Computers Helped South Africa's Voters

ANYONE who pooh-poohs the computer's potential should look at South Africa. When the nation held its first all-race elections last week, digital technology helped reach people who had never voted before.

``Everything's been so rushed,'' says Kevin Smith, vice president of marketing for the United States subsidiary of Workgroup Systems. Normally, such a computer system would take at least six months to set up. But Workgroup Systems and its partners did it in only two. The network of 1,200 personal computers handles everything from journalists filing stories to election officials deploying ballot boxes.

``People were excited about getting this process going,'' says Mr. Smith, a South African who now lives in the US. The biggest challenge: setting up software that even a computer beginner could use. Workgroup Systems used graphical Microsoft Windows programs.

It is one thing to deal with computer-illiterate workers. It's quite another to reach illiterate voters. That's the task pursued by Sandenbergh Pavon, a South African multimedia company that invested its own money and time in the effort.

Starting in February, the company sent out UNESCO-sponsored voting-information kiosks, eventually 30 of them, that combined text, pictures, video, and sound. These 486-class computers, dressed up to look part robot, part automated-teller machine, told voters about each of the country's 19 political parties in any of 11 different languages. By touching the screen, potential voters could hear a one-minute message from the various party leaders or find out how to fill out a ballot. The screen displayed the parties' symbols.

Many companies didn't support the kiosk, saying the computer was too sophisticated for the voters it intended to reach. Half of South Africa's black population is illiterate. In fact, just the opposite happened, says company director Margot Sandenbergh.

Young people flocked to the machine.

``The communities got very involved,'' she says. One church guarded the information kiosk that had been set up just outside. Around a market area, kiosk guides sprang up to help newcomers master the system.

Other critics of the kiosk said it would heighten tensions, since it carried political messages from the extreme right and the extreme left. Instead, Ms. Sandenbergh claims, the machine helped calm the situation. Voters reluctant to attend political rallies - because of the intimidation they might have faced - felt free to punch up all the parties on the kiosk. If anyone complained, they could explain they were ``experimenting'' with the machine.

``Technology is a way to reach the masses,'' says David Conti, marketing director at AimTech Corporation in Nashua, N.H. AimTech, which sells a multimedia program used to create training videos for the employees of Fortune 1,000 companies, licensed its software to Sandenbergh Pavon. ``This is just a first step.''

Does all this mean that multimedia computers will revolutionize democracy? Hardly.

``I don't think technology will resolve anything,'' Smith says. ``If there are feuds going on, you can have the greatest technology in the world and it wouldn't make a difference.''

But it's heartening to know that when people decide to take a new course, advanced tools can help shine the light for even the least sophisticated among them.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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