Citizens will be able to access more than 10 000 public representatives via WhatsApp. Photo: Reuters

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa has launched the world’s first citizen engagement platform that allows citizens to chat with politicians using the popular messenger app WhatsApp. 

SANews reported that Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Deputy Minister Andries Nel said the platform was the world’s first citizen engagement platform with inbuilt communication tools on WhatsApp. 

Nel said for the first time, citizens would be able to access more than 10 000 public representatives supporting more than 30 000 public facilities and services in communities nationwide. 

“The collaborative effort makes the South African government the first in the world to create a digital communication tool where government becomes instantly accessible to over 16 million people,” Nel said. 

Nel said in rural communities where the connection might be slower, GovChat would be available through the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) channel. 

“This is very important because our Constitution provides in section 152 that the first objective of local government is to provide a democratic and accountable government for local communities.

“It is also important because September marks Public Service Month in South Africa,” Nel said.

The Local Government Structures Act requires, among others, that municipalities develop mechanisms to consult communities and community organisations in performing their functions and exercising their powers. In a local government context, these structures are known as ward committees.

“Ward committees have been positioned as a critical structure through which public participation in local government is to be achieved and most importantly, form a link between ward councillors, the community and the municipality. 

“Increasing protests have, however, shown that government still has to invest more towards promoting participatory governance,” Nel said.

Nel said poverty, high unemployment and socio-economic exclusion, as well as relative deprivation and inequality in informal urban areas; unhappiness about the provision of services such as electricity, water, sanitation, refuse removal, roads and housing, have all been identified as strong contributing factors to protests.

“Other causes identified include complaints about political corruption, mismanagement, lack of prompt response by municipalities to citizens’ concerns, dysfunctional administration, lack of meaningful public participation in government processes and service delivery planning,” he said. 

Nel said it is important to allow citizens to create their own terms of engagement so long as these are harmonious and allow citizens’ voices to be heard. 

“This calls for the government to move away from a prescriptive stance when it comes to facilitating citizen participation, to a position of openness and willingness to learn from citizens and to allow citizens to create their own forums as they see fit,” Nel said.

– BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE