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The role of a Facebook group in facilitating public participation, civic engagement and social capital: a case study of Willowfontain community in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

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Prior to democratization in 1994, South Africa was governed by laws and policies that limited public participation in policy processes and structures. However, the shift from apartheid to democracy in 1994 remained one of the most significant turning points in South African history. The introduction of participatory governance and democracy sought to establish and strengthen public participation amongst all races but especially disadvantaged communities, to participate in governance processes and structures to democratically empower all citizens to voice their opinions on issues affecting their livelihoods. However, post 1994 formal spaces for community participation have not produced the intended results amongst marginalized communities where service delivery remains significantly low. The introduction of social media networks such as Facebook in 2004 created a platform whereby people can engage with one another and post their views and matters that affect them with the hope that their matters can be resolved. The study examines the role of Facebook, specifically one Facebook community group in facilitating public participation, civic engagement, and social capital in the Willowfontein community located in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu - Natal. The study sought to answer the following questions: 1. What is the role of the Facebook community group in the Willowfontein community? 2. Does the Willowfontein community Facebook group facilitate or constrain public participation, civic engagement and social capital? 3. What are the challenges faced by the Willowfontein Facebook group administrator? 4. How does the Willowfontein ward representative (councillor) engage with Willowfontein Facebook group members? This study adopted a mixed method approach which involves both qualitative and quantitative methods. The study also used the case study approach. The semi-structured interviews were employed with the key informants comprising one ward councilor from the Willowfontein community and one Facebook administrator from the Willowfontein community. The study also used an online survey questionnaire for the 32 online participants from the Willowfontein Facebook community group. The study analyzed the qualitative data gathered from the semi –structured interviews according to themes. The themes were derived from the literature review and the conceptual framework. The study also analyzed the quantitative data gathered from the survey questionnaires using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS version 6) and descriptive statistics. This study further analyzed the content of the posts that were shared in the Willowfontein Facebook Community Group between the years of 2017 and 2019. The posts were analysed according to themes of similar ideas that the researcher identified from the posts that were shared in the group. The study found that the Willowfontein Facebook group facilitates public participation, civic engagement, and social capital. However, this is to a limited extent as there are community members that don’t have smart phones to participate online. The study revealed that the older generation struggles with the new online platform and that hinders their online participation. Further, the study revealed that the Ward councilor is not part of the online group, and this could be limiting public participation. Moreover, the study revealed the challenges that the group administrator encounters such as members that spread fabricated news about others, group members who are insulting other group members and cause chaos and members who run scams on the group to scam other group members their money.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.