Ahead of SoNA, government expands ‘two-way conversation’ using social media and apps


You might regard it as a simple change to regular SABC programming or, if you’re Capetonian, the worst traffic nightmare imaginable. Government is however hoping this year you’ll remember the State of the Nation Address not for what the EFF might do, but as the day it released an app.

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President Jacob Zuma’s address during the opening of Parliament is perhaps the most-watched speech for local journalists and economists. With the Rand at a 13-year low against the Dollar as investor sentiment dropped ahead of the speech, the cost of your next Amazon order depends a great deal on what Zuma will say. For Jozi editors and journalists, SoNA is an excuse to spend a week in Cape Town as pre-parties and after-parties dominate their Outlook calendars.

But this year the general public has a new interest in Parliament thanks to Julius Malema and his disruptive EFF. With an international hashtag initiated by tannie Evita and supported by Charlize Theron, social media will be following the expected “pay back the money” chant during Zuma’s speech even if National Assembly decides to cut its live feed.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract the public from all this noise, government has launched an Android and iOS app offering a new entry point to Gov.za, home of government’s public information. Launched at a SoNA pre-party last night, the GCIS (government’s PR agency) had Mxit on hand to explain the benefits and reach of mobile technology to an audience of journalists who already knew this. Together with the new “South African Government” app, attention was also directed to the first app government launched late last year for their Vuk’uzenzele newspaper.

Part of the reason why government is now investing in apps, is because it believes it will be more cost-effective than printing thousands of Vuk’uzenzele copies, press releases and statements, all of which stack up around Parliament for weeks.

“[The] Minister of Finance said that we are running out of funds,” said Deputy Director-General for Content Processing and Dissemination, Harold Maloka, in a statement, “and therefore we are going to cut the communications budget. That came as a devastating element but then we had to think of other platforms that we can use to be able to reach more and more people. Social media has allowed government to have cost-effective, efficient two-way conversation with citizens.”

But when the presidency took to social media asking South Africans to tell Zuma what he should talk about during his speech tonight, it backfired. The overwhelming response on Facebook and Twitter has been for Zuma to resign and legalise dagga.

Government’s apps are the only other channel that the GCIS can control within their new focus on “other platforms”. Like the Vuk’uzenzele app, the new government app is very basic. Developed by Memeburn’s parent company, Creative Spark, you might think we’d be more complimentary of it. But we won’t be. It’s a start and it gets the job done. There are plans to improve it going forward but then again it’s not like Gov.za is bookmarked on our browsers. It’s just not Facebook.

The app is useful for is accessing press releases and media contacts and is a much easier browse than trying to access Gov.za from a mobile device. Why would you need to access the website on your phone? If you’re a parliamentary reporter, you’re often on the run between committee meetings and press briefings, running with a cameraman from the Old Assembly to Stal Plein unsure where to go. That’s when you need access to these documents, especially if your assignment editor isn’t taking your calls. Does that sound like you? Then download it here.

The rest of us will probably not have too much use for these apps. But with the GCIS taking the leap in approaching developers to explore the space, we could see other government departments following their example to channel your tax money into innovative apps.

If you decide to watch SoNA tonight with friends around a TV set (or at one of 36 giant screens erected across the country) and nothing eventful happens after hour one, tell your friends about this app. They’ll think you’re clever or know something about government they don’t.

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