Amandla.mobi: A South African advocacy platform for all

Advocacy organization, amandla.mobi is influencing how people organize, by creating accessible petitions and encouraging mobilization around social justice issues in South Africa.

Their campaigns are available in three languages and through web, mobile and mXit platforms. This accessibility is the key ingredient in their quest to “turn every cellphone into a democracy building tool”.

Their mobi platform, which can be accessed by dialling *120*4729# from any cellphone, enables citizens to partake in the organization’s petitions.

Screenshots of the mobi platform.
Screenshots of the mobi platform. Screenshot 1: mobi platform homepage, listing onging campaigns. Screenshot 2: language selection menu. Screenshot 3:  outline of the campaign against the police’s use of R-5 rifles. Screenshot 4: petition-signing menu

The pioneers of amandla.mobi, Koketso Moeti, Fezile Kanju and Paul Mason, all work full-time on this project.  Moeti, amandla.mobi’s Executive Director, describes their meeting as “a convergence of like-minded activists”.

They are motivated by their vision for a society where “you can take action on issues that affect you, and mobilize others in numbers, [driving] transparency and accountability,”.

Breaking down digital and language divides

Moeti says, “It shouldn’t be that activists with flushing toilets at home tell people without toilets in shacks why they should care about not having flushing toilets, because those affected often know best why it shouldn’t be so.

The “build it and they shall come” approach to open-data and citizen engagement tools may attract early adopters…but, citizens don’t think of tools, they think of problems and remedies.

A ‘tool’ only facilitates and if it’s value is not intuitive or explained, it’s useless.”

By running mobile and multi-lingual campaigns, amandla.mobi aims to reach as many people as possible, overcoming the issues of accessibility often linked to the digital sphere.

Moeti says, “Open data, citizen journalism and citizen empowerment tools won’t create the systemic change we need if they are only accessible to upper-class, urban, educated, English speaking activists.”

From skepticism to success

After 6 months of developing the platforms, amandla.mobi launched their first prototype mobile multilingual campaign in June 2014. Since then, they have gained a following of 13 000 people, with the mobi platform being their most popular.

“Many people thought it would not work and were skeptical that mobiles could be used this way…it took us a while to find the visionary donors we needed to get us started.” Moeti says.

Moeti says their greatest success is their campaign to secure access to free-to-air TV for low income households.

She says, “Government was going to force low-income households to pay R700 for a digital set top box, when we switch off analogue TV and were going to only subsidize households with an income lower than R2500.

Working with the SOS Coalition, our campaign managed to mobilize over 4000 poor and working class South Africans to sign the campaign from their cellphone and submit comments which were included in the submission made.”

Moeti says although government is mandated to run public consultations over decisions like this, these consultations are often poorly advertised and impractical, as they require people to send a fax or written letter.

“This time ’round decision makers were flooded with over 4000 submissions from people directly explaining why this is a problem.”

As a result, the government increased the income threshold to R3200, allowing an additional 1 million households access a free set-top box.

It’s an exciting victory,” Moeti says, “A testament to our theory of change that those most affected by decisions, when given a means to mobilize, can influence decision makers.”

Digital campaigns with real-life impacts

For the amandla.mobi creators, it’s crucial to create campaigns which include offline actions.

Their launch campaign, which advocated for the creation of a Youth desk in  Ekurhuleni Municipality, led to a meeting with the mayor. They arranged for those who had signed the petition to attend the meeting.

Currently, amandla.mobi is running a campaign to commemorate the upcoming 3rd anniversary of the Marikana massacre. They have invited members of the public to create their own events on August 16th to commemorate the anniversary.

Over 30 events have been confirmed nationwide.  To see a list of events, click this map:

map

To create an event in your area, sign up by clicking this image:

amandla

Or click HERE to follow amandla.mobi’s updates on Facebook.

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#TheEmptyChair & online backlash against anti-rape advocacy

This week, US-based New York magazine (NYmag) published an article featuring 35 women who’ve accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

The article spread like wildfire on social media, with many sharing the magazine’s powerful cover image:

NYmag

A big talking point was the empty chair pictured, which represents the 11 other women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (and other potential victims), who are not featured in the article.

Unprecedented response

The article’s impact was bigger than the NYmag’s journalists imagined and soon, the hashtag #TheEmptyChair was trending on social media. #TheEmptyChair prompted several tweets from people expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

Journalist Elon James White, who started #TheEmptyChair, received dozens of messages from victims of sexual violence, sharing their experiences.

Social media: A platform for the silenced

NYmag’s journalists commented on the increasing use of social media as a platform to speak up about rape, saying:

“… Online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”

They also note that allegations regarding Bill Cosby’s conduct only gained momentum after a video clip of comedian Hannibal Burres speaking about the allegations went viral on social media last year.

Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault as early as 2005 (click here for a full timeline of related events). However, even as more and more women came forward to speak about their assaults, many people still defended Cosby.

The drawbacks of anti-rape advocacy on social media

Hours after NYmag published the Cosby story, their website became inaccessible for hours after a suspected Denial of Service attack. A hacker who later took responsibility for the attack, claims the attack had nothing to do with the Cosby’s story.

Although it may be true that the motivations for the attack on NYmag’s website was unrelated to the Cosby feature, people who speak out about against sexual violence are often harassed or silenced online.

In 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who vlogs about representations of women in gaming, fled from her home after receiving death threats.

South-African journalist and author, Charlene Smith has also encountered online harassment. She spoke to me about her experiences with a particularly relentless harasser on social media.

Smith says, “He first came after me on Facebook by messaging to my inbox crude and vicious notes. I blocked him.

He then began emailing me; I threatened to lay a charge and blocked him again. I discovered he was doing or had done the same to other outspoken rape survivors.”

Smith says the harassment continued even after she moved to the United States. This time, it was on Twitter.

She says, “He was lurking, waiting to come after me again with torrents of insults. I blocked him and reported him to Twitter. I know others who did the same.”

A complex problem

In dealing with online harassment, one challenge is that many victims do not know their attackers.  Another problem is that when online harassers are blocked, on sites like Twitter, they can start new accounts to continue the harassment.

Asked how she handles the harassment, Smith says, “Block, report and move on seems most sensible.”

She continues: “If you believe they have the capacity to track you down and physically harm you, and then go to the police, otherwise, put it down to one of the challenges of the infant internet age.”

Kenyans quash misrepresentations with #SomeoneTellCNN

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is currently in Kenya for a state visit. Obama is the first US president to visit Kenya and thus, there has been widespread coverage of this event.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, news agency CNN reported that Obama was to visit “a terror hotbed”, which outraged Kenyan people.

Kenyans took to Twitter to set the record straight, using the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN

Though the #SomeoneTellCNN  hashtag was previoulsy used in 2012, this weekend, it went viral.

A trendsmap image showing where #SomeoneTellCNN was used, from @BBCAfrica

 

The danger of a single #SomeoneTellCNN story

Some tweeters were not as comfortable with the #SomeoneTellCNN hashtag, noting instances where Kenyan media have described Kenya in the same ways as CNN did.

Representations of Africa: a social justice issue

CNN’s coverage in this instance, which focuses only on a negative aspect of Kenya, reminds us of the problems that occur when African countries are represented by Western media.

Highlighting this trend in his piece How to Write About Africa, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina ironically writes, “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention … Africa is doomed.”

Achille Mbembe, a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, has also written about representations of Africa, noting that these often associate Africa with incompleteness and chaos.

Other scholars add that such depictions are part of the mechanisms which allow the West to maintain its dominance over Africa.

The imperative for Africans is, as scholars Grinker and Steiner write, to “learn to problematize the issue of representation in order to locate and unpack the economic, political, personal, and other motivations that might underlie any particular image of Africa,”.

The representation of people (and nations) is a social justice issue because it impacts how people are viewed and treated. #SomeoneTellCNN is a tool through which Kenyans have pushed back against misrepresentation and a good example of how digital media can be a formidable force against the mainstream media.

Resistance through social media: From #MCInHerShoes to #InOurShoes

content warning: discussion of gender-based violence & victim-blaming

Recently, I wrote about the online uproar after Marie Claire magazine’s launched its Women’s month #MCInHerShoes campaign, which was criticized for including men who’ve been accused of domestic violence, such as DJ Euphonik.

Marie Claire, which pledged to donate money to a charity which aids abused women when people used the #MCInHerShoes hashtag, initially stood behind the campaign.

Not wanting to miss out on an important debate, on Thursday, the Department of Women (DoW) joined the conversation on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128434613190656

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128611323387904

The tweets were not well received.

Why abuse victims drop charges against abusers 

Jen Thorpe, a women’s rights researcher and editor of FeministSA.com, responded to the DoW’s tweets, explaining why it’s problematic to criticize women who withdraw charges of domestic violence (which the Department of Women should have known, but let’s not digress).

Thorpe addressed the complexity of reporting an abusive romantic partner to the police, saying: “In some cases, women face pressure from the family of the abuser,” to make the relationship work.

She continued, “Abuse is often cyclical and linked to alcohol and substance abuse. This may lead the woman who reported to believe that their partner will never abuse them again.”

Thorpe also explained that there can be severe consequences for women who report domestic violence to the police, particularly if they are economically dependent on their partner.

Considering research findings, which indicate that reporting abuse to can lead to the abuse worsening, it goes without saying that the Department of Women’s tweet’s were inappropriate.

They later tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624231380701085696

Taking matters into our own hands

For social justice activists concerned about gender based violence, the gimmicky #MCInHerShoes campaign and the Department of Women’s attitude to victims of violence is incredibly disappointing.

However, with thanks to social media, more of us have the power to counter harmful media representations and present alternative narratives.

On Thursday morning, activist Michelle Solomon took to Facebook to begin #InOurShoes, a campaign which seeks to represent people’s experiences of violence more accurately and more inclusively than #MCInHerShoes.

Twitter users started sharing personal experiences of gender based violence:

https://twitter.com/b_oliphant/status/624271259241709568

https://twitter.com/uzamantungwa/status/624287448080744450

On Thursday afternoon, Marie Claire magazine issued an apology for their campaign, describing it as “ill-conceived”.

To join the conversation, use the hashtag #InOurShoes to share experiences of gender-based violence.

Missing the mark: #MCInHerShoes

Recently, to commemorate Women’s Month, Marie Claire South Africa announced their #MCInHerShoes campaign. The campaign features 18 male celebrities who pose in high-heeled shoes to “stand with women”. MC

The campaign was met with resistance, and accused of trivializing women’s issues.

Part of the criticism included Marie Claire magazine’s choice to draw attention to 18 men for women’s month, as well as their choice to include who have come under fire for sexism and alleged abuse, such as Gareth Cliff and Dj Euphonik.

Clictivism for a cause?

Writer Louise Ferreira, describes the #MCInHerShoes campaign as a cheap gimmick in an article for Women24.

Ferreira continues to point out the slacktivism element of the campaign: “Your tweet is going to make little difference to the lives of abused women, but it allows you to feel that you’ve done something, so you don’t need to put in additional effort.”

Where marketing meets charity

#QueerStruggles and #RhodesMustFall are examples of Twitter campaigns which have brought to light the injustices faced by marginalized groups. What these campaigns did well was push back against heterosexism and institutional racism, by creating awareness.

What Marie Claire ends up doing, as pointed out by Ferreira, is using the reach of Twitter and the fact that August is Women’s Month to further themselves in the name of standing against violence.

Ferreira says, “This is a PR exercise, an attempt to boost their brand on Twitter, and it is contemptible.

Promoting comfortable ‘discomfort’

For some, it may not be clear why there is such an uproar over Marie Claire’s efforts, particularly since they attempted to bring men into the gender conversation.

