On June 29, former South African president Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for corruption during his presidency. Zuma—the first ethnic Zulu to hold the country’s highest office—has a loyal following. He also has many detractors, who blame his administration’s corruption for a stagnant economy and weakened democracy.
Zuma didn’t turn himself in until July 7, saying he was innocent and that jail could kill him at 79 years old. Within hours, protests and widespread looting, particularly in his home city of Durban, were reported as supporters stationed themselves around his compound and challenged police. That violence has led to at least 215 deaths and more than 2,500 arrests.
For South Africans like Amith Gosai, keeping track of what was happening on the ground was hard. His WhatsApp chats were flooded and confusing. Then he saw a note on his community WhatsApp group urging neighbors to join a sort of neighborhood watch channel on Zello, a “walkie-talkie” app that is fast becoming a tool for protest communication.
“This helped us tremendously to create awareness around the community as well as to quell fears,” Gosai told me via Twitter DM.
Gosai, who is also from Durban, was among 180,000 people who downloaded Zello in the wake of Zuma’s arrest. Users subscribe to channels to talk to each other, sending live audio files that are accessible to anyone listening in on the channel.
Zello was originally designed to help people communicate and organize after natural disasters. With Wi-Fi or a data connection, people can use it to broadcast their location, share tips, and communicate with rescuers or survivors in the aftermath of a hurricane, flood, or other emergency. In the US, Zello found traction in 2017’s Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts. The app is also used by taxi drivers, ambulance workers, and delivery personnel who want to send hands-free voice messages, according to Raphael Varieras, Zello’s vice president of operations, says. Because Zello is a voice-first platform, it’s faster than typing and requires no literacy skills.
But recent events suggest that use of Zello is increasingly being used to connect people in areas of unrest as well. Within hours of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, downloads skyrocketed to 100 times their usual rate, for example. And Cuba also saw a spike in downloads amid protests over shortages of food and medicine. Unsurprisingly, this development has prompted some countries to ban the app, including China, Venezuela, and Syria.
Without a formal emergency response system like the US’s 911, South Africans have been increasingly turning to Zello to coordinate ad hoc ambulances and neighborhood patrols. One channel, South Africa Community Action Network, boasts 11,600 paying members who donate for emergency services like ambulances, along with more than 33,000 non-paying members, according to a blog post on the site.
One Twitter user in South Africa I spoke to (who requested anonymity in light of the current dangerous situation) said that some people were using Zello to figure out which houses and storefronts were ripe for looting, while others were tuning in to gauge whether they should flee or stay where they are.
Another user, Javhar Singh, said via Twitter DM that he was using it as “live communication among community members to notify us about the whereabouts of looters,” adding: “It is way faster than the news.”
Crucially in such a tense situation, Zello is anonymous. “People don’t have access to your personal number like in WhatsApp,” says Gosai.
The speed, anonymity, and intimacy created by voice make Zello feel urgent. But those same characteristics could breed misinformation, which Zello does not currently monitor—anyone can use the app at any time to say whatever they want. In fact, Zello was used in planning and carrying out the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Zello’s popularity in South Africa also proves that online audio isn’t just a 2020 trend. Audio chat rooms on Clubhouse and Discord are built on the idea that people want to talk about common interests, and Facebook and Twitter are actively testing live audio on their platforms. Zello’s general audience, however, isn’t sticking around long enough to get to know people: they’re looking for news, fast and unfiltered.
“There’s a long history of Zello as a go-to app in times of crisis,” says Zello’s CEO, Bill Moore. In South Africa and elsewhere, that increasingly means more than just natural disasters.