DOCUMENTARY: Wikimedia Foundation camerawoman Charlene Music and Sinenjongo High pupil Nezisa Mdludlu discuss the documentary being made to highlight the school's campaign for free access to Wikipedia on pupils' cellphones. Picture: NATASHA LASSEN


Cape Town - A campaign by school pupils from Joe Slovo Park, Milnerton, to get free access to Wikipedia on their cellphones was so inspiring that a team from the online encyclopedia giant flew to South Africa to document their story.

Grade 11 pupils from Sinenjongo High started their call with an open letter to cellphone services to provide them with Wikipedia last year.

Wikimedia Foundation’s Victor Grigas heard about the campaign from colleagues. “I’m always looking for stories and this was an incredible one because real grassroots efforts mean there is a real need for Wikipedia on cellphones.

“I e-mailed the learners, via their teacher, and asked if they could answer three questions for me: who are you, where are you from and what what does Wikipedia mean to you.”

By the time he read the second response, Grigas was in tears. “All these learners live in a slum. They told me how they live in shacks and come from broken families. They described how noise from the neighbourhood made it hard to study while they are in class and that there is a rubbish dump in front of the school.

“They said that their school has improved its grades and that proves that they are determined to better themselves. They all said that Wikipedia has helped them to study and improve their grades.”

In the past five years the school’s matric pass rates results had increased from 27 percent in 2008 to 95 percent last year through assistance by the Western Cape Education Department and the private sector.

Grigas realised he had to visit the school, and did so last month. “The learners are so sharp and determined to better themselves. The teachers were amazing too. You can’t spend a day there and not feel inspired.” He hoped that creating the documentary would show why all people deserved free access to information.

“Today, most people have cellphones and most people are poor. Waiving data charges to access Wikipedia for free on cellphones opens up the largest single body of knowledge that has ever existed to people who really need it, and it will fundamentally change the world for the better.”

Grigas said the documentary would probably be available later this year.

The pupils had been inspired by Piet Streicher, a local businessman who volunteered at the school for an hour each week and taught the pupils about computers and the internet. He said it became clear to him that pupils did not have books at home, no library and had to walk a long way to reach the nearest library.

“We noted that Wikipedia was available in other African countries – Kenya and Uganda. We thought it would be a good idea to do the same.

“They thought it would be an excellent idea to get access to more information.”

The pupils then wrote the letter to cellphone companies.

Streicher said they had acknowledged receipt of the letter but had not indicated whether action would be taken.

The letter read: “It would be totally amazing to be able to access information on our cellphones which would be affordable to us. Ninety percent of us have cellphones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime, so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us.” - Cape Times