Zello keeps people in the loop during South Africa’s unrest


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.



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