However, there’s a difference between activism which challenges society’s norms and campaigns which reinforce the status quo. Responding to the criticism, Marie Claire editor Aspasia Karras tweeted:

A lot of the time, challenging social norms such as the inferior status of women in society is (and should be) an uncomfortable learning curve, especially for the people those social norms favour.

I gather Marie Claire’s campaign aimed to make the men involved ‘uncomfortable’. And heels are, for many people, uncomfortable.

However, #MCInHerShoes made more people uncomfortable, by prioritizing the experience of wearing heels over the discomfort caused by street harassment, domestic violence and the threat of sexual assault and centering men in doing so.

Many also point out that, by associating high heels with womanhood, the campaign also plays into gender stereotypes. This does very little to disrupt the status quo, where a patriarchal system constantly defines women as being different and lesser to men.

Women’s Month is important in the sense that it can highlight gendered violence which still plagues our society. That said, this could be done women without reinforcing the idea that men and women are inherently different and that there are two, rigid expressions of gender.

There is also a lot of work which needs to be done to include trans women and gender nonconforming people in campaigns for equality, as they often face discrimination for not fitting into gender norms.

https://twitter.com/sianfergs/status/623453563956666368

The #MCInHerShoes campaign plays into established rules about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man.

At first glance, it may seem useful, but upon deeper analysis, the campaign trips up and falls short.

A look at derailing: how online conversations about racism are interrupted

Last week, I wrote about the difficulties of discussing social justice issues, such as racism, on online platforms.

Continuing from that, I’d like to explore a silencing tactic which has often been used online to deny or dismiss issues of injustice: derailing.

To derail someone in an online conversation is to make a statement that shifts the focus of the conversation away from the original topic.

Derailment is a problem because it makes marginalised people have to put disclaimers on everything they say. When a person talks about being discriminated against, derailing them detracts from the point they are trying to make, because they then have to put qualifiers before their point is heard.

For instance, if a woman complains about recieving street harrassment from men, someone may defensively respond “But not all men do it!”.

Image sourced here.

Basically, derailment wastes time because it distracts everyone from the issue that has been put forward.

A few weeks ago, Lesego Moshikaro wrote a post on questioning white privilege and institutional racism at Rhodes University and in the following conversations about racism on the Rhodes SRC Facebook group, there were several examples of derailment. These are two kinds of the responses:

1) All lives matter

“I feel like #ALLlivesMatter. There are so many issues of discrimination here at Rhodes, despite it being one of the most accepting universities in South Africa. #ALLlivesMatter and ALLdiscriminationShouldBeStopped”

In conversations about social problems like racism and sexism, which affect specific groups disproportionately, saying things like “all lives matter” is derailment because it dismisses a social injustice.

In using the phrase #BlackLivesMatter as Moshikaro did, the intention was to highlight that the problem of institutional racism disproportionately affects black people.

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag originated in the United States. It was started in 2014 by Alicia Garza in response to the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin and as a response to anti-black racism. She writes,

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life [as a white person] isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation…When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”

Source: ChainSawsuit.com

2) Let’s talk about this instead/This other topic is more important

“It’s very convenient to talk about white supremacy. Don’t forget Black South Africans killing foreign nationals.”

At the time this comment was made, the recent spate of xenophobic attacks had not started. Drawing another issue of injustice in such conversations in this way is a derailment tactic.

The problem here is not that the other social injustice issue doesn’t matter. It’s more that this kind of derailment hinders important conversations about injustice by fragmenting them.

Of course, every person is privileged and oppressed in different ways. For this reason, it is important to look at the way racism and gender discrimination (for instance) intersect in people’s lives.

However, it is possible to have such conversations without derailing others when we discuss social justice issues on the internet.

Image by Jim Chuchu

Over the Rainbow

Despite efforts by some to derail the #RhodesSoWhite conversation, the author of the post, Lesego Moshikaro received some constructive responses to it, both privately and publically.

