A beautiful movement for free access to Wikipedia is growing from a slum in South Africa

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Joe Slovo Park (Cape Town, South Africa) as seen from the entrance to Sinenjongo High School.

Joe Slovo Park is a slum.
Mass unemployment. Drunkenness and drug addiction. Gangs. Teenage pregnancy. Tuberculosis. HIV/AIDS. Single room shacks that house five people. Illegal power connections. Lots of children without shoes. It’s a shantytown made up of whatever materials people can scrape together. It’s overcrowded and dirty. You have to know people to be safe.
In the middle of this place there is a high school made of used shipping containers and prefab buildings where students from the area come to study and learn. A class of students at the school has a simple request: they want free access to Wikipedia from their mobile phones so that they can do their homework. They started a campaign on Facebook for “Free Access to Wikipedia from Cellphones” and wrote an open letter to all the telecoms in the country:

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Kul Wadhwa speaking at 0:55:05 about a news article about the class at Sinenjongo High School.

The Grade 11A Class who penned the open letter for free access to Wikipedia on their cellphones, (photographed in February 2013 as the 12A class).

A cellphone repair shop built from a shipping container in Joe Slovo Park. The store is across the street from the school.

Children in Joe Slovo Park, photographed next to computer and cellphone repair stores.

A small internet services store in Joe Slovo Park.

Pam Robertson, Grade 12A maths and science teacher at Sinenjongo High School.

Here I am on a photo walk through Joe Slovo Park with the 12A class.

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I had given out Wikipedia stickers to the learners earlier in the week and when I came to Ntsika’s house, I saw that he had put the sticker on his refrigerator. I asked him why he did that.

Myself, Charlene Music and Oarabile Mudongo setting up cameras in one of the two computer labs at Sinenjongo High School.

Charlene Music explaining to Sinako (one of the learners) how to shoot a documentary.

A sample from a Cape Town radio interview between Kieno Kammies and Pam Robertson, Maths and Science teacher at Sinenjongo High School about her class and their campaign for free access to Wikipedia on their cellphones.

Open letter to Cell C, MTN, Vodacom and 8ta
We are learners in a Grade 11 class at Sinenjongo High School, Joe Slovo Park, Milnerton, Cape Town. We recently heard that in some other African countries like Kenya and Uganda certain cell phone providers are offering their customers free access to Wikipedia.
We think this is a wonderful idea and would really like to encourage you also to make the same offer here in South Africa. It would be totally amazing to be able to access information on our cell phones which would be affordable to us.
Our school does not have a library at all so when we need to do research we have to walk a long way to the local library. When we get there we have to wait in a queue to use the one or two computers which have the internet. At school we do have 25 computers but we struggle to get to use them because they are mainly for the learners who do CAT (Computer Application Technology) as a subject. Going to an internet cafe is also not an easy option because you have to pay per half hour.
90% of us have cell phones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us.
Normally when we do research Wikipedia is one of the best sites for us to use and so we go straight to it. The information there is clear, updated and there is information on just about every topic.
Our education system needs help and having access to Wikipedia would make a very positive difference. Just think of the boost that it will give us as students and to the whole education system of South Africa.

From Sinombongo, Sinako, Busisiwe, Ntswaki, Bomkazi, Lindokuhle, Ntsika, Patrick, Ndumiso, Sinazo, Bathandwa, Nokuthembela, Lutho, Mandlilakhe, Zingisile, Aviwe, Nezisa, Ncumisa, Nokubonga, Pheliwe, Zama, Unathi, Malixole and Ntombozuko.

