John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Tracking South Africa’s Democracy in Real Time

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
April 8, 2014

A search of FACTIVA’s database revealed preliminary evidence that reporting on service delivery protests has been increasing since the early 2000s, with a sharp downturn in 2013. However, this data is limited by internal factors such as FACTIVA’s addition of new sources and external factors like the media’s use of the term “service delivery protest.” Source: FACTIVA


This is a guest post by Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar. They are Master of Public Administration students at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. They are working with Ambassador John Campbell on a graduate practicum project, which was made possible by faculty adviser Professor Anne Nelson. A longer version of this post appeared on the World Policy Blog.

Our project, the South Africa Service Delivery Protest Tracker, will stand as a resource for gauging the strength of South African democracy. We are focusing in on the country’s service delivery protests. These protests, a legacy of the apartheid era, are grassroots uprisings that occur with regularity across South Africa when a community feels its right to basic services–sanitation, water, housing, electricity, among others–are not being met by the government.

The protest tracker is part of a student consulting practicum with John Campbell, former ambassador to Nigeria and Africa fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His work and the work of many experts inform our new tech-driven project.

For many analysts, service delivery protests are an indicator of the strength, or weakness, of South African democracy. In Pathways to Freedom, a book to which Ambassador Campbell contributed, the authors write that civic organizations in South Africa “now play an important role in agitating for better service delivery, more accountable governance, and policies to address poverty, inequality, and high unemployment.” Protest, a legacy of the fight against apartheid, remains one of the primary tools wielded by these civil society organizations. However, little is known about the character and scale of these protests in aggregate.

The protest tracker will aggregate news articles and other online media sources and subsequently visualize mentions of service delivery protests both geographically and over time. Building upon the methodology the Council on Foreign Relations used to build the Nigeria Security Tracker, we plan to develop an online platform that automates the process of tracking and aggregating data on these protests. The hope is that this tool will be a source of real-time data on protests that will be useful for policy makers, think tanks, journalists, and academics as well as the general public.

Our field research in Johannesburg, which included interviews with key stakeholders and visits to townships, brought to us a better understanding of the current media and political environment in South Africa. This new information triggered debate among our team members on some of our project’s underlying assumptions and intended direction. Soon it became clear that, while existing protest tracker projects tend to be better at recording individual protests, few are open source and most leave the data sources disconnected from the final visualizations. Graphs and visualizations, although comprehensive and full of information, tend to be static snapshots of the data. Our project aims to fill in these gaps by creating an interactive online dashboard that empowers users to look beyond numbers and explore the context behind each data point.

This post is the first of three dispatches from South Africa covering our work. Follow along as we design a platform to track service delivery protests and report on South African democracy in the lead up to the imminent elections.

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