People in Grahamstown, a small town in South Africa, now know about 300 things we would never have known if it were not for citizen journalists. Some of what we know comes via big breaking news stories, while other information comes from small blog-like posts. Some of the stories are moving and some have clearly made a difference.

Perhaps all of them made something of a difference to someone. That’s one of the great things about journalism — you never know!

What these stories have in common is they were all reported and written by citizen journalists, all of whom have a little bit of training, via the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project. Almost without exception, these stories are about issues that Grocott’s Mail, the local paper that is also South Africa’s oldest independent newspaper, would not have been able to cover due to meager resources. (Like so many other community papers around the world.) Many of the stories have also been facilitated in various ways by mobile phones, even if it is mostly via straightforward use of the phones to call sources to get and check information.

Among the stories is one that reported about plans to close a particularly poorly performing school in Grahamstown, and reports about protests by poor residents due to the lack of basic services such as water and electricity.

There’s also a report about an automobile accident and a story about rising student use of flavored tobaccos through Hookah-like instruments, written, in this case by a student journalist.

A Town Talking to Itself

Since August, many of these stories have also been discussed on our new community radio show, Lunchtime Live. We’ve always believed that radio and print are a very powerful combination in a small town, creating simultaneous depth and immediacy, and allowing for real participation and debate. Stories can be broken on radio, or via our SMS line, given greater nuance in print, and deeper airings on phone-in debates.

This all requires a great deal of coordination and management, but the results are worth it. Part of the focus of the Iindaba Ziyafika project is to get a town “talking to itself,” and to open up information streams and public debate about issues that really matter. Radio is a great medium for this, but to take a story to the air, whether before or after it appears in print, still means it has to be well researched, fact-checked and fair. As I mentioned in my previous post, human interest stories generate a lot of interaction, but our recent (November) discussion of a hot new/old topic — changing Grahamstown’s name — brought us stellar audiences via an overtly political issue.

Name change was one of the original issues that formed part of our proposal to the Knight Foundation in 2008. Throughout South Africa, a fraught and fascinating process is taking place that entails the “decolonizing” of names of places, airports, rivers, and of course towns and cities. For example, our nearby apartheid era institution, the “University of Port of Elizabeth” is now called “Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University”; Johannesburg’s “Jan Smuts Airport” (named after pre-apartheid Prime Minister Jan Smuts) has been renamed “O.R. Tambo International Airport” after the man who served as president of the ANC while Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years.

These processes can generate intense debate. Grahamstown is named after its founder, Colonel Graham. He was in charge of a strategy, outlined by his commander John Cradock (which our neighboring town is named after), to ensure that enough violence was used against local people to “impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.”

Over 100 years, the indigenous iziXhosa people fought nine wars with white colonial settlers and Colonel Graham stood out as one of the most effective colonizing soldiers.

As Guy Berger has written, plans to change the name back to the original “iRhini” — which is thought to derive from characterizing the town as “the place of reeds” — has “evoked massive resistance from white residents, many of whom are descendants of British settlers who began arriving in numbers in 1820, and whose business interests are often linked to the brand of ‘Grahamstown.’” (That passage is from Berger’s paper, “Empowering Citizen Journalists: A South African Case Study.” It was presented at the AEJMC conference in Denver last August).

Many people have argued that local government in South Africa is using “symbolic issues” merely as a way of distracting voters from a poor record of delivery. Changing names is an expensive process, no doubt, and many question the priority of name changes in the face of so much social need.

Late in 2010, the name change once again became a big issue in Grahamstown, and Iindaba Ziyafika arranged what turned out to be an excellent on-air and in paper/web discussion of the name change debate. Iindaba Ziyafika has helped the local community radio station, Radio Grahamstown, get back on its feet precisely so such debates can take place. Listen to the debate here. It’s a complex issue, and there are strongly held views on both sides.

Local Elections

2011 is going to be a big year for South Africa — although not as big as hosting the World Cup in 2010! — because we have local government elections where local town councils and mayors are chosen. These are highly contested every five years, often with a dozen candidates standing for a single ward seat. Although the dominant ruling party, the ANC, won two-thirds of the national vote in the 2006 municipal government elections, results vary dramatically from town to town. Many independent candidates, who are not formally aligned to any political party, run for election, so final results are never easy to predict.

It is at these elections that the kind of mobile/radio/website/newspaper “broaden the public sphere” project like ours can really earn its stripes. As this is the final year of our three-year Knight grant, we now have the platforms to inspire greater levels of participation in the election — possibly more so than any small town in South Africa.

We’ll soon be conducting a large public opinion survey of our various mobile-centric platforms to see what is known about them, how they are used, and how we can make them work better. It is our aim to use the Iindaba Ziyafika platforms to get Grahamstown debating issues across class, race and gender divides and, hopefully, electing representatives who respect the more engaged citizenry we are helping to create.