The letter made headlines in the South African press, and my colleague Kul Wadhwa, who manages the Wikipedia Zero program at the Wikimedia Foundation, shared the news with me. I’m always looking for stories to tell about Wikipedia and this was the first grassroots effort (that I know of) that anyone made to get this kind of access to Wikipedia.
Three months ago, I didn’t know anything about this school and had never been to Africa. Being a Wikipedian at heart, I started a page for the school thinking that maybe the page might grow and help me with my research. I then got ahold of Pam Robertson (one of the teachers) at the school via the Facebook campaign page. I asked if I could ask her pupils a few questions (I later learned that the ‘learners,’ as they call themselves, were excited that someone in America even read their letter). I asked her pupils three things: Who are you? Where are you from? What does Wikipedia mean to you?
Here are a few quotes from emails they sent me:

…I attend school at Sinenjongo high school one of the public school in Cape Town. If I can draw you a picture of school, it can look as follows; my school is made of prefabs, it is surrounded by many shacks, there rubbish dump in front of our school, About 15 classes,1 science lab, 2 computer labs, very tiny garden, no playing fields. Nonetheless our school is one the schools that is obtaining good matric results, this shows that we have potentials. After school I want to have a job that i will earn good money so that I can provide for family and live my life to the fullest-not forgetting about giving back to my community. I want to be a role model. Wikipedia means the world. Wikipedia is up dated, it has valid information and it can link you to other websites. We also use it for our projects. If we can get wikipedia free our lives can be easy.

Nezisa Mdludlu

I am a 17 year old boy staying with a single mother, sister and a brother not forgetting my cousin and her child. We stay in a small shack having no one working surviving with only R1100 supporting grant in each and every month…When I pass my grade 12 I want to do Bsc Degree in Geology and work here at South Africa. Wikipedia can be very useful to me in such a way that when I am doing my assignments and projects I just go to wikipedia and it provide every information I need. Every term my marks are improving because of the information that I get on Wikipedia.


…I would love studying something like Actuarial Science, Astronomy or Medicine. Big complicated numbers and the amazing theories of the birth and the current state of universe fascinate me a lot.


…my brother was shot in 2005… Wikipedia is one of the most sites I use to search for information for my career it help of use for project because the isn’t facilities at school and the local library is to far that’s why it’s much easier to use our phones for the internet. But it costs us a lot because we have to stay on the internet for hours and most of the airtime is used and sometimes we save our pocket money to buy airtime. So by having free internet on our phones is easy and saves time.


…In my community we don’t have places where we can express our careers…


…As much as we do not have adequate facilities at my school we are determined, proud pupils in the way we perform. The current matric results were rating 94% and we are one of the most improving schools in the Western Cape…


…I live with my mother and my three brothers; we stay in a one roomed house…


…Learning conditions are poor because we lack sources for over time studies like research, internet for finding new things that are being established now. I would like to be a surgeon, study medicine at university and help my family, provide the love for my mother that she is giving me right now…


…The minute i heard about Wikipedia zero by Mr Piet Strieker I became very interested and would be very happy to access it from my cellphone. Without Wikipedia my schoolwork and my assignments are worth no marks.


After about the second paragraph, I had tears running down my face. I read pages and pages of quotes like these, describing similar circumstances, each from a different point of view.
I did some more research and found that the principal of the school had made a TED presentation about how she had turned Sinenjongo High School around from a joke of a school that was going to be closed and made it one that gets a 98 percent graduation rate. She did this in 2 years. In the video she talked about how she made the school work:

True transparency and trust…I was open in every decision, every advice from anyone…it was easy for me to gain their trust… People believe in transparency and also people believe in honesty and openness….Everyone is going to be owning this school, it belongs to all of us, not only me.

