Koketso Moeti has been in the trenches of civic activism for more than a decade. With a combination of wit and an unassuming demeanor, under which lies a steely determination for justice, she is part of a generation of women in the social justice sector interested in ‘building power’.
Unashamedly so. Her foray into the world of social justice came through the heady struggles at a municipal level over the last decade or so.
‘Local government is my first love’, Moeti says, ‘given where I come from, we did a lot of organizing around local government issues’. This is also where she began to encounter how mobile telephony and the digital space can be a ‘democracy-building tool’. ‘During the time I had access to a cellphone’, Moeti recalls, ‘and we could suddenly co-ordinate actions on a large scale’. This not only involved awareness campaigns but even tactical decisions to ‘send bulk SMS to neighbouring communities to shut down their roads, so that the police could not reach us’, Moeti added. Moeti, drawn to the power of the cellphone as a coordinating and organizing tool, now leads Amandla.Mobi, from its base in Johannesburg, also overseeing their operations across the country
Amandla.Mobi is an independent, community advocacy organization that seeks to build a more just and people-powered South Africa. This is done as Moeti assertively points out, ‘by turning every cellphone into a democracy-building tool’. This involves the development and rollout of campaigns that use mobile technology in ways that allow communities (both geographic and those of common interest) to come together in ways that incentivize accountable governance. This happens at multiple levels as Moeti hastens to add:
“We have two types of campaigns … we have hyper-local campaigns which would be on issues facing a specific community and we also have national campaigns, we do this on USSD, SMS, Whatsapp and back in the day we used to use Mxit.’’
The campaigns that Amandla.mobi runs are focused on the issues that face black women in low income communities. In part due to a recognition that overcoming the issues faced by these women whose structural location in society is at the lowest rung on all scores, is central to the liberation of all of us.
Nowhere was this focus on the marginalized apparent than in the work Amandla.mobi did on the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
Their involvement began at the start of the concerns around the relocation of mental health care users and involved discussions with the parents of some of the mental health care users at the centre of the tragedy. Moeti recalls that campaign as, ‘probably one of our least supported campaigns’. Amandla.mobi and other organizations already knew then the risks of the relocations as these were well documented.
Moeti suggests that the moment indicated selective activism on the part of many who would share the trenches on other issues, and the stigma and ignorance around mental health:
“… what was fascinating was it just gave you so much insight into the prejudice and stigma around mental health issues. I remember in one particular space, there were people who you would consider ‘comrades’, people who if it was any other issue would move along with you … suddenly you heard that, ‘they (the mental health users) aren’t contributing to society in any way …’
It is campaigns like Life Esidimeni, the struggles on data costs, the child support grant campaigns and many others that have endeared many an activist and community to Amandla.mobi. Yet the campaigns are not cheap and come at a considerable cost:
“Everybody loves accessibility; accessibility is expensive. It is just not cheap. One example is the child support grant campaign, just for bulk SMS, we spent R1.2m on SMS, so accessibility is lovely, but it is not cheap …”
This reality makes the work of those who underwrite activist work so much more important. The disposition, approach and assumptions of funders have a tangible impact on the ability of Amandla.mobi and other organizations to achieve their objectives. For example with the onset of COVID 19, the user community of the mobile platform more than doubled, exceeding even Moeti and her team’s expectations, this also meant a different conversation with donors;
‘’…We found donors where trust is key…. Its unrestricted funding, we spend it in the best way we know how to use it … when you work with donors where there is inherently trust, you can use the money in ways that serve the community and the work that you are doing’
Moeti expresses an appreciation for the donors she works with and says we need many ‘activist’ donors and philanthropists who can trust and respect that organizations based in communities are able to work among those who ‘live the reality’ that the sector’s work often aims to confront and address. It is an analysis grounded in an understanding of power and how it is exercised, even in a sector whose intent is often seen as ‘progressive’ and ‘altruistic’.
Moeti believes that people claim power and justice (and their humanity) in struggle. Building movements that claim and build such power is important. As such in recent times she has been involved in collectives and fellowships both in South Africa and abroad that are platforms for experience and knowledge-sharing.