levels of political participation, including levels of knowledge of ‘the issues’, levels of participation in political, civic or social organisations, and a better understanding of what motivations those who are active and what inhibits those who are passive.

• Surveys and/or focus groups to better understand the current and future consumption of local and national media.

• Good data on current cell phone and internet penetration and, in particular, data on the extent to which the current population of Grahamstown is accessing any kind of news, information using the web and cell phones.

Doing all this won’t be easy, and these are only an early set of ideas of how to establish some baselines. We also need to remind ourselves that our project has a youth focus, so we may confine some of our base-line creation just to young people in Grahamstown, or focus exclusively on the less resourced and less developed areas of town. It is tempting to try and get a ‘bigger picture’ but that might just not be possible.

Of course, there will be other measures, such as how many stories are being contributed by Grahamstown residents to the Grocott’s Mail via cell phone,or how many people are accessing the website because of cell phone alerts. We need to figure out those baselines too, as well as proper ways of measuring the uptake of the new tools we disseminate.

By doing all this, we hope we will have some chance of knowing not only if the news has arrived, but whether its arrival has made any difference to the lives of people!