Moshikaro says, “I got a lot of dissatisfied and hurt white students who were quite offended by my post. Some were quite open to engaging and trying to understand where I was coming from with regards to the post. Eventually, we came to a common ground, which was good. A lot of eyes were opened, mine included.”

“Something beautiful also came out of this – I got mostly white students asking what can be done, what they should do, how to get involved etc. That’s a start. That’s a good start.”, she added.

Have you been silenced or derailed when bringing up injustice? Tell me about it in the comments

#RhodesSoWhite & the pitfalls of discussing racism online

Trigger warning: discussion of racism (institutional and otherwise)

Following the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall protests at the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University students began to discuss the issue of institutional racism in their own context.

At first, the developments online did not attract much attention and were focused mainly on what was happening at UCT. That is until, Rhodes graduate Lesego Moshikaro posted this message on the Rhodes SRC Facebook page:leseg

Her post attracted over 600 comments by Rhodes students, led to the creation of the #RhodesSoWhite hashtag, and resulted in heated debate (both offline and online). Much of the discussion on Lesego’s post illustrated some of the challenges of discussing about social justice issues online.

Meaningful engagement

The first challenge of engaging around social justice issues on the internet is that online spaces are usually unfiltered and unmonitored. It can be very difficult to establish what impact the dialogue will have offline or IRL (in real life).

Although the discussion can be widely visible, as was the case with Lesego’s post, it’s hard to tell whether people are meaningfully participating and learning from the discussion or if they just there because they have FOMO.

Moderation & making online spaces safe

Another challenge related to making social movements visible online is that often, online platforms are not safe spaces for marginalised people.

As Sian Ferguson of EverydayFeminism.com writes,

In order to keep a space safe, we need to have rules. Safe spaces don’t tolerate certain (oppressive) views, and they value safety over debate. There are things that are not up for debate and discussion.

Making issues like institutional racism visible on an online platform is risky for marginalised groups because they could be exposed to hate speech or triggered.

According to its description, the Rhodes SRC Facebook group “encourage(s) debate, but in line with the values of equality, non-racialism, non-sexism or any form of discrimination.”

In order for online platforms such as this, to become safe spaces for marginalised groups, some form of moderation is needed. Currently, the only way in which posts are ‘moderated’ on the Rhodes SRC Facebook group is if they are reported to and removed by Facebook, or deleted by those who post them.

While moderation would be feasible for a platform such as a Facebook group, it is more difficult to make platforms such as Twitter and comment sections of websites safe spaces.

Erasure and silencing 

A third challenge of engaging in online dialogue about racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression is that such dialogues are often subjected to silencing.

In the online context, silencing is when people who bring up a social justice issue have their grievances dismissed or are discouraged from speaking up by (usually privileged) others. Silencing is a big problem because it de-legitimises the legitimate concerns of marginalised groups.

 Some examples of silencing on Lesego’s FB post are as follows (I’ve included my between-the-lines translations of them in italics):

“We all need to stop playing the victim.”People who are bringing up institutional racism at Rhodes are playing the victim. 

“You haven’t suffered [from apartheid] personally.”Claims that  (black) students are still negatively affected by the impacts of apartheid at present are not legitimate, because apartheid ‘ended’ in ’94.

”Maybe you can join my soup kitchen in Joza (township) & I can show you what its like to HELP the community.”* – Institutional racism is not the biggest problem in society. Our efforts to better society should focus on those who are ‘really’ oppressed. 

Another variant of silencing was something like, “If racism really exists at Rhodes University, why are people only speaking up now?” This type of comment minimizes the grievances of students who challenge institutional racism, making it seem like they’re just ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.

Reading all these comments had me like…

As we can see from all these examples, the types of resistance that social movements meet in real life don’t disappear when the movement is taken to the digital streets.

In my next blog post, I’ll be looking closer at the silencing tactics used when social movements go digital. In the mean-time,  have you experienced any of the above problems when talking about social justice in online platforms? Did you learn something new from online engagements about racism that have taken place in the past few weeks?

Let me know in the comments 🙂

*edited for brevity