Hands on OpenUp
Saturday, 5 am. Yes, you read it well. I signed up to work on a Saturday and start the day at 5 in the morning.
And it certainly was a good decision. As much as I love spending time at OpenUp’s office because I learn every day from amazing team members, I wanted to go out of the office and see our projects in action. I was eager to see how the projects are being implemented, and how citizens interact with and are impacted by them. For me, it was the first step into seeing what inform, empower and activate means beyond the computer screen.
Background: the Municipalities Project
The Municipal Engagement Programme is a project that uses civic technology and data literacy to enable communities and government to work together to improve service delivery. Through this programme, local governments partner with OpenUp and other organizations to implement at least one of the following tools: Action-takers, Open By-laws, Codebridge Youth, Open Business Portal and data storytelling training through TrainUp.
The first pilot of this project is being implemented in Cape Agulhas, where last March 330 young men and women from seven towns met to imagine the future of their municipality in the first Codebridge Youth Summit. As a result, they identified pressing youth issues, established a youth council and started working together with the local government to strengthen the youth policy and increase the participation of young voices in local issues.
Through the Open By-Laws tool, an up-to-date, consolidated collection of Cape Agulhas’s by-laws are available online and in PDF form. The next step is to work with the municipality to include a link to the microsite on the Cape Agulhas Municipality’s primary website and to train both the local administration and the citizens to use this tool.
Early in the morning (by early I mean very early when it was still dark), I met Chantal and Damian, who have been implementing the Municipal Engagement Programme, and Greg, a former OpenUpper and the founder of Laws.Africa. Yolanda and Jennica, two law students at the University of the Western Cape, joined us on the way. After driving for almost three hours, we arrived at Bredasdorp Services Center, where the workshop would take place. We arrived almost by the time that the sun was going up. Oh, dear winter.
This workshop was prioritized in the engagement process and it builds upon the progress of the Codebridge Youth summit and the updated open by-laws. The goal was to share the Open By-Laws tool with members of the community and explore ways in which it can be used to engage more effectively local government, in solving two issues that have been prioritized in Cape Agulhas: liquor sales and poor refuse removal.
Although it was a Saturday morning, the group was big and enthusiastic, including members of the Youth Council, Municipal Officials, citizens interested in Open Bylaws and the Deputy Mayor. There were both men and women and people from very different ages with a shared interest to participate in the issues that are relevant for their communities.
After the welcome remarks and introductions, Yolanda and Jennisca shared their knowledge and held a crash course on by-laws, focusing on the scope, procedures and main features. This was followed by a hands-on exercise in which people worked in groups to identify a problem and propose how to leverage existing by-laws or propose amendments in order to advance in the solution of these problems. The topics included spaza shops, illegal shebeens, waste, garden and refuse removal, and illegal dumping. Some groups identified that some by-laws are not used to its full potential and proposed ways to do so, others suggested to demand more from the local authorities, and others came forward with concrete actions to involve other citizens.
I had a hard time understanding everything, as half of the conversations and presentations were held in Afrikaans. One of the things that I have found most intriguing about South Africa is the existence of eleven official languages and what it means to create a sense of belonging when not everybody shared the same mother tongue. I was surprised to see how easily people switched from one language to the other and to see that official signs were in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. This even became a topic of inquiry and conversation, as one of the attendees asked the Deputy Mayor why the by-laws were only in English and Afrikaans. She answered that the Western Cape has three official languages and they have to choose two for every document. Usually, it is English and Afrikaans, but they want to have more documents in Xhosa.
Although I couldn’t understand every word, I grasped a lot from the context and from observing the interactions and attitudes. Open by-laws are in itself a technological tool that enables more participation, which can only be leveraged if it is appropriated by the citizens. In this sense, the most evident impact of the workshop is that participation can potentially increase and governments can be held accountable. But there are other less evident effects -positive externalities as the little economist in me would say-: the workshop created a space in which citizens can interact with each other and with government officials, ask questions, demand answers and understand the perspectives and limitations. It was inspiring to see members from the community working hand in hand with representatives from the government and engaging in what seemed to be a very fruitful dialogue.
As Mrs. Tonisi, the Deputy Mayor herself put it:
It is very important for us to know what to do. We do what we think is best and we identify the problems that we think are more important. The issues of the young people are a priority. But we need you to get involved, so that we also know what is important for you and what is best for the community.
We have a commitment to move forward, and we also need the community to make this commitment. Everything starts here and then we move up, because the most important people here are the residents of Cape Agulhas. The local government is comprised of three parts: the community, the council and the administration. These three parts need to work together. We cannot go on without you. Communities must lead the way and show the path forward for us to work.
I wanted to see OpenUp in action and this was a great opportunity to do so. I could grasp how the Municipal Engagement Programme is much more than a set of tools that are useful in themselves, but also a means to create bridges and generate real spaces through which citizens and governments can engage more effectively. Having by-laws online is a huge step forward. The next challenge is for citizens to engage with them and understand how they can use them to demand better services and actively participate in the provision of services.
At OpenUp I have learned that technology is a means, not the end. Informed, empowered and active citizenship require robust technological tools, but also meaningful spaces of interaction.
On a more anecdotal note, there is not one single day in which I don’t think about Colombia, my home country. Culturally and historically, South Africa and Colombia are very different in many ways, but I frequently experience micro-moments in which I feel transported. Far away from my Spanish-speaking workshops, the warmth, curiosity and kindness of the people and the classical workshop dynamics made me feel at home.
Bonus track: travelling to the Southernmost Point of Africa
After work, there is always time for fun. Our prize for standing up at 4 in the morning was our afternoon adventure. We had time to travel to L’Agulhas and visit the southernmost point of Africa. Not only did I learn that southernmost is a word, but I also loved the feeling of being where the continent finishes (or begins?). Enjoying some more car time and jokes with Chantal, Damian, Greg, Yolanda and Jennica; seeing the place where to massive Oceans come together; and enjoying the Lord-of-the-Rings-like landscapes were reminders of how lucky I am to spend time in this wonderful country of which I have so much to learn.
Open By-laws — www.openbylaws.org.za — is a project by Laws.Africa to make by-laws easier to find, read and share. Together, Laws.Africa and OpenUp are helping youth and municipalities to engage with their by-laws and make them widely available. If you’re interested in taking part, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Picture: Damian Pool