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‘Empowering the empowered’: citizen voices in South Africa

Blog | July 26, 2016 | Kekeletso Molebatsi

It struck me that this was new to him—having someone actively solicit his views and opinions on how to make the life of a street trader better…”

As an online ratings platform for public services, South African firm Yowzit is focussed on how to make the voices of ordinary people not only heard, but listened to, by those in power.

Yowzit’s CONNECT-TECH’s Kekeletso Molebatsi reflects on some of the gaps between the people who design local government services and those who use them.


A site visit to Vosloorus last week to talk with street traders and map local businesses left me thinking again about how people engage with power. The visit was arranged as part of the Making All Voices Count grand challenge that Yowzit’s CONNECT-TECH project is involved in.

I want to talk about a particular conversation with a street trader who was operating a state-funded hawker stand outside Naledi Mall. My conversation with him touched on a lot of themes that Yowzit is grappling with as we takes our accountability work to the public sphere. Specifically: how can Yowzit’s emphasis on voices of the citizen be used to empower the disempowered and not the already empowered?

The gentleman I spoke to sells socks, clothing and similar products. Our conversation started off with reassurances that I’m in no way linked to the municipality. I explained that I was simply curious about his business and his views around the relationship informal traders have with their local authorities. It took a while for the conversation to get going and he was, at first, very reluctant to share any insights. It struck me that this was new to him—having someone actively solicit his views and opinions on how to make the life of a street trader better. With some persistence, we finally settled into a comfortable conversation.

I learned a lot.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting permission to face the other way…

For example, I was surprised to hear that there had been zero contact between the trader and the municipality since the government first built the hawker stand that he was occupying. While he is happy to have a stand from which to operate, he highlighted some significant issues. Firstly, the stands are facing away from Naledi Mall, they are literally on the street edge. This makes it difficult for the hawkers to operate, as most people are either on their way in or out of the mall and are not interested in buying their products. From his perspective, this problem could have been easily overcome by simply changing the direction in which the stands face. But neither he nor any other trader were ever consulted when the stands were initially being built.

Why their advice were not requested is a mystery. Neither of us could come up with a response. The only thing I could think of was that that the local government discounts “on the ground knowledge”.

His view was more serious. The government, he claims, has no intention to empower informal traders to move up the entrepreneurship ladder. In fact, he said that those who are empowered are the ones that are benefiting from state programmes. You need to be connected to understand how to benefit from government programmes.

For the man on the ground ‘empowerment’ is a fancy word that means nothing.

It occurred to me that, as so often happens with unequal power balances, the state ignored informal traders’ ability to identify and articulate what they need. The top-down approach has on numerous occasions been proven to be an ineffective engagement tool to build and gain trust amongst disenfranchised communities.

The question for government is:  if we know this approach doesn’t work, why does the local government persist in operating this top-down way?

The question for Yowzit is: how can use our platform to take feedback from ordinary people and make sure it actually feeds into the decisions about what government does?

 


About the author

Kekeletso Molebatsi is Yowzit’s CONNECT-TECH Project Manager
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