Creating an Analytical Lens for Understanding Digital Networks in Urban South Africa

Creating an Analytical Lens for Understanding Digital Networks in Urban South Africa

Nancy Odendaal (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-152-0.ch003
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Recent literature on African cities examines the way in which social networks function as critical livelihood arteries in the ongoing survival strategies of the poor. An understanding of livelihood strategies is not new, but these transactions cannot be defined in space or frozen in time. This terrain comprises a divergent range of intentions, communications and movements exchanged between a multiplicity of actors making sense of their life worlds; negotiating, scheming and bargaining. Urban life continues to be reinvented at the margins, despite prevailing exclusionary economic and social forces. The potential exists for harnessing these strategies for developmental aims—building on the social capital created despite the absence of, or in addition to, the usual resources available for survival. One of these resources is Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Clearly the “real-time” communication, information transfer and exchange functions facilitated by mobile phones, e-mail and the Internet create the potential for informed decision making around the use and distribution of scarce resources. However, this chapter begins with the premise that ICT can only be considered a meaningful development tool if it is appropriated as ongoing input into the day to day decision-making of the poor. It is at this scale—the local, the individual, the social—that the appropriation of digital technologies is examined. The social appropriation of technology is considered in tandem with the network strategies people employ to manage and access resources. A conceptual bridge between the theoretical foundations of actor-network theory and the more contemporary writings on the African city is constructed to posit a theoretical lens for understanding digital networks in South African cities. The chapter concludes with a number of methodological implications with regards to future research into ICT and social networks in developmental contexts.
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Designing Community Web Sites In Durban

Two areas within Durban were selected as cases. KwaMashu is a township on the outskirts of Durban whilst Wentworth / Lamont contains a number of residential areas on the edges of Durban’s primary industrial area, the Southern Basin that essentially forms an extension of the port. Both study areas could be considered marginal in terms of income and economic opportunities. Selected community groups worked with undergraduate Internet Studies students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in developing web sites for a network of craft producers, a group of female home-based care workers (health workers that primarily provide support to HIV/AIDS victims in their homes), a Primary Health Care network (collective of clinics and Health Care workers) and a network of schools engaged in a market gardening and tree planting project in KwaMashu. The second generation of sites was developed for a Soccer team and clinic in Lamont as well as a school voluntary association and school environmental pressure group in Wentworth. The project has evolved over two years but is not yet complete. The author has been a participant-observer throughout this process and has conducted focus groups with members of the web design teams. Maintenance training is currently planned for representatives from all groups and follow-up interviews are to be conducted.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Actants: A term used in Actor-Network Theory to describe human and non-human actors engaged in an ongoing network relationship.

Discourse: Arguments, opinions and statements that are represented as facts (‘truths’) supported by definitions, theories and contentions that are part of a particular discipline. This term was developed by the social theorist Michel Foucault and is often used to provide a deeper understanding of the power relations that often underpin representation of knowledge and the imposition thereof.

Digital Communities: Communities of interest or place that rely on digital technologies such as mobile phones, the Internet and e-mail to communicate, network and disseminate information.

Associational Life: Term that describes the conditions that define a context where individuals rely on social networks and kinship relationships to survive and access resources. The term has become popular recently in urban studies, particularly with regards to African cities.

Social Capital: Assets used by individuals in the absence of financial and monetary capital to assist in accessing resources. Examples include familial relationships, social networks and clubs/societies.

Livelihoods: Used in Development Studies and Development Sociology, livelihoods refer to the survival strategies as well as the human, natural, social and financial capital people employ to function and survive.

Digital Networks: Social networks enabled through the use of digital technologies such as mobile phones, the Internet and e-mail.

Townships: Predominantly residential areas on the outskirts of South African cities designed during the Apartheid era to accommodate ‘non-White’ residents. These areas were racially segregated and enabled through the notorious Group Areas Act (abolished in South African in the early 1990s), legislation intended to reinforce spatial segregation through the designation of racially exclusive areas.

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