Koketso Moeti is a South African activist and the founder of the digital engagement platform and advocacy organisation amandla.mobi. Amandla.mobi’s main focus is on empowering the voices of low-income Black women in South Africa – one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Koketso was one of the evening keynote speakers on the first day of FWD+Organise 2021. She shared how her path into activism has shaped and continues to shape amandla.mobi’s approach.
Koketso grew up in an informal settlement, consisting mostly of farm workers. The community members had previously lived and worked on mostly white-owned farms, but feared being chased off the land by the farm owners in the wake of the 1994 election which swept Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into power.
When the settlement was first created, people had high hopes. But things were far from perfect. Growing up, Koketso witnessed 236 million South African Rand (AUD$20 million – unadjusted adjusted for inflation) get allocated for housing, without a single house ever being built. Another 200 million Rand (AUD$17.46 million) allocated to improve water services, with nothing ever being done.
After a few short years, the community started to be targeted for eviction. Koketso said that for those in the community who had grown up under Apartheid, it was heartwrenching – they had never expected to live through these difficult times again.
But the community fought back.
Koketso recalls one instance where the local community hand-pumped well was targeted by authorities. Given the entire community’s reliance on the well, the authorities came to remove the well, figuring that would force the community to leave the land. However, the local women gathered, armed with axes, and drove the authorities off their land.
Around this time, Koketso got access to a mobile phone – and the internet. She started writing about the challenges the community was facing. Local media began to cover the community’s struggle. They managed to get a community activist elected to local government and set up a website where they would leak incriminating local government documents – getting even more media attention.
Before long, everyone was paying attention. And in Koketso’s words, they went “from a community of 1000 people to a whole country.”
Now when they heard the authorities were coming, Koketso could send a mass SMS to people with mobiles in neighbouring communities and have people from neighbouring communities come out to block the roads and stop the authorities.
Needless to say, Koketso’s community won their struggle and moved on to fight for those basic services — housing, water — that they had been denied.
Questions we need to ask ourselves
The campaign to save Koketso’s community raised a number of questions which she continues to ask herself to this day:
First: Am I comfortable with change being nonlinear?
There’s no simple formula to activism, where you can take one action and be confident in achieving a particular outcome as a result.
To be effective, we need to recognise that the path to change is circuitous and requires continuous efforts to build power without being sure exactly how and when those efforts will materialise into the outcomes you desire.
Second: Who are my people?
Who is committed to the same values and struggle as me.
- Who is my true community?
- Who has my back?
- And importantly, who keeps me accountable?
Koketso noticed that throughout the process of her community’s successful campaign, the struggle became highly individualised. The vast majority of the media coverage focused on Koketso, and created a narrative of an individual struggle.
In her telling, this was not because she did anything more or different to other community members, but rather simply because she had a mobile phone and was one of the few community members to be literate in English.
She noticed a tendency for those in power to individualise any collective struggle, so now is always asking herself how to take action in ways that don’t uplift individuals, but rather uplift and give strength to collectives and collective action.
The lessons that guide amandla.mobi
Koketso’s experiences campaigning for her community led her to start amandla.mobi – and helped shape its central focus on the needs and voices of low-income Black women, as well as its use of mobile phones as its primary organising and communications tool.
Koketso shared a few lessons she learned early on that helped shape what amandla.mobi is today.
Be clear on what your values are, and make sure your practice is guided by them.
Too often activists think of the struggle for truth, justice and fairness as the work we do “out there”. But we are socialised in the same systems that we are so critical of. So when we work collectively, our starting point must not be the work we want to do, but rather the values we hold collectively, and how we reflect them inside our collective.
Koketso gave an example of how these values end up reflected in amandla.mobi’s decision making. As part of a campaign to lower mobile data costs in South Africa (which at the time were some of the highest in the world, especially for low-income people) the regulator held public hearings into the issue. But the hearings were held in an upmarket part of central Johannesburg – not at all accessible to the very people who were most affected by the issue.
The amandla.mobi team had a difficult decision to make. On one hand, this was a great opportunity, on the other hand, they felt participating would implicitly endorse the decision by the regulator to hold the hearings in a location that was only accessible to the privileged.
It was a difficult decision to make. In the end, they decided to ask their members to record videos and send in notes. The amandla.mobi team attended the hearings, but rather than make a formal presentation, they played every video and read every note.
Use all the tools at your disposal. But don’t replace people with tools.
It’s tempting for digital campaigns to think that because the technology they use is new, they’re doing something radically new that has never been done before. But technology has always existed. And throughout history, activists have used whatever technology is new at the time to fight and win campaigns.
Koketso recounted how the introduction of affordable printing presses in South Africa allowed the anti Apartheid movement to mass produce posters and pamphlets, and even start a publication which still exists today.
Koketso sees each new iteration of technology as just being a tool to help us go a little bit further than we could before. But we must never forget that the system and powers we challenge have access to greater capacity and resources than we ever could. Technology will never be our decisive advantage.
Instead, what makes movements powerful is people – and specifically, the ability to bring people together from disparate walks of life in common purpose to act collectively.
Test everything. Including your own assumptions.
We need to think carefully about how we replicate the inequalities of the wider world.
Keeping our work in line with our values requires constant vigilance – and is a never-ending process of constantly checking in.
After sharing those lessons, Koketso took a few questions from attendees before leaving us with some parting words of wisdom that tie deeply into the themes of her presentation and her work: the temptation of covid is to shut out the world and focus on our own personal safety, but coming together is what makes us powerful.
About Speaker and Conference
- Koketso (she/her) has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action.She currently serves as the Founding Executive Director of amandla.mobi, a community of 750,000+ people working to turn every cellphone into a democracy-building tool to ensure that those most affected by injustice can take collective action on issues affecting their lives. She was recently announced as an inaugural Collective Action in Tech fellow. Koketso is a 2019 Atlantic fellow for racial equity, is part of the inaugural cohort of the Obama Foundation fellowship, and she is also an Aspen Institute New Voices senior fellow.
- FWD+Organise 2021 was a conference held by Australian Progress for community organisers and digital campaigners from across Australia and Aotearoa to share practical skills, learn innovative approaches to advocacy and build lasting collaborations to win systemic change. Sessions included keynotes, workshops, masterclasses, and expert briefings. Access other conference sessions here.
- Collective action
- FWD + Organise 2021 (Australian Progress Conference - Australia)
- Mobile phones_Smartphones
- Movements_Campaigns - South Africa