Recent research support the idea that South Africans, 15 years after the heroic levels of participation that led to overthrow of apartheid, are becoming less engaged: Membership of religious groups, trade unions, political parties, and even of sporting associations are all decreasing, sometimes sharply, in the 21st century.

Whether this is about a “growing dependence on the state to provide everything” or just people getting on with their lives — getting involved takes a lot of time — is not clear.

Bowling Alone

What has caused this South African equivalent of “bowling alone”? In Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community,” the author rails against the how social capital in the U.S., which he describes as “the very fabric of our connections with each other,” has plummeted in just one generation.

Putnam came to his conclusions about declining levels of social capital from studies of membership of organizations of all kinds, interest in politics (even the signing of petitions has fallen, his study found) and, surprisingly, the amount of time spent with family and friends. Putnam’s bogeymen in terms of this mass disengagement of the social are urban sprawl, television, and the rise of the Internet.

Is it the same in South Africa? Why are studies and scenario exercises picking up on a decline in civic activism, participation in clubs, trade unions, political parties and so on?

To trying to figure this out, and do something about it, at least in one small town. That’s part of the Iindaba Ziyafika (isiXhosa for “the news is coming”) project, run out of the School for Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. The core proposition of Iindaba Ziyafika is that information and communication technology can enlarge the public sphere by providing the tools that encourage participation and facilitate that participation.

News by SMS

To achieve this, step one has to been to build a content management system, known as Nika, which allows people to send in news and information about what is happening in their communities through SMS. This information is published on the website and in the newspaper of Grocott’s Mail, South Africa’s oldest independent newspaper. (Grocott’s recently relaunched their website, built to receive content from Nika. The site is served from Grocott’s office, off a module called THATHA, which is a set of tightly integrated Drupal-based templates for publishing to the web).

Nika (isiXhosa for “to give”) is proving its worth. Built on Drupal, it allows any community newspaper to receive SMS messages directly into the newspaper’s workflow. By translating SMS messages through a special modem and some clever coding, the messages appear as text in the editor’s inbox. Story tips or even full stories can be sent by ordinary people, who do not have access to email or the internet.

The system has been tested at Grocott’s Mail for almost year, and is currently being tested at three other community newspapers. It will be available with some installation guidance and operating manuals to any community newspaper who wants to try it out by September 2009. (Watch this space for details of downloads.)

Nika’s ability to receive messages from citizens directly into a newspaper’s news feed gives ordinary people a voice they might not have had. For example, when teachers at a Grahamstown school went on strike and threatened the life of the school principal, a learner at that school sent Grocott’s a message, alerting them to this crisis. Grocott’s was able to send a reporter to investigate more deeply, bringing a dire situation to public notice.

Having got the technology in place, the next step is to link the issues to a sense of what can be done and citizen involvement.

GOING BEYOND TECHNOLOGYINSPIRING ACTION

For Iindaba Ziyafika, this raises a raft of questions about the limits of “conventional” journalism, the nature of developmental journalism (or journalism for development) and, indeed, about the very paradigms in which journalism is practiced. What is becoming clear is that South African media have to find ways to go beyond just raising the issues, towards framing issues and challenging people to make choices.

Part of the answer to increased participation may lie in more vigorous journalism that is committed to exposing and explaining issues in ways that make more sense to ordinary people and which invite reaction and participation.

What are the main issues in local government? What decisions have to made and when? Where can people participate and what choices are there? Can we enlarge the set of options we need to choose from?

If local media is not going help answer these questions, who will do it? Political parties and organs of participation — such as ratepayers associations and community crime forums — don’t generally do a good job of this, for various reasons. Indeed, they very often rely on the media to help them make sense of the issues.

A good example of this was a report in Grocott’s Mail that the municipality had decided to spend R800,000 on new traffic lights at a critical road junction. This sparked debate in the newspaper’s letters page, with some contributions coming through the Nika-based SMS line, about alternative plans the council may not have considered, including the creation of a pedestrian-only area in the center of town.

Grocott’s Mail provided a venue and facilitated a live discussion among citizens that examined various proposals. It ran stories about a previous (disastrous) attempt to do the same thing years ago, something the council did not seem aware of.

Underlying much of this is a clash between generally poor pedestrians and their needs and wealthier car-drivers. This seemingly simple issue raised issues around creating a common interest as well as a solution that would be to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

But despite its new level of involvement, the newspaper’s coverage highlighted what is generally lacking in civic news in South Africa: the news was about a decision already made. In addition to being about a fait accompli, the news itself was presented neutrally: It was left entirely up to citizens to write in with the new idea of the pedestrian mall.

How can we think about this differently in the future? The paper and the website could have, for example, run a poll on people’s views, or framed alternative choices. In an area where unemployment is above the 50% mark, surely the R800,000 could be put to better use creating jobs: having humans direct traffic is a venerable African tradition.

At a local level, there is a strong case that the job of newspapers and their websites should be to alert people in advance about choices to be made, to help frame issues and explain what is at stake. Or is that an abrogation of conventional journalism’s neutral “we’ll call it the way we see it, and nothing more” approach?

GETTING JOURNALISTS AND CITIZENS INVOLVED

My view is that without the media making initial sense of what is at issue, of where and when interventions could be made and what the possible choices are, the feared decline in popular participation in decision-making is more likely to come true.

To make a difference, Grocott’s, particularly in its most recent online reincarnation, is going to work much more actively to identify upcoming issues of importance to citizens and create forums, through cell phones, that alert people not just to issues, but also to their options in terms of those issues. Otherwise, we run the risk of being disempowering, rather than inspiring.

Doing these kinds of things will require a great effort by journalists and citizen journalists to interpret and explain issues. And there will be a related greater effort to reflect on opinions and even gather those opinions using cell phone-based technology.

To this end, Grocott’s will look at ways of alerting citizens to critical issues well in advance of decisions about them. Online, we’ll run more polls and SMS voting lines. As importantly, will work out new ways to ensure that decision-makers know what the results are of all these efforts. Hopefully they’ll pay heed to what their constituents’ views are (and if they don’t, we’ll let the public know that).

It will also be important to work more closely with other media channels, such as community radio, and it may even be necessary to create more spaces for meetings and maybe even step into the realm of calling meetings.

By doing all of this, Grocott’s and Iindaba Ziyafika will continue to be a laboratory for the fusing of new technology and a fresh approach to framing issues and motivating public response and participation. We have to demonstrate better ways for the public to get involved in local democracy.

If successful, the model might be replicated all over South Africa and further afield, and be able to make a contribution to better governance in South Africa and Africa. It will allow us, to extend the bowling metaphor, to arrive at the bowling alleys together and to play the same game. But the first step is working out what that game is.

Once we’ve done that, we’re on the path to talking to each other about solutions.