Citizen Voices / Municipal Services

A thirst for active communication

The recent water outages prompted an unprecedented outbreak of vocal, active and united citizenship in Makana: both online and on the streets. Hancu Louw reflects.

FireShot Screen Capture #002 - 'MobiSAM' - www_facebook_com_mobisam_net

Tuesday 26 August, 4:35pm, outside Grahamstown Pick ‘n Pay:
“Having water issues, hey?” I ask a colleague as she struggles to load two freshly bought 5 litre water bottles into her hatchback.
“I’m actually sorted for drinking water, this is to flush my toilet, they have made the bottles cheaper saving me R12,” she says, slamming shut the boot of her car.
R24 spent for the convenience of flushing a toilet.
The August-September water outages were not the first time Grahamstown had gone dry.
But, it was widespread and it went on for many days, and even weeks in some parts of the city.
Local citizens were angry and hungry for fresh updates as the hardship progressed to near breaking point.
Some Facebook groups obliged by providing Grahamstonians with near-live coverage of the repairs to the vital water-service infrastructure.
One of these pages, Grahamstown Municipal Services Outage Reporting is run by local estate agent, Daphne Timm, acting in their own capacity as a concerned and connected citizen.
By the quality and speed of the updates, I imagined Daphne glued to the screen of her computer, ear to the phone with a direct line to the various teams of engineers heroically trying to reconnect the town’s water supply.
One post by Lynne Giese Grant responding to the news that a new pump had finally been installed said, “I can’t wait!! Thank you, Amatola and MBB. You guys should be the ones getting the Freedom of the City!”
MobiSAM and the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), two organisations aimed at developing the public’s right to information working with the aim of increasing – and in some ways forcing – increased government accountability also proved extremely valuable in terms of their institutional presence and input in during the week.
The MobiSAM Facebook page had direct ties to infrastructure repair teams across the town, updating the public and developing a collective following of close to 1500 people as the week progressed.
This sparked a unique symbiosis between maintenance contractors, a public service accountability monitoring organisation and the wider Facebook public with all parties sharing information on a near-hourly basis.
This is has never before been seen in the history of the town’s various service delivery related crises.
These spaces, facilitated on a platform that has become almost ubiquitous in middle-class social interaction, served as a meeting place for mostly concerned similarly-minded individuals to share information.
But mostly to vent; the comment streams dominated by a collection of tired cliches relating to “bad governance” and how “crap” the municipality is.
For a town beleaguered by a history of close to weekly protest action of some sort, resulting in smatterings of “quick-fix solutions” to endemic issues of maladministration in the extreme, its inhabitants had, up until the day they helped to convince the provincial government to invoke Section 139 of the Constitution and place Makana under administration, failed to bring about effective political action.
The question arises; who has to speak, to whom, to be heard? And more importantly how does one speak?
Over the crisis, Grahamstown’s online environment rapidly changed from a benign space offering updates on regular municipal service outages, to razor-edged flashes of debate (although much of it tainted with fear, anger and at times racism). Collective participation seem to signal the political potential of these platforms as spaces where the private and the public converge around issues impacting not only the individual planted in front of his screen, but his neighbour too.
What is clear from much what was posted online – the activity having died down now that water supply has been re-established to those who frequent Facebook – is a clear feeling of victimhood.
Bickford (1997) suggests that victimhood cannot always automatically be regarded as an assertion of powerlessness or innocence stating that victimhood is at times an assertion of the exercise of unjust power.
It is this notion of asserting the exercise of unjust power – by taking on as citizen, the position of victimhood – and the complexities involved in articulating and understanding these issues that came to mind as I eagerly “reposted” MobiSAM updates to the social media pages of all the local Grahamstown media. This and the fact that many who are able to act from a position of relative power in relation to local government are willing to spend R24 each time we flush the toilet.
As the week progressed and discussions as well as tempers flared, the situation reached its inevitable climax with the online organisation of a collective march on City Hall organised by PSAM and the ever engaged UPM.
What is most interesting here is that the event, a page on Facebook, was created by an individual, and relied on “shares and likes” to make its rounds on Facebook.
Calling for a Section 139 intervention to place the current local municipal council under administration, the event on Wednesday 27 August yielded the desired results. The demands made by the parties involved being were met unconditionally on Thursday 28 August.
Here Heller’s (2009) notion of “effective citizenship” understood as all citizens’ rights and capacity to exercise free will, therefore freedom to shape their citizenship status and act on it, seems to align with Chipkin’s (2008:13) notion of democratic practices which involve the rituals and traditions which we as South Africans use when engaging as active citizens.
The above example illustrates how these norms and practices associated with effective citizenship are changing in the face of Information Communication Technologies, but more importantly how citizenship and its practices are legitimated.
Returning to my initial question: who has to speak, to whom and how, to effect change?
For reasons of explanation I use the notion of a “conversation” to illustrate interaction between various spheres or groups of political life in Grahamstown.
Connecting the dots I conclude:
Under normal, water-running-in-the-taps conditions two largely separate conversations take place with regard to civic life in Grahamstown. The stress of a waterless week however resulted in what I attempt to map below.
Middle-class people with access to ICT’s and platforms like Facebook speak to each other, which allows for the emergence of individual pages such as the Grahamstown municipal services outage reporting page.
NGO’s like MobiSAM speak to private contractors who supply radically transparent information on their progress to MobiSAM which distributes is back to private middle-class individuals fuelling their rants and debates.
While this is happening, organisations like the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) is speaking to those who do not necessarily have access to ICTs, supplemented by local traditional media such as radio and print, fuelling debate and conversation between individuals.
The water crisis heightens and tensions rise, so an individual on Facebook calls for collective action in the form of a protest march on City Hall.
The middle-class conversation picks-up this call and circulates it on various platforms, including traditional media who in many ways manage to broadcast the message further than the comfortable confines that come with regular internet access.
The conversation grows to include what is imagined as a possible Makana Unity League made up of various civic organisations around town, aiming to bridge the gap between the two spheres of conversation, the one middle-class the other working class (I use these terms as denominators of access to ICT’s mainly).
This collective conversation agrees to meet physically, bound by space and time and come together in the form of a protest march speaking as a single collective voice – for an hour or two, happy to concede difference and unite – insisting on immediate action.
It is this convergence of conversation and the ways in which the conversations take shape, falling into the traditions and practices of South African “democratic practices” (Chipkin 2008:13) that enables the individual as well as the group, albeit for only a week, to bring about effective citizenship and to the relief of all a free-flushing toilet.
Bickford, S.1997 “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy and the complexities of Citizenship. Hypatia, Vol. 12, No. 4, Citizenship in Feminism: Identity, Action and Locale.
Bickford, S. “Emotion Talk and Political Judgement” in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 73, No. 4. October 2011, Pp. 1025 -1037.
Chipkin, I. Democracy’s People. 2008.
Heller, P. 2009. “Democratic Deepening in India and South Africa” in Journal of Asian and African Studies SAGE Publications.


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