An African perspective: Is cyber democracy possible?
Clayton Peel (2008-07-30)
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.
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.
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s. e. anderson is author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners"
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