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BREAKING: Shock exits as GovChat CEO, chief data officer quit

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 28 Nov 2022
GovChat founder Eldrid Jordaan.
GovChat founder Eldrid Jordaan.

GovChat founder Eldrid Jordaan has resigned from his role as CEO.

In addition, the organisation’s chief data officer, Goitse Konopi, has resigned.

The news comes barely three months after the citizen engagement platform inked a five-year contract extension with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).

In a brief statement issued this morning, Jordaan comments it has been an honour to serve his country during the “very difficult” COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would like to thank our phenomenal partners, including the South African government, the United Nations, UNICEF, Absa, Telkom/BCX, MTN and AWS, for an incredible journey.

“This collaboration of public-private partnerships showed what is possible if we all steer in the same direction, as tens of millions of South African lives were impacted by GovChat.”

As to his next move, Jordaan briefly states he will take some time off to reflect on the journey, and consider his next contribution.

He also teases that he will definitely start his book, titled: “GovChat vs Facebook: The David & Goliath Story”. “I’ll keep you posted,” he states.

Founded in 2016 and launched in 2018, GovChat was introduced in partnership with COGTA. It can be accessed through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS and USSD channels.

Troublesome years

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the official communications platform for government.

The start-up had over the past two years been embroiled in a legal battle with Facebook parent company Meta, with the tech giant accusing it of violating its terms of service.

The controversial dispute caused a public outcry when Meta-owned WhatsApp sought to terminate GovChat and #LetsTalk, a technology start-up that connects government and citizens, from the WhatsApp Business application programming interface (API).

GovChat eventually came out victorious when the Competition Commission referred Meta Platforms (previously known as Facebook) and its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa (collectively referred to as Facebook), to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution for abuse of dominance.

The commission alleged that Facebook imposed and/or selectively enforced exclusionary terms and conditions regulating access to the WhatsApp Business API − mainly restrictions on the use of data.

In response, Meta vowed to defend its platforms from “abuse”, noting WhatsApp’s conduct to date has been entirely consistent with the provisions of the Competition Act, and it is simply looking to apply its terms and conditions fairly.

To add fuel to the fire, in November last year, non-profit Open Secrets released a report, titled “Digital profiteers: Who profits next from social grants?” It names GovChat among the private companies that profit from the personal data they gather through their digital systems co-created with governments.

However, Jordaan vehemently denied these claims, saying:“GovChat takes data privacy and security very, very seriously.

“Yes, we are a for-profit company, but not once have we said we will profit out of personal data and information from citizens. The information management system that we provide to various government departments is anonymised, aggregated and stripped of raw information. Based on contractual agreements with government, GovChat cannot sell or transfer data to a third-party.”

The now-former CEO added that GovChat’s collection and use of data is fully compliant with all laws, including the Protection of Personal Information Act and General Data Protection Regulation.

Citizen-centric services

Despite its troubles, GovChat has been lauded for delivering public services to over 9.3 million active users.

The platform, has among other functions, enabled citizens to report municipal service issues across the country to the appropriate municipality, and allowed communities to connect to and find out who their ward councillor and traditional authority are.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it enabled millions of South Africans to digitally apply for the South African Social Security Agency’s (SASSA’s) social relief in distress (SRD) grants.

Furthermore, it stepped in to assist citizens to direct their enquiries about the SRD grants to popular instant messaging platforms, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, through its fully-automated chatbot.

This, GovChat previously revealed, resulted in SASSA saving R7.5 million through the automated contact centre service.

As part of the next phase, GovChat had indicated this will include citizens having access to more co-created features, and options to access more government services digitally.