A coffee with… Siyabulela Mandela
A consultant on international development, conflict resolution, and international relations, Siyabulela Mandela is carrying forth the legacy of his great grandfather, Nelson Mandela — the anti-apartheid activist and the first black president of South Africa.
For the last four years, Mandela has lent his expertise to the Canadian organisation Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), whose mission is to mobilise local media worldwide to cover marginalised communities and human rights stories.
TI’s Ann-Marie Corvin spoke with the activist and keen cook last month at TechBBQ in Copenhagen. The two formed part of a panel looking at the impact of technology on human rights and the media.
How would you say technology impacts human rights?
Innovation and technology are part and parcel of human development. We need technologies to develop and evolve our societies. Still, we must also be conscious that these new products may contain inherent and active biases that we are sceptical and cognoscent of.
One way tech companies can combat this is to make sure that their teams are diverse during the developmental stages. If they are working on a product — a security system, for instance — if you are producing a system, it ought to be tested on all the groupings so that when it is deployed, it doesn’t identify some people as potential criminals based on how they look.
Tell us more about the work you are doing with JHR?
It’s over 20 years old now and operates in around 30 countries. We work at the intersection of media development, human rights, and democracy. We train journalists living in conflict zones and unstable regimes in Africa and the Middle East on how to report on human rights issues.
We recruit journalists from community radio stations, TV stations and newspapers (print and digital). We pair them with media trainers with 5 – 10 years of journalistic experience. Then, we train the trainers — by bringing in people from reputable media houses nationally and internationally. And so, the journalists train the trainers, and the trainers teach community journalists.
Once trained, we provide journalists with story grants to go into communities they ordinarily wouldn’t reach and investigate and deliver stories around human rights, gender-based issues and climate change. Everything we do is through a human rights lens.
You’re also fighting misinformation and making people aware of the dangers of tech like deepfakes…
When it explodes in the African continent, deepfakes are likely to have devastating consequences, especially in ethnically divided communities. Take the history of Rwanda — imagine the devastating impact that would cause today. Back then, they used the radio to stoke racial hatred; now, it would be online and come across as a particular person saying something when they did not.
The dangerous thing about it is that it is not easy to check because once it hits WhatsApp, it can be forwarded to many people. Then, it’s not easy to trace the origins. The damage has already been done by the time the authentic version comes out. Just think of the impact and the damage that could cause. You could rally a particular ethnic group to attack another in a split second. It could start a civil war.
Want to know more about TechBBQ? Read the full article about it here.
But do you also believe in the power of tech for good?
Yes. An early example was during the Arab Spring in the Middle East and Africa. Young people, facing collapsing economies and dictatorships imposing authoritarian regimes, used social media to mobilise and rally. That was entirely coordinated and managed via social media towards a common good.
During our panel, you mentioned the importance of emergency connectivity…
Access to connectivity and information should be considered a human right. In the last Ugandan election, the Museveni government, through its communications regulator, ordered service providers to cut internet access just hours before voting started, influencing the election outcome. And did the same in 2016.
Museveni has been in power for over 40 years, and in recent years, this is one of the tactics he has deployed to keep him there. I can see many other African countries adopting similar tactics. So, we need to find alternative ways to remain connected and not give too much autonomy to these regimes.
Sounds like Elon Musk’s controversial Starlink satellite comms tech…
I hope that Starlink will benefit poor communities under authoritarian rule positively. I think it would help. Hopefully, it will. Although we have yet to see that happen.
You’re off to Poland next, before heading back home, you’ve obviously got a jam-packed schedule, what do you do to relax?
When I’m in South Africa, I like to do braai with my friends. Braai is like a BBQ but has become a culture in my country to unite black and white communities. It’s a typical weekend activity. If you go to any coastal town in South Africa, they have them by the beach, where there are designated areas to braai. We bring beer and wine and relax with friends. It removes all the other stresses and allows you to engage in community, friendship, and love. I also cook a lot and like to invite friends over.
To read more on Siyabulela Mandela’s views on deepfakes, click here.
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