SA Blook: Chapter 12, Connecting South Africa - Communities that transcend technology

By Andy Hadfield

A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Ubuntu. A word that describes not only one of South Africa’s greatest technology gifts to the world, but also the sense and spirit which binds every African at their core. Add crime, xenophobia, tough economical conditions and a cultural mishmash second to none – it still won’t cover our underlying sense of community. Our connection to each other born of a journey through hard times, and a light at the end of the tunnel.

We feel it in the good times, the sports victories and the political successes. We feel it in the bad times, the political differences and the growing pains of an immature democracy. It is inextricably present in everything we do.

Connecting people is not just a link in SQL
And thus, it falls upon our generation, the passionately digital, to take up the mantle and further the cause of ubuntu. In our online playgrounds and our real life concrete and tar worlds. Connecting our community in more ways than a friendly poke from afar ever could.

Who are we (these online patriots that have been tasked with carrying the word at the speed of pings and packets)? As the digitally privileged few, we exist in a different world – and must be careful to acknowledge it as such. It is a world where truth blurs with opinion, and information moves at the speed of light. It is a world where the world is listening. While seemingly disconnected from the rest of South Africa – there are lessons that can be learnt from both sides of this equation. Look deeper, and you’ll find that community transcends technology – yet co-exists perfectly.

The connected community that is South Africa

Every community has a few prerequisites: people, a sense of purpose and a sense of ownership. Put those three ingredients together, and technology or no technology – you have the means to join people and achieve great things.

The first world tends to make the mistake these days of thinking true communities must have an online or high-tech component in order to be successful. Instant Messaging. Video conferencing. Data aggregation. Email campaigns. MySpace. Activist groups. Charities. Politicians. It’s a CNN view of the world that isn’t always applicable in Africa.

Community is so much more than that. It’s a tribute to our innovate or die spirit that we’ve managed to use community models to achieve what we have. With or without high-tech.

Go see the effects of community in South Africa’s anti-retroviral programme - micro segments of health workers and rural populations banding together for a greater cause. Measured centrally, implemented locally. In this community, technology is a prayer and a warm hug. A needle. A test. A life-saving drug.

Shining lights in Short Message Services
Walk further along the population road, stop, and take a look at the remarkable effect SMS is having on this nation. Did you know South Africa is not only a global player in the mobile space, but a global leader? We are inventing technologies that are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on a cellphone, and have a mobile telecommunications penetration second to none in the developing world. Every household in this country, from tin shacks to leafy mansions have access to a cellphone. Every household in this country has access to SMS – and uses it.

In the United States. SMS never took off. They missed it. Instant messaging and direct dialing were just cheaper. But look at the things we have managed to achieve with such a simple, wide-reaching technology. Twitter, take a back seat - we’ve had the 143 character model for years.

Primedia’s CrimeLine is a good example. Managed and promoted by 702 Radio and Highveld Stereo 94.7FM up in Johannesburg – it is a province wide network of crime tip-offs by SMS. Anonymous and cheap – it has led to the arrests of thousands of criminals.

CrimeLine is the TwitterStream the South African Police Force subscribes to. A flow of information that lifts itself above the lunch-meat, status update nonsense that pollutes Twitter – and deals directly with one society member’s care for another. This is a virtual community in itself. A community that is now connected to its future, feels a sense of ownership about its own safety – and is now able to do something about it.

Connecting a developing world to an always-on world…
Now, if such success are possible using the simplest of technologies. Imagine what is possible if WE turn our minds towards spreading the ideal of “community South Africa”. While online technology might not reach every corner of the country – it does have a unique advantage. It’s fast, global – and everyone’s listening.

In fact, if nothing else prickles at the emotional receptors in your patriotic heart, embrace the speed and power of our medium. As bloggers, or even just as part of the web readership, we sit on a platform that can tell stories at the speed of light – reaching more people, more frequently. Sites like SA Rocks and SA Good News lead the charge.

This is our task. We have the power to tell the good stories. And we have the obligation to SHOUT OUT when something’s going wrong. Citizen journalism, the right of every man and woman with a pen, paper or internet connection to comment and publish their thoughts and their whims is a powerful ideal. While some might say it runs the danger of creating too much opinion and lowering the quality of information – there is another way to look at it.

It’s creates a massive information community. A connected group that rates, reviews and shares their content. A community with the power to talk, to shout from the plastic casings of every server in the world. To tell a story of a South Africa that’s growing up. A South Africa that believes connecting with each other, across language, racial and political borders is the only way to grow.

A South Africa that can.

A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you be able to improve?
- Nelson Mandela

Copyright Andy Hadfield 2008. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No-derivatives 2.5 ZA license.

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This post is a chapter of the SA Blook: A Piece of Significance, an online book written by a diverse group of writers with strong views of our country and the reality we find ourselves living in. The other chapters in the Blook are here:

1. The new South Africa - is it real?
2. Is SA rich or poor?
3. What the world thinks of South Africa and what our global opportunities are
4. The importance of each individual's contribution collectively
5. SA Inc and the business of doing business in SA
6. The beauty and grandeur that surrounds us
7. The importance of technology in SA's global emergence
8. Building brand South Africa
9. Making the most of SA's creative talents and abilities
10. Innovate for a better South Africa
11. The role of the younger generation in SA, and what we need to do to support them
12. Connecting South Africa - Communities that transcend technology
13. We are African - the role of collaboration in South Africa's growth


  1. A worthwhile extension to this chapter could be to look at what communities (of practice)are available in the South African context. I have done a research project on an online community of practice for mathematical literacy teachers ( South Africa and there are various others within the education sphere. Maybe a wiki could be helpful?


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