Thandiwe lives in a cluster of shacks just outside Johannesburg and works as an activist on land rights, urban development rights and access to housing for poor people in the city. Thandiwe does this through the community based organisation she helped set up. The organisation helps local communities to use mobile phones to document and report breakdowns in services in poor neighbourhoods, and to,expose corruption and violence. The organisation maintains a blog and uses a Whatsapp group to organise, mobilise and communicate.
Thandiwe says she “pulled herself up” and educated herself about ICTs. She discovered that while digital technologies are a powerful way for people in her community to expose abuses of power they are rarely used to do so. This is because it is dangerous for poor people with few resources and little social support to actively challenge powerful figures in the community. She works with grassroots communities, and sees herself as an intermediary: “an intermediary makes technology accessible to a community and makes them aware of the risks involved in using that technology.”
And Thandiwe should know. Two years before, Thandiwe's home was burnt down. Not only was this emotionally devastating and a significant financial burden, it also disrupted her children's lives. They had to drop out of school temporarily while they all moved in with Thandiwe's mother in another part of the city.
Though she has no hard proof, Thandiwe has suspicions about who may have been involved in burning down her house. She had been blogging about three corporation officials in the public works department of the local government who, she discovered, were quietly offering contracts to the same set of companies in exchange for bribes. Though she never named the individuals, she wrote blog posts about their department. Her reporting included freedom of information requests, investigative work and documents that were leaked to her by someone in the public works department.
Thandiwe understands that visibility is an important issue for activists who work on sensitive issues. Since these events, she has become more aware of digital security risks and more careful about her use of social media. Her new challenge is educating friends, family and colleagues to be more careful about how they use social media, including how to adjust their settings to avoid exposure. She doesn't want to take any more chances.
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