CAPE TOWN– South Africa has launched the world’s first citizen engagement platform that makes use of popular messenger, WhatsApp.

Speaking at the launch of the GovChat Community Engagement Platform here Tuesday, the Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), AndriesNel, explained that the platform is the world’s first citizen engagement platform with inbuilt communication tools on WhatsApp.

For the first time in the country’s history, citizens will 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.

He added that in rural communities where connections may be slower, GovChat will 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 democratic and accountable government for local communities. It is also important because September marks Public Service Month in South Africa,” he said.

The Local Government Structures Act requires, among other things, that municipalities develop mechanisms to consult communities and community organizations 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,” Nel said. “Increasing protests have, however, shown that government still has to invest more towards promoting participatory governance.”

He 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.