Since the World Wide Web was unveiled in 1991, the internet and digital technologies have transformed ways in which information is captured and disseminated perhaps even more profoundly than the invention of the printing press in 1450. Websites and web content, search engines, social networking and mobile phone technology have ensured that the way we consume information is changing all the time. The campaign that catapulted Barack Obama to the White House demonstrated the value of digital technologies for political mobilisation. The recent uprisings in the Arab world have been attributed in part to the use of social networking by activists.
Paradoxically, the very technologies that can connect larger numbers of people than ever before can also increase political apathy and social alienation. I have observed levels of apathy in middle-class people, especially young people, that is frightening. The technology at their disposal is used for entertainment and nothing more. It is possible to live in a virtual world that has no relation to the reality of one’s immediate surroundings. Disillusionment with political processes has increased the tendency to use the technology for escapism rather than to inform and inspire to action.
My experience of growing up in Zimbabwe and living in other parts of Africa has convinced me that we continue to indulge in consumerist, escapist political apathy at our own peril. Digital technologies have the potential to dangerously increase the divide between the privileged few who have access and the vast majority who do not, adding to an increasingly marginalised and alienated underclass. My observation is that our ruling political parties cannot address this divide in the absence of a strong civil society.
Experience has taught us that even in a country that boasts one of the most democratic governments in Africa, civil society mobilisation is still necessary to address the major challenges of our times. The most successful civil society mobilisation in democratic South Africa has undoubtedly been the Treatment Action Campaign. The Right2Know Campaign (R2K), a nation-wide coalition of people and organisations opposed to the Protection of Information Bill, is another interesting example.
Education is an area in which strong civil society action is absolutely necessary. The formation of the Public Participation in Education Network (PPEN) and the Equal Education Campaign is testimony that ordinary citizens are increasingly convinced that the education crisis is so grave that it necessitates massive public mobilisation.
My experience of growing up in Zimbabwe and living in other parts of Africa has convinced me that we continue to indulge in consumerist, escapist political apathy at our own peril
I have personally been involved in South African civil society efforts to mobilise against dictatorships in the region, especially in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and against xenophobia. The dedication, commitment of energy of South African activists has moved me immensely. I have been impressed by women’s organisations that have been there in the thick of the action. I think the challenge is how to sustain the efforts of individuals and organisations who teeter on the brink of burnout and bankruptcy but press on regardless in their efforts to achieve a better life for all. We need to explore ways to enhance the capacities of these organisations through the innovative use of digital technologies and social networking and support to make them more sustainable. Stronger organisations will enable us to build issue-based networks with moral authority, convening power, political weight and media clout.
— Elinor Sisulu