WhatsApp a powerful tool: virtual civil society oversight, capacity building

In March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced cabinet’s plans to put South Africa on lockdown as part of the government’s efforts to reducing the looming threat of a Covid-19 outbreak. Not many could have anticipated that nearly 12 months later almost every sector of society would still be impacted by the effects of the national lockdown.

The news of a lockdown and the measures that were put in place restricted interprovincial movement and drastically limited face to face physical contact. This presented multiple challenges for the Democracy Works Foundation’s projects that work to develop and strengthen democracy in our communities.  This meant that we could no longer use our tradtional methods to  conduct capacity building, facilite  dialogue, and build relationships.


It was not to be long until these challenges were also felt by the Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature (CSPPL) project. The aim of this project is to connect and bridge existing gaps between Provincial Legislatures and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), to improve community driven accountability, oversight, public participation and service delivery. To implement the objectives of this project, the team relied on their abilities to travel to the various provinces; conduct capacity-building workshops; facilitate dialogues and negotiate with relevant stakeholders within civil society and government structures.

Under what was to be the new normal, the project team could no longer conduct work outside the confines of their homes and cities. In the capacity needs assessment conducted, and prior engagements with project beneficiaries it was clear that our beneficiaries still had many development areas that required mentorship, ongoing training and capacity development.  The project also needed to maintain the momentum that it was gathering in building relationships between CSO partners and their respective legislatures.

The same can be said for the relationships that’s started to flourish with the partners in the Legislature. The project had various meetings and face to face visits, and had supported CSO in making their submissions to provincial legislatures physically. Legislatures remained closed during lock down, meaning that MPLs, like everyone else, had to stay at home. The emergency regulations drastically changed the political landscape overnight, leaving especially provincial parliaments in a scramble to understand their new roles. In addition, many MPLs were not at all used to using digital platforms. National parliament sittings on zoom had been “highjacked”, and used to stream highly offensive content, creating a public embarrassment as well as a closed door instruction to refrain from using zoom, for security resons.  These factors initially lead to a strong resistance from many contacts within legislatures, to engage with the public at all, during a time, when parliamentary oversight was and still remains in certain cases a question of life or death.

One has to be mindful of the reality that the project operates mainly in Limpopo, the Northern Cape, and North West provinces which are considered as traditionally rural provinces with limited infrastructure and connectivity challenges. The project had to come up with unique interventions that would allow continued implementation with our project in a way that is sensitive to the political contexts, resources, time, and abilities of our beneficiaries within civil society and within state structures, such as the legislature.

Introduction of intervention. 

The lockdown forced everyone to rely almost entirely on digital platforms overnight. This presented an opportunity for provincial legislatures and the project’s CSO partners to explore using social media and digital platforms to engage with the public and conduct their affairs. In all the provinces the project works in, the provincial legislatures relied to some degree on digital participation to host seatings, committee meetings, and even call for the public to participate in specific sectoral parliaments. The Northern Cape Provincial Legislature stood out in terms of their initiative and direct action towards exploraing and facilitating digital and hybrid participation.

The project linked with the Action on Legislature Group, which is a loose coalition of CSOs, individuals and other organisations with an interest in increasing access to parliaments. Connecting over WhatsApp, the group shared information and initiatives to use the forced move towards increased digitalisation participation at national and provincial parliaments. Through this, the project was able to connect with experts sharing information and providing resources to assist accessing parliament such as the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and digital communications experts.

Prior to Covid the project had engaged with Grassroot South Africa, an organisation that had already identified WhatsApp as the most cost effective, practical and accessible tool to use to conduct online training. Following their guidance the project opted to use Whatsapp as a platform to conduct learning workshops. The advantage was that all of our CSO beneficiaries have access to a smartphone that enabled them to connect to Whatsapp and already had prior experience and knowledge of using the application.

WhatsApp has many advantages over other platforms. Apart from the fact that everyone felt very comfortable using the application, it also was able to overcome many of the infrastructure, data and technology challenges outlined above. Worth mentioning is also that many data packages include unilimited WhatsApp messages, meaning participants did not have to watch and prioritise their data usages as they engaged. For our CSO partners who are not as readily resourced as members of the Provincial Legislature, WhatsApp was therefore the ideal tool to use for ongoing engagements, to facilitate capacity building workshops, and in the case of the Northern Cape to connect them to their assigned regional liaison officers and other staff of the Provincial Legislature as well as with a growing network of CSO partners.

While the project was connecting with CSOs it was also engaging with provincial legislatures, advocating for continuing public participation during lockdown, through the use of digital tools and platforms. In the Northern Cape, based on the relationships built, the project was invited to host training sessions with MPLs, which also had to be conducted online. The training focussed on how MPLs can maintain oversight roles during a pandemic, through greater collaboration with CSO partners. It may also have increased the appetite for the use of digital tools, since some MPLs had prior to the engagements never made use of a video streaming website.

Shortly afterwards, the Public Participation Unit (PPU) started a WhatsApp group to facilitate conversations with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, who facilitated the MPL training, the Regional Liason Officers (who are the outreach arms of the Provincial Legislature) and DWF CSPPL project team. After each online and hybrid engagement, the PPU added more and more CSO partners from the network that started to build beyond the CSPPL group of CSO partners. Through this group, the PPU shares important information, like the programme, call for submissions or other events with the CSO network. Members of the network in turn shared events, emergency situations and other initiatives they are conducting that are of interest to their elected representatives.

Online learning Methodology

The project used WhatsApp as the primary learning platform in the form of group chats  for CSPPL project CSO partners, who were split into various groups based on their provinces.  Each learning group had no more than 10 participants at a time, to allow for maximum participation, and for the group facilitators to detect where learning gaps might be amongst the various participating organisations. The CSPPL project team was responsible  for facilitating the different whatsapp learning groups and conducting the week-long learning modules.

The team sent out learning materials, which included learning motivations, research questions, activities and online resources, in the beginning of each module. Particpants agreed on dates on which to submit their excercises and on which to have the hour long facilitated typed chat sessions. This allowed participants to integrate the engagements into their lives.

The learning materials were developed and distributed in the groups in jpg format which was supported by all our participant’s devices, many of whom did not have a laptop with which to open word or other formatted documents.

The learning themes covered in the different models under the CSPPL Whatsapp learning experiences included:

  1. Understanding the role of the different arms of government in a provincial context.
  2. Deepened understanding of the role of provincial parliament and how the institution can benefit the work CSOs.
  3. Understanding why there is a separation of powers and accountability.
  4. Design advocacy roadmaps to measure the progress of CSOs.
  5. Developing and reviewing submissions for the Provincial Legislatures and Executive.
  6. Identifying the relevant portfolio committee members to make submissions to.

The aim of the workshop methodology was to be  interactive and relevant to the individual situations of the participants. It also aimed to support the organic growth of networks that can support participants who do not have the same levels of experience of engaging with legislatures.

The methodology was also to allow participants to engage with the material at their own pace. Many of the participants were working on the front line of the Covid response, meaning that they had very demanding and competing priorities. CSO participants engaged in activities and material designed to help them better understand these learning themes. Often the examples they used for the exercises and activities came from whatever crises they were addressing at that time, from food parcels to PPE distribution. The responses to activities came via noice notes, written notes and diagrams on paper shared as photographs, or videos.

This provided a two-way learning experience, as it allowed the project team to also adjust programming and focus on issues that were most immediate in a fast-changing and uncertain environment. The chat sessions were a key aspect of the learning experience, since they allowed participants opportunites to discuss their assignments, share thoughts and importantly build their relationships and networks. It also provided an opportunity for the facilitators to address any misunderstandings or challenges that arose throughout the module. Small groups and dedicated facilitators allowed the project team flexibility and creativity in working with the CSO partners.

In ensuring that resources did not become a constraint to participation, those who expressed their availability were given data to the value of R80 every week.

Towards the end of the training engagement, CSO partners in all three provinces had developed individual or collective advocacy road maps which would guide them on their journey towards engaging with the legislatures and to communicate their activities to the public via social and traditional media. The project continued to use WhatsApp to engage with the CSO partners and support them, where possible, in their advocacy efforts.

Coupled with cross provincial engagements touched on above on using social media for advocacy (for CSO partners) and being a brand ambassador (with MPL partners) the project was able to build communication bridges across digital platforms. Highlights include YouTube, which the NCPL used to stream an open house sitting, for the first time in it’s history. The communication campaigns of both the CSO Coalition in the Northern Cape and the provincial legislature are also significant as they help to bring these two important stakeholder closer together and provide opportunities for them to engage with each other.

Findings & Conclusion

An ever-increasing number of digital platforms are becoming available and are seamlessly integrating into our everyday lives. WhatsApp has been a prominent tool for communication and advocacy since it arrived on the scene in the 2009. What the project found from conducting this form of capacity building is that the application was not as data-intense and as demanding as other platforms that were available.  The use of Whatsapp allowed for our partner beneficiaries to stay connected to our workshops, even while they were attending to more pressing issues that included sharing information about the pandemic in their communities, collaborating with the Department of Social Development in ensuring hunger alleviation to the most valuable members of society and providing counseling for those who were struggling to deal with the stress brought about by the pandemic.

The ability of Whatsapp to exchange voice notes, videos, and pictures allowed our participants to choose from various ways that they could participate in the group.  According to the feedback of one of our participants the training become lesser formal and as a result, was less intimidating which encouraged her to participate more.

Another significant finding is that members of the provincial legislatures and legislature staff were open  and comfortable with the use of WhatsApp. Limitations, including the fact that voice calls are limited to three participants, do exist. In combining WhatsApp with other digital platforms like YouTube, the project was able to overcome these challenges and connect CSOs and government officials and staff with easily accessible and context relevant information.

Ironically, the forced move towards virtual engagements has helped to facilitate a level of engagement between civil society and provincial legislatures that is more informal, accessible, cost-effective and instant than the traditional ways of doing things would have allowed. In this transition, it was the simplest platform, namely WhatsApp, through which various stakeholders could connect and continue to engage towards advancing the lived realities of our communities.

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