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Advocacy and Web2.0
Thomas Alberts
July 30, 2008

Web2.0 is a term thrown around a lot these days and it means many things to many people. There are, however, some common characteristics in its varied usage. Basically, web2.0 refers to the shift in focus from distribution of information through networks (the old 'bookmark your favourites- approach) to participation in the creation of information and networks.

Examples of web2.0 technology are blogs, podcasts, social networking platforms, and RSS feeds. With web2.0 technology, you can run software applications over the internet, host your photo albums online or collaborate with colleagues on shared documents.

Web2.0 has changed the way we work and play - and not just for people with access to the internet. My mother, a not very web-adept social worker, has had to acquire a new skills set to continue her work with teenagers effectively. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is not the point. Like globalisation, web2.0 is a fact of life. On the one hand, certain environments require you to skill up if you want to be effective, as my mother has discovered. On the other, web2.0 opens new opportunities for doing development and activist work.

South African History Online (SAHO), an NGO with offices in Pretoria and Cape Town, has been successfully levering these opportunities for several years. Founded in 2001 at the height of 'web1.0-, when the internet was all about making information available far and wide, SAHO set about building the largest online resource for South African history. Today, we host about 500 000 pages of content, the largest online repository of South African biographies, numerous features of past and present South African activists, trade unionists, politicians, artists, writers, photographers, as well as thematic content about women-s history, labour history, liberation history, places of interest, cultural histories - the list is endless.

As technology has changed and people have changed how they use technology, we have had to change too. This has not always been a game of catch-up and we have tried to seize on the opportunities of new technology to further our advocacy work. SAHO was founded on the premise that South African history is both a heritage resource and a resource for current advocacy.

Having endured and ultimately overcome the longest continuous crime against humanity of the 20th century, as civil society we have an enormous wealth of knowledge and depth of experience in activism, organsation and mass mobilisation. The formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983 had a lot to do with the rediscovery during the early 1980s of the suppressed histories of the 1950s - the unity movement and the congress movement that produced the Freedom Charter and laid the basis for the political alliances that characterised and sustained the freedom struggle for another three decades.

Histories of struggle are not well known among younger generations who have come of age since 1994. This is surely due in some part to the suspension of compulsory history teaching in schools - a lamentable fact that SAHO has been lobbying the Education Department to correct for some time. In the second decade of freedom, our history remains a vital resource for strengthening our constitution and deepening our democracy.

In recent times there has been growing concern about the state of our democracy. Several activists, former activists, civil society commentators, and public intellectuals have voiced concerns about attacks on the constitution and weakening of its core values. As we head towards national elections next year, people are expressing their concerns not only about poor service delivery, but also about poor governance, judicial independence, separation of powers and similar constitutional issues. Increasingly we hear concerns that the gains of our liberation are threatened. So we have decided to stimulate these conversations. This is where web2.0 becomes such an important resource because with web2.0, we are producers as well as consumers of information, which means larger audiences and greater participation - and that after all is the basis of effective activism and mobilisation.

History Matters is where South African history and web2.0 converge to create what we think will be a powerful resource for advocacy work. History Matters is a new project of SA History Online and is conceived as a forum for promoting dialogue and sharing perspectives and ideas. History Matters emerged out of recognition that many people are thinking deeply about the challenges and limitations of democracy and civil society at present, but that these conversations are not necessarily linked to each other. We want to connect them.

The forum is divided into several categories and subcategories: Activism, Democracy, Development, crisis in Zimbabwe, and SAHO-related topics, such as the 90th birthday celebrations of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. As I write, we have about 50 posts across all the categories. The site is conceived as a forum for advocacy and promoting dialogue and so our busiest categories are Activism, Democracy, and Development. In these forums, we share perspectives and ideas and publicise upcoming events, public meetings, discussions, new reports and similar networking resources. Soon we will begin commissioning public policy analysts and development workers to list what they consider to be the top 10 issues in various development sectors, for example housing, land reform, education, health and so on. These talking points will then be published with sector resources, comprising links to other websites as well as reports, policy statements and similar resources available for download from the History Matters site. We have already done this with regard to the Zimbabwe crisis and xenophobia.

The aim is not just to be a talk shop. We explicitly do not want to be just another blog. Our intention is to promote interest and consensus around key issues and approaches to dealing with them. This is crucial for creating a critical mass so that political leadership becomes more responsive to public demands. It is also crucial if we want the ideas and perspectives stimulated on History Matters to begin making a difference offline. Ultimately, we see History Matters as a kind of online indaba where we can do some of the preliminary work ahead of a national indaba in the spirit of the Congress of the People, the All-In Conference, the formation of the UDF, and similar historical mass mobilisations that galvanised progressive politics in South Africa.

History Matters is still new and much hard work lies ahead. But the confluence of historical knowledge and new challenges in forums such as History Matters demonstrates the possibilities and opportunities that can be created in the enabling environments of web2.0 technologies. Ultimately, web2.0 is a powerful resource available for increased civil society activism and new models of citizenship.

*Thomas Alberts is an administrator at History Matters and a researcher at South African History Online.


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