SPII Talk II: Hannah Atkins, research Intern

SPII Talk II: Hannah Atkins, research Intern

The impact of Covid-19 on Public Participation, past and future

Looking back
Covid related lockdowns, social distancing requirements and limits on venue capacity restricted the ways people traditionally gathered to discuss issues, and forced us to reimagine how public participation might work in this era of a global public health emergency.

On one hand, going virtual had several positive impacts - people were not restricted by geographic location, which opened up a space for new voices from across the globe to share knowledge and exchange ideas in cross-continental initiatives. This inclusivity also extended to those who are often excluded from participation processes by virtue of mobility, such as people living in far-off areas or those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, who could partake from their own home.

And, for those limited by scheduling conflicts, they can catch up later, as events are generally recorded and exist in perpetuity for future reference.

On the other hand, the digital divide between areas with IT infrastructure and those without has never been more apparent, whether township or suburb, urban versus rural, or even developed versus developing country. The lack of internet connectivity was compounded in South Africa by the exorbitant cost of data, regular power outages and the lack of devices to connect with in the first place.

Several NGOs attempted to mitigate the data issue by supplying would-be participants with a certain amount of data, and while this is an admirable attempt, poor cell reception in many areas thwarted this effort. Moving to a more online form of public participation also has implications for those living in areas with a low rate of digital literacy.

Ultimately, it seems that during a time of restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement, public participation was relegated to the realm of the privileged, by virtue of postcode or prosperity.

A core focal area of SPII’s work involves direct engagement and consultation with people in the surrounding community. As such, our 2020 plans were somewhat derailed by the restrictions, and it revealed clearly where the faultlines lay in terms of adaptability. Our budgeting workshops, for example, had to be cancelled and could not move to an online version due to the lack of IT connectivity amongst participants.

However, our Decent Standard of Living refresher survey, initially planned to take place via a series of panel interviews, was able to pivot to a telephonic version instead.


Looking forward
We already have a plethora of information on how to facilitate public participation in a manner that is empowering, useful and inclusive. None of them, however, quite anticipated a situation such as the one we have found ourselves in since the beginning of last year - a global health emergency that ebbs and flows across the world.

The impact of Covid-19 on future public participation is particularly pertinent considering that South African local government elections have been scheduled for 27 October 2021. Several by-elections from 2020 and early 2021 have already been delayed, with the Electoral Court citing that the Level 3 lockdown restrictions hindered campaigning and gatherings by political parties, which in turn would infringe on the requirement for election to be free and fair.

How can we use the lessons learnt in the last year and half to ensure South Africans are still able to participate in local government processes - including elections - to the fullest? This of course does not just mean getting to the polling station in a socially-distanced manner, although it is important, but being able to access information in an understandable and timely manner, share their views and feel heard - especially in a time when we feel more distanced from governing authorities than ever before.

Pivoting to digital will not be an effective solution for as long as we lag behind in terms of ICT development. In the City of Johannesburg 2021/2022 budget speech, finance MMC Jolidee Matonga announced the rollout of 1,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots across the city, specifically referencing the experience of Covid where learners for example where unable to keep up with studies due to lack of internet connection. Metropolitan Trading Company, a Broadband Network company designed to offer both wholesale data services to public and private entities as well as retail and incidental services on behalf of the city of Johannesburg, has an expenditure budget of R556.5 million to implement programmes through the Smart City initiative which includes rolling out free Wi-Fi services to the City’s residents. Group Information and Communication Technology, meanwhile, has an expenditure budget of R863.2 million for various IT-related projects, including an item listed as “Wi-Fi roll out phase two”.

In a tweet from the COJ on 13 September 2020, the city announced that they had relaunched the Joburg Wifi free hotspots initiative after it had taken a backseat for the past four years. Indeed, the original plan from 2012 was to have 1,000 hotspots installed by the end of 2016, and for Johannesburg to become a smart city by 2020. This, unsurprisingly, never materialised. Then, in August 2016, the COJ promised free Wi-Fi for all residents within the next five years. They have two months to meet this goal.

As of September last year, there were 84 solar-powered wi-fi hotspots across Johannesburg providing users with 500mb per single device per day. They can be found throughout the Braamfontein Precinct and in some of the city’s municipal customer service centres. These hotspots were accessed by an average of 6,000 users a day, although this dropped to 3,500 due to Covid-restrictions during lockdown. Future rollouts are set to target clinics, taxi ranks, libraries, licensing centres, fire stations, hostels, revenue centres, bus rapid transport stations,, community halls, recreation centres, social housing, and tourism destinations.

Indeed, the location of these hotspots is key. They need to be in places  where people often spend a long time waiting, are permitted access, are safe to spend a significant amount of time in and have extensive opening hours. For example, students who come home after school or university need a safe place to access the internet - not having to stand on a dark street corner because the public library is now closed. The amount of data provided is also an issue. For those trying to attend online lectures, this amount will be rapidly depleted.

Ultimately, we need to prioritise ICT infrastructure and continually hold local government accountable for the provision of these services. We also need to keep in mind the lessons we learnt during the pandemic regarding inclusivity - the online sphere provides a way for those with disabilities, conflicting schedules, lack of transport or any other of the myriad of reasons there might be to take part in discussions that affect their lives. While the internet certainly comes with its fair share of problems, the fact that it gave many of us a way to connect, mobilise, lobby and share during a time we were confined to our homes should not be discounted.