Digital space, civil society and nonprofits in South Africa

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Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room

25th November 2016

So what is the state of play in South African digital civil society?  My last post looked at the importance of defending digital spaces in South Africa – but now I go back a bit, to the nitty-gritty of digital civil society. This broad phrase refers to a broad mix of concerns, approaches, practices and activities ranging from building the public profile of a cause, to defending current levels of freedom, openness and accessibility of digital space.

Enset has been running a global workshop series focused on supporting civil society organisations around the world to navigate what Enset refers to as “the complex digital landscape” to achieve online effectiveness.  Enset’s mission with these workshops and panel discussions is to identify and, likely, help create the best paths for the use of digital space by non-profits globally.

The Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion, of which I was a part – held at Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town on 4th October 2016 – was titled, “NGOdigitalspaces & Civil Society”.  The discussion addressed a range of issues and practice areas in the digital space, such as:

  • What is the role of Social Media in building civil society?
  • How is digital fundraising changing the donor relationship and giving overall?
  • What are some of the risks and challenges of digital spaces, and what can non-profits to address these?
  • What is the political / regulatory environment and implications of a new NPO Act in South Africa?
  • What is the future of digital spaces for civil society – opportunities, challenges and potential threats?
  • What is the importance of credibility and validation within the sector?

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A number of organisations and individuals spoke to their particular concerns, the work they do, and how their work serves to address their concerns.  The panel and issues included:

  1. Jeri Curry, president and CEO, Enset: introduction to the non-profit and civil society digital space, and to the work of Enset – and also navigated the panellists inputs, facilitating the discussion with great knowledge and expertise.
  2. Baratang Miya, founder and CEO, GirlHype: now here is somebody to watch and keep up with. Baratang spoke about her initiative to encourage girls into the digital and tech space, not as users but as innovators.  Great stuff.
  3. Michelle Jones, head of content for digital agency RogerWilco: Michelle shared lessons from a successful client project, showing how paying careful attention to messaging, content, design and site architecture can completely change levels, frequency and type of user interactions with your online presence
  4. Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room: This is me – I spoke about the need to defend digital spaces, as these levels of freedom increasingly come under the state spotlight and as non-profit organisations are under pressure from government. I also shared insights about the legislative framework that currently governs this space in South Africa.
  5. Colin Habberton, IFC Ambassador, South Africa: Colin shared insights into the use of digital platforms for fundraising and for profile-building for organisations and causes, and stressed the importance – across a range of factors – of building an online profile
  6. Michelle Matthews, Head of ED and Innovation, CiTi: Michelle’s focused on trends in ICT and the digital economy, and she shared details of a fantastic digital project supporting start-up and established social enterprises and businesses, including the development of an innovative toolkit (which we all wanted a copy of!)

Are you starting to get the picture?  Around the breadth and depth of any discussions about “digital space”?

We can talk about developments in digital technology; the use of digital technologies for the promotion of civil society campaigns; the role of an online presence in promoting your non-profit organisation and in stakeholder/ supporter/ donor communications; the importance of content in building a profile and positive footprint in the online space; the role of civil society organisations in promoting and encouraging the involvement of girl learners in the digital tech space; the importance of an online presence for fundraising (both on- and off-line); the pressure (globally) on civil society and the closure of operating spaces, both physical and digital; and the legislative framework governing the use of digital technology (eg. drones for journalism) and online spaces.  That’s just the start.

In addition, there is a boatload of information that non-profits need to keep up with – such as the 2014 transition of the org.za domain (used by most South African non-profits for their web presence) to a new regulatory authority, and the implications for non-profits using org.za.  Again, just the start.

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Enset’s work has had the effect not just of providing spaces to have discussions about digital spaces and civil society, but also of connecting activists and digital specialists locally and globally.  It is critical that we are talking to each other, in light of my particular concern – as per my previous post – about the defence of digital spaces as we see an increase in governments clamping down on activities that challenge their actions (or lack of action).

This space is absolutely critical for civil society organising, as a still-democratic space providing for the proliferation and platforming of a range of voices critical to debate, discussion, defining the languaging around particular issues, and moving away from the dominance of traditional media and their ownership of public discourse.  This has changed irreversibly, and this space must be defended.

Philanthropy in South Africa: Support for defending digital civil society

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Image from Heinrich Boll Foundation. Creator: Niklas Hughes

Gabrielle Ritchie: Director, The Change Room

16th November 2016

Philanthropic funding is critical for a host of democracy-defending and –strengthening initiatives that would otherwise have little or no financial support at all to implement the tough work that needs to be done to defend our democratic space.  In South Africa, we must remain vigilant about our freedoms and must continue to push to ensure that rights – as per our constitution – are realised for all.

So where does digital fit into discussions on democracy, development and donors?

I have been thinking a lot about digital civil society – which, in my view, is the same thing (at least currently they remain the same) as civil society using digital technology.  A few weeks back, I had the energising experience of being part of an Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion in Cape Town about South African civil society and the digital space, which I will be writing about in the next week or so (so watch this space!).  It’s a huge topic, with so many sub-topics, not all of which link up neatly together.  The digital space and its implications for civil society has been a hot topic for precisely this reason – there is SO much to discuss!

One of my most favourite, self-proclaimed philanthropy wonks is Lucy Bernholz. Her latest blog post is about digital civil society and the looming threats to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, all the more threatened with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.   Her urgent call is that we all need to stand up, make our voices heard, and resist attempts to close down civil society space.

This is not a challenge limited to the US.  Far from it.  Increasingly across the African continent, there are noises and threats regarding the closure (or further constriction) of digital space, in addition to pressure on the physical civil society space – where it does exist – to organise and express challenges to governments.

As Bernholz says:

All our civic action – from philanthropy to protest, from petitions to polling – now takes place on a digital infrastructure. Every organization that is dedicated to helping the vulnerable, to free expression, or that understands it is simply an institutionalized form of our right to peaceable assembly and private action for public benefit should realize now that their existence depends on the rights now threatened. As civil society has closed elsewhere, so has it now been directly, overtly, and rather unabashedly threatened from the people elected to lead our government. 

The most important point that Bernholz makes, though, is that we all need to get ourselves trained up around digital space, the ways (both actual and potential) in which this space is threatened, and what we need to start doing about it. Right now.

Bernholz mentions a number of angles, including “capacity building, consulting, governance training, and technology support need to address digital governance and practices”.  And she goes on to stress that “It is not optional, it’s integral to running a safe and effective organization”.

In other words, this isn’t something we need to watch out for coming down the line.  Rather this is something that we need not only to be monitoring now, but we need to be managing the risks already, and putting place policies and practices that will ensure we are able to continue to work effectively and safely.

Ute Scheffer’s September 2016 article, No right for digital participation in many regions of the world, offers insights into the current state of play with regard to journalism and clampdowns on expression and organising.   According to Scheffer, South Africa ranked 39th of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.  This is above the US, and only one place behind the UK. There are two thoughts on this – one is that this is very revealing about the squeeze on press freedom in these apparent bastions of democracy and freedom; the second is that having a reasonable ranking means we must maintain and increase (not loosen) our vigilance.

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It is critical to bear in mind that, with regard to digital civil society – and the digital space in which we operate – it is not just about access to news and information, but is also fundamentally about forms of communicating, organising, advocating, mobilising, and attracting resources in support of organisational and campaign work.

Organisations in South Africa working on these issues (and supported with philanthropic funding) suddenly become central to South African civil society then, right?  So who are they, what are they working on, and how do we find them?  Below are a few of the best known organisations working to defend our freedoms with regard to information, and the sharing of information in print and in the digital space.

Start engaging around our digital space, people – global trends (and Lucy Bernholz) indicate that the time is now.

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