The 2009 election in South Africa can rightly be called South Africa’s first “ICT Election.” According to a report by the Danish Technological Institute, each of South Africa’s four main parties made use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) durig campaigning. This is a really interesting report, and raises a lot of great issues.
For example, DA (Democratic Alliance) made the most innovative use of ICT and had the broadest influence. This is logical as DA, the official opposition party, has the most to gain by chipping away whomever it can from the ANC’s voter base.
At the same time, the ANC has arguable the least to gain from ICT, as the majority party, with large support from South Africa’s poorest and least connected citizens. According to DTI’s report:
The reason for this is that the voting majority does not have access to the internet, never mind to Twitter or Facebook, due to high connectivity costs, dial up or no access ICT, digital literacy and resources. This is the result of limited formal skills, resources and geographical location (e.g. remote rural areas). But also that of close to 50 million South African, according to Rick Joubert, head of Mobile Advertising at Vodacom, only 9.5 million are mobile internet users and an estimated 5 million are desktop users. This is also reflected in the ICT use of the four parties.
According to a report in the New York Times in 2005, there were 724 mobile subscribers per 1000 people in South Africa, suggesting more than 72 percent of South Africans are mobile subscribers? I find this difficult to believe, but if so, it must surely be higher today, though with some brief googling, I have been unable to find more recent reports citing numbers/percentage of users.
Another report here further hints at the availability and usage of mobile phones around Africa, particularly high in South Africa and a few other countries, such as Tanzania. Unfortunately, links to the full report appear to no longer be functioning. This wide access hints at a much greater potential for South Africans to be involved in reporting their own lives and interacting with ICT than previously considered.
The wide acceptance and implementation of ICT by the major parties is even more shocking when compared with the lack of depth and glaring lack of ICT in international coverage of the election. With such wide access to mobiles, South Africa’s election was ripe for the application of ushahidi.com and swiftapp.org to be modelled as a journalism application.
Unfortunately it appears in most cases news outlets have chosen to write something resembling editorials, quoting only officials and “analysts.” The most content provided to judge the opinions of the citizenry about their experience and opinion of the election and results are in unmoderated comment forums such as this one. Even Al-Jazeera, who made such innovative use of Ushahidi during the conflict in Gaza left much to be desired in their brief citizen journalist-style coverage.
Where are the voices of South Africans who are not members of the political class? Although some outlets such as the BBC did provide minute-by-minute coverage and even utilized Twitter and other ICT to enable citizens to contribute their experience, I am left wondering how would this election be different were the 2500+ reporters on-hand for South Africa’s momentous 1994 elections equipped with the vast array of media gathering and distributing tools available today.
Instead I’m left feeling something of deja vu for the United States recent election based more on popular misconceptions, propaganda, and puff journalism. Where are the voices of South Africa’s citizens in the international community? Where are the on-going investigative reports into Jacob Zuma and other South African politicians?
I believe the knowledge the international community needs of South Africa, and that South Africans themselves need about their political system, can only exist when South African citizens are utilizing ICT to investigate and disseminate information as skillfully as their major political parties have recently done.
The White African, Kiwanja’s FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi are good starts. I’ll continue to think about how we can utilize their experience, in combination with African entrepreneurs such as Julius Mwelu to change the direction of international journalism in Africa and abroad.