Malinga Nopote

After I saw the TED talk, I was inspired to make a documentary film about the class and their efforts. I sent a letter to the students, their teacher and the administration of the school, explaining what I hoped to do. Happily, they agreed to let me come to film.
I got in touch with Wikimedia South Africa about organizing a Q&A sesson about Wikipedia for the learners and found another filmmaker named Charlene Music (yes, her last name is Music) to help me to make the film. Oarabile Mudongo (an editor from Botswana who I had interviewed at Wikimania 2012 in Washington D.C.) heard of my effort and thought his story was similar to the students I was going to film and he asked if he could help. I enthusiastically agreed. We booked flights and bus trips to go to Cape Town and Johannesburg to shoot for two weeks. My basic plan was to let Sinenjongo High School and Joe Slovo Park tell us what they wanted to tell us. I wanted to see who the learners were, where they come from and what Wikipedia means to them. My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t be trusted and that no one would feel comfortable opening up to me on camera.
My fears were ungrounded.
The class was great. We talked to the learners, teachers, volunteer teachers, administrators, staff, parents, siblings and locals around Sinenjongo High and Joe Slovo Park. We also spoke with a few corporate heads and some graduates from the school, some of whom had gone on to university. The class showed us their township, their school and their homes. We also lent the class some cameras so that they could capture their own images and narrate their own story, without our interference.
We followed a few of the students over the weekend as they went to a university to study in special university-level classes designed for poor high schoolers who want to study and earn a bursary for a university-level education. One of the things you realize by walking around Joe Slovo Park is that cellphone stores and repair shops are everywhere. It’s obvious why the learners want to study using their phones — they all have one!
Wikimedia South Africa, Oarabile Mudongo and I taught the learners how to write Wikipedia articles (during their 1 hour of time per week at the computer lab at their school) and one of the learners corrected the article about Nelson Mandela on the (very small) IsiXhosa Wikipedia. (I forgot to mention that English is a second or third language for these learners – at home and in class they speak IsiXhosa.)
Charlene Music and I will be editing the documentary for the next few weeks and plan to release it into the Creative Commons with as much attention as we can.
Outside of this being used for fundraising at the Wikimedia Foundation, my purpose in making this movie is that if you are under 30 years old today, you probably know what Wikipedia means for education. But if you are over 30, you might not realize how important it is, because Wikipedia wasn’t around when you were in school. Wikipedia is a great place to start any research that you set out to do, whether you are in school or not.
The campaign from the class has received a bit of attention in South Africa, and I think it would be awesome if other schools in other parts of the world read this and decide to start their own campaign. I can’t think of a better example of what the Wikimedia Movement stands for than to share knowledge with determined people like class 12A at Sinenjongo High School.
Before the film comes out, if you want to help this class in their effort, there are a few things you can do:

  • You can get in touch with them on their Facebook campaign page: https://www.facebook.com/FreeAccessToWikipedia
  • If you work in telecommunications in South Africa or elsewhere in the world, let your colleages know about this campaign and if you are a decision maker at your telecom, please consider waiving data charges for for access to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Zero team at the Wikimedia Foundation is available to help you roll out this program. Please contact Kul Wadhwa, Amit Kapoor or Dan Foy here.
  • If you are a Wikipedian, you can help wikify the pages about Sinenjongo High School and Joe Slovo Park, and translate them to other language Wikipedias. I’m sure there are alot of other things you can do too that I’m not thinking about. Feel free to message me on my volunteer talk page about it.
  • You can help spread the word about their campaign by translating this blog post into your language or sharing this post with others. Feel free to add the translation to the Wikimedia blog page on Meta wiki here.
  • If you are a teacher, student, or school administrator, you can write your own letter of support for Sinenjongo High School, or if you think your school or community could use free access to Wikipedia on your cellphone, you could start a campaign of your own. I’d be happy to talk to you about it (you can reach me by email: vgrigas@wikimedia.org). Who knows — you might even make it into the movie.

Victor Grigas, Storyteller, Wikimedia Foundation

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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You guys are doing an amazing job @Wikimedia, keep on doing the good work.

Great blog post! It’s enlightening to realise what a difference (English) Wikipedia can make in a society where information is harder to come by. In the best of worlds it could also be a start for these kids to get actively involved in the Wikimedia community. I guess Wikipedia on a cell phone is maybe not offering the best of editing experience, but hopefully there will be changes to this. With a better access to Wikipedia, hopefully there will be a future for IsiXhosa Wikipedia as well (holding both thumbs). Wikipedia as a global mass medium and its importance regarding… Read more »

Hi, Victor!
That is an amazing history! I’m really touched by it.
Also, I’d like to ask a favor for fellow Wikipedians: if you find some news about this school on international (non South African) newspapers, let us know! I’d like to translate the article to Portuguese but the lusophone Wikipedia can be quite restricted when it comes to notability. Some global news could make it easier to one to argue that the school is really relevant.
I hope they get the access they demanded! Maybe it can bring better times to the Xhosa as well.
Good luck!

Gracias Victor por compartir esta historia tan inspiradora y conmovedora.
Muchas felicidades a los estudiantes de la Clases 11A (ahora 12A) y su maestra.

Un jallalla a todos quienes promovieron el proyecto, necesitamos promover algo similar en Bolivia. Las empresas de telecomunicaciones no sólo deben succionar las ganancias sino tambien realizar proyectos sociales como estas.
Saludos desde El Alto-Bolivia.
Jilalu Qhisphi (Ruben)

For anyone interested, here is a link to organize efforts around this campaign:
User:Darkyen is developing an online petition that uses Google maps to voice your support
(on Github):

[…] A beautiful movement for free access to Wikipedia is growing from a slum in South Africa (wikimedia.org) […]

This is great You guys are doing good job, sky will not be the limit keep it up

Excellent! These are the kind of minds we need in Africa, people who make an effort towards change. Also, free access to wikipedia should be implemented across the continent and not just South Africa. It would help African students greatly.

Nice one . Hardly do you see those who are ready to help with such a parletable problem in africa. Considering the fact that resource are needed. None the less no pain with no gain, when there is pain they would be gain as a backfull reward and also i want to use this as an appericiative medium, i really enjoy your works and your writtibgs on wikipedia. It has been help full to me. Wish i could add a vouluntree guest contribution to this firm one day.may i also say That sky is not your limit,but your take off… Read more »

Deberían ofrecer recursos a estos países, si entre todos no apoyamos este tipo de hechos, el país no evoluciona. Hay mucha gente en africa pobre que si tuvieran a su alcance toda la información que ofrece wikipedia, podrian conseguir evolucionar como otra cualquier persona.

You are really doing a great work. thumb up

Hmm nice one i so, so appreciate the cell phone repair shop , and i so wish features or things like this could be brought over here to Ghana, and to me its yet another improvement that touches every one world wide, wishing to see more new things soon. thumbs up 🙂

Wikimedia keep doing it, sharing information across the world
I love This Blog.
I Enjoy every bit of articles share on this blog
Keep it Up.
More grease to your elbow

Bro you have totally become a great boss of the pro bloggers thanks for that.

Great job guys. Good and innovative.

Wonderful job Wikimedia blog , keep doing great job , I really enjoy every word on this post .

Nice one. I wish we could have something of such in Nigeria. Guruscabal.com ….pls help

Weldone wikimedia i love evrything about you and i will say much about you at http://addednew.com

I enjoyed everything here and weldone wikimedia

That’s a good info. Free info to Wikipedia, Facebook, Google for rural slums and less privilege countries should be put in place.

With the increase in global awareness, not only wikipedia should be available for free to folks in slums. Interesting and useful sites like Facebook, Google and even http://mobileif.com should be free

great work wikimedia… you guys are touching lifes.

Wikipedia please give free access to http://specspricenigeria.com. that is the biggest tech blog in Nigeria.

What a touching story. Could not even finish reading the article because i can’t imagine going through what the students went through. It’s really hard leaving like that. But i think everyone especially people in underdeveloped countries should have free access to websites like wikipedia. Like the students said, its a great place to learn.

This is great and touching! We should encourage such moves on a global scale. It would help a lot of students greatly. I believe that everyone should have free and equal access to websites that provide quality information like Wikipedia.

That’s really an awesome development.. well done

Great Job WikiPedia…You guys are really doing great.

Excellent! These are the kind of minds we need in Africa, people who make an effort towards change. Also, free access to wikipedia should be implemented across the continent and not just South Africa. It would help African students greatly.

Thanks @wikimedia, i do appreciate this huge help to insure there is free access to wikipedia in SA. But there are other movements, from big corporations like Facebook, ensuring that we surf the internet for free.
Hope this works out well for us all.

This is really awesome! I would say, keep up the good work Wiki!

Please, is there anyway http://www.techsng.com/ can be included in your free access program? That will really be useful.

Nice one hope to see more of this.

This will create great encouragement to young minds thanks

[…] projet est né à la base d’une pétition de lycéens du lycée Sinenjongo, du township Joe Slovo Park, en Afrique du Sud, pour qui l’accès à l’éducation est […]