I am responsible.
This was the theme that an organistaion I worked with in South Africa, a few years ago, developed to help get people to take personal responsibility in combatting the spread of HIV. Noting that the epidemic was still largely uncontrolled in some South African communities, a strong emphasis on individual capacity to make a change was needed.
In fact, it was of great urgency as the rate of new infections meant that whole populations stood the risk of disappearing from national demographics if the pandemic continued its unchecked growth.
I am reminded of this theme for a few reasons; chief among these being the discussions that I had the privilege of co-moderating this past Friday at the Hub UnConference which took place as part of the 2013 edition of Shoko Festival.
Featuring a comprehensive lineup of new media innovators, adaptors and analysts from Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, the conversations provided multiple contexts around how new media is being used, and the challenges and opportunities thereof.
From The Virtual To Reality
My interest was particularly piqued by thoughts around what Takura Zhangazha, Director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), termed “turning the virtual into reality, and reality into the virtual” – a call to translate online activism into substantive offline change, and reciprocally, a call to translate offline realities into a substantive online presence.
This is a challenge that reaches well beyond Zimbabwe’s borders; one I believe many online-based startups and projects have to constantly grapple with.
What is change? Is it always measurable and quantifiable? And should it be?
I recall raising concern with this virtual versus reality dichotomy – via Twitter – some months back during the constitutional referendum. Given the buzz on Facebook with people sharing their pink pinky photos and the sheer volume of tweets featuring the #ZimRef13 hashtag, it was a bit of a downer to actually walk the streets of Harare to discover that the online reality we had created was nowhere near the offline experience; most people weren’t too fazed by the referendum and were going about their daily living.
This, of course, speaks to the reality of a lack of universal access to new media tools as these largely remain the privilege of a minority of the population. It also speaks to lack of access to, and/or interest in, old media tools. Additionally, it speaks to a politically apathetic Zimbabwean populace.
I know enough people who would not have voted, even if given access to all levels and layers of conversation and information.
“My vote does not make a difference,” is their standpoint.
There are many more factors that make the situation a very complex one, but it is on the issue of personal responsibility that I would like to now focus.
What Is Protest?
Most things don’t change without the acceptance of personal responsibility to change them. And all too often, I feel that as people – and Zimbabweans more specifically – we confuse talