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“Thinking and speaking for ourselves”: the development of shack dwellers’ political voice in the age of ICTs

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posted on 2023-06-08, 23:34 authored by Kalinca Gutierrez Copello
A prevailing urban phenomenon of the 21st century is that more people than ever before are living in informal settlements. As residents of informal settlements, the majority of shack dwellers can be considered socially, economically and politically marginalised citizens. The combination of poverty, marginalisation, and precarious living conditions has in many cases given rise to a vicious cycle. In this cycle, shack dwellers lack an effective voice and are unable to participate in political decision-making processes that affect their lives, leading to deepening deprivation and marginalisation. To break this cycle, the development of a genuine political voice of shack dwellers is essential. However, the process of developing a political voice in shack dwellers has only received scant academic attention and is poorly understood. One aspect of this process is the role of information communication technologies (ICTs) in enabling political voice. This has received some attention and has become a salient topic in academic study and development policy. Despite growing adoption of certain ICT tools by marginalised individuals, there is little evidence of their meaningful use for political voice. Access to ICTs is not the same as meaningful use of ICTs for political voice. Only a few studies have examined the issue of meaningful use of ICTs for political voice. This dissertation explores the factors influencing the processes by which marginalised individuals are able to develop a political voice, with a particular focus on the role of two increasingly ubiquitous ICTs – mobile phones and internet. A qualitative case study of a shack dweller grassroots organisation in South Africa (Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM)) is used to explore different types of political voice. The case study looks at the circumstances under which members of AbM are able to develop individual and collective forms of political expression, and the role that the use of ICTs play in this development. Data collected from semi-structured interviews and participant observation for this study suggests that, individual differences in combination with entrenched traditions and social structures based on patronage may undermine the development and or expression of political voice. However, active engagement in a grassroots organisation was found to be useful to overcome these limitations and for some individuals to develop their political voices. AbM members were able to engage in collective processes which led to the development of social bonds, trust, self-confidence, and critical reflection. Both the internet and mobile phones were found to play an important role in the development of political voice of AbM members. However, interaction between the use of ICTs and the development of a political voice is complex. In many instances the technology has enabled mobilization, as well as given individuals a feeling of security. Where this has happened, the appropriation and re-purposing of ICTs to fit the needs of AbM members has come about as a result of attaching meaning to these technologies, which did not exist before AbM. ICTs can facilitate the development of political voice, in particular by facilitating collective processes (e.g. mobilization), channelling support and trust, as well as raising self-confidence. Yet, as the case of AbM demonstrates, ICTs have not operated as a political equalizer within AbM. The use of ICTs for political voice might have even created new barriers for the development of political voice of some members. This dissertation brings together disparate stands of literature dealing with ICTs, political voice, social movements, empowerment, community psychology, and participation to conceptualise the development of a political voice. Moreover, a framework is devised to analyse the nature and the process of this development in marginalised individuals, as well as the role played by ICTs in this process. This dissertation aims to bring an understanding of the complex relationship between ICTs and political voice of marginalised individuals. An understanding of the process can provide important inputs to devise more effective design and implementation of policies and projects aimed at increasing political participation of an ever-growing population of disenfranchised and marginalised people living in informal settlements.


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  • eng


University of Sussex

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