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An African perspective: Is cyber democracy possible?

Clayton Peel (2008-07-30)
http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/49780

Wole Soyinka was addressing a conference on the issue of the ‘brain  
drain’ from African countries. He remarked on how many of the speakers  
before him had lamented the flight of millions of Africans to the West  
and how apparently desperate were these speakers, who included African  
heads of state, to reverse the trend so that the bright young minds  
and their skills could be retained on the continent. ‘Lucky drainees!’  
Soyinka enthused, with a whiff of sarcasm. While they went abroad  
exploring new frontiers, ‘the brains of their stay-at-home colleagues  
will be found as grisly sediments on the riverbed of the Nile. Or in  
the stomach linings of African crocodiles and vultures’ (Olaniyan,  
2003).

You will understand then why, at a conference of writers in exile held  
in Vienna in December 1987, the award-winning Somali writer, Nuruddin  
Farah, spoke ‘In Praise of Exile.’ He was not disparaging his home  
country: he was seeking to challenge the perspectives of its leaders.  
Basically agreeing with Soyinka's opposition of lucky exiles to dead  
stay-at-homes, Farah said he himself could not have been a writer in  
Somalia, only a prisoner. Not for him the common idea that the  
distance of exile kills artistic creativity: ‘For me,’ he wrote,  
‘distance distills; ideas become clearer and better worth pursuing’.

Removed from Zimbabwe, many of us have now become, in positive terms,  
more critical analysts of the situation in our homeland; in negative  
terms, soppy armchair critics. But the fact is that, we have the  
liberty of doing so! This armchair critic, for I am one, has become  
pre-occupied with the segmentation of Zimbabwean transnational website  
communities. Racially-charged politics, a high rate of HIV-AIDS  
infection, the complexity of gender relations derived from a country  
context that mostly is culturally conservative, and settlement in  
Britain by Zimbabweans and the various sensitivities that surround it,  
in both countries, are some of the issues that are raised in these  
website discourses. But difference is an opportunity to negotiate  
identities and is not inimical to the historical particularities that  
have shaped a definitive and distinctive ethnic presence in the  
demographics of Zimbabwe and in its diaspora.

For Diaspora and Communication studies, Zimbabwean electronic fora –  
the ‘new media’ - and their associations in Britain represent an  
important interface - a ‘social embedding’ (Aarsaether and  
Baerenholdt, 2001:49) of Diaspora communities in the homeland agenda  
that has created of the websites ‘specific communal refuges’ based on  
networks of family and friends and ethnic associations. In a  
generation of émigrés witnessing their homeland’s political and  
economic ruin but possessed of enhanced media technologies, the  
facility to not just track, but respond to events has led to the  
emergence first of social networks, and later the source of Internet  
activism that irked Robert Mugabe (2003) who said it represented ‘the  
same platforms and technologies through which virulent propaganda and  
misinformation are peddled to de legitimise our just struggles against  
vestigial colonialism, indeed to weaken national cohesion and efforts  
at forging a broad Third World front against what patently is a  
dangerous imperial world order led by warrior states and kingdoms’.

Compatriots wanting to assuage anxieties and nostalgia created and  
contributed to a web of electronic activism that contributed  
meaningfully – and varyingly - to Zimbabwean communities as the  
discourses and their associations grew vivid, provocative, and  
productive. Creatively using new technologies to define themselves,  
the Zimbabwean Diasporic websites raise social and anthropological  
media properties bound to attract scholarly attention.

Secondly, the fora are a microcosm of Zimbabwean diversity which  
deconstructs the authoritarian nationalism that has been a signature  
of Mugabe’s 28-year rule. This study characterizes the Diaspora  
websites’ ‘production of difference within common, shared and  
connected spaces’ (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997:45). It fills a research  
void acknowledged by Mwangola (2007) regarding smaller Diaspora  
communities ‘considered by both their host countries and the African  
world to be insignificant because of their small numbers and lack of  
political and/or economic capital’. Diverse Zimbabwean identities and  
their expressions which convey not only data and meaning, but  
community building through communication, form a transnational public  
sphere of website communities and associations representing a vibrancy  
absent from the ‘intolerant’ and ‘dull…intellectual ghetto’ Zimbabwe  
had become (Nyamfukudza 2005:21, 23) .

Thirdly, there is a general lack of authoritative source material of a  
qualitative nature on which UK agencies can rely for assessment of  
Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans, in the UK and at home. Over a two-year  
period I have provided assessments for law firms pursuing asylum cases  
and was given access to not just the claims, but the material on which  
government agencies drew to make their determinations. The source  
material nearly always lacked comprehensive detail. In particular, the  
expectation that all hardship in Zimbabwe must have had a party  
political dispensation to be worthy of an asylum claim betrayed an  
insensitivity to other tensions existing in that strangled  
environment, which UK-based agencies in particular seemed to be  
uninterested in. My research has the potential to expand the value and  
the knowledge base of interested parties.

It makes diversity a factor of social research with its emphasis on  
‘undigested minorities’ (Nyamnjoh 2006:94; Nyamfukudza, 2005:18).  
Despite the significance of ethnic and cultural difference to  
Zimbabwe’s distant and recent history, this has not been a priority  
area in the research there has been into Zimbabwean transnationalism.  
The odd scholarly observation in this direction has remarked on the  
‘fragmentation’ (Pasura, 2006a), although to view the diverse  
representations of a country’s multi-ethnic make-up solely in that  
light is to potentially omit positive aspects which the diverse  
populations and their plural expressions might bring to the discourse,  
something the electronic media may have enhanced. Conceptualizing this  
multi-polar engagement, I use Appadurai (1996), Werbner (1997a), Wise  
(2006), Moyo (2007) and Habermas’ descriptions of the public sphere as  
the ‘epistemic dimension’ (2006:411) to the procedures of democratic  
discourse. The research hopes to demonstrate not only the extension of  
democratic space, but also the production and reaffirmation of  
marginalized cultures in the electronic fora. Zaffiro (2002),  
Raftopolous (2004), Ranger (2005; 2002) and Nyamfukudza (2005), among  
others, have tracked the Mugabe government’s attempts to forge a  
corporate Zimbabwean identity and history that either excluded or  
assimilated minorities, or distorted their historical roles and the  
entitlements of their Zimbabwean citizenship. The social and economic  
upheaval which ensued, notwithstanding political arguments in  
mitigation, were accompanied by a re-ordering of Zimbabwean  
historiography that replaced even-handed analysis with unbalanced and  
at times rabidly racist literature (Nyamfukudza, 2005; Ranger, 2005;  
Raftopolous, 2004). By contrast, the transnational websites may inform  
an alternative narrative that acknowledges Zimbabwe’s demographics in  
deconstructing history and re-defining the nation.

As it expands its functions and its properties become progressively  
more accessible to households and other non-institutional users in  
Britain (OfCom, 2004), Internet communication is being appropriated by  
various echelons of the society to serve diverse interests: to  
‘encompass the cultural forms of marginal constituencies’ (Ebo,  
1998:x) as well as ‘emphasize hierarchical political  
associations’ (1998:2); to ‘encourage broad participation and  
emphasize merit over status’ (1998:3) as well as create private media  
spaces for individual, group and culture aggregations (Burnett and  
Marshall, 2003:67-68). There is a sense of virtual spaces being freed  
up to ventilate the previously unventilated: the minorities and the  
marginalised, their aspirations, their political and social will all  
being articulated in the relative freedom of a media-savvy Western  
liberal democracy.

In Ebo’s words, internet technology allows groups ‘traditionally  
dislocated from mainstream social linkages …to develop communal  
bonding’ (1998:4) through virtual and real-life associations that  
‘fulfil the same traditional essence of associations and bonding, and  
invariably promote social relationships that are orchestrated by  
inherent inegalitarian tendencies in society’ (1998:5). He concludes  
that the stratification in the online associations will continue, for  
‘as long as communities on the Internet allow participants to engage  
freely in the creation of social realities, economic and social  
classifications rooted in race, class and gender…will invariably  
influence relationships in virtual communities’ (ibid., p6). Ebo  
refers to this property of online engagement as the ‘cyberghetto  
perspective’ (ibid., p5), betraying a fear of negation and inequality  
being extended to cyberspace. But the facilitation of self-propelled  
diverse interest groups which use Internet communication to gain  
leverage in a world of inequalities is the rather more positive  
intuition behind this research.

CONCLUSION

To foregrounds a plurality of ethnic, political and professional  
continuities to introduce a study that addresses the democratic  
deficit and counter-authoritarian discourses that co-exist in an  
extended public sphere which this thesis seeks to describe. It has  
introduced plurality as a key element in website production and usage  
and the real-life associations that are formed based on shared  
affinities to the respective websites.


*Clayton Peel is the Vice-Chairman, Britain Zimbabwe Society. This  
paper was presented at the Britain Zimbabwe Society Research Day, 2008.

*Please send comments to [log in to unmask] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/

Bibliography:
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s. e. anderson is author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
Social Activism is not a hobby: it's a Lifestyle lasting a Lifetime
http://sites.google.com/site/blackeducator
http://blackeducator.blogspot.com
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S E ANDERSON-
author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
http://www.blackeducator.org
blackeducator.blogspot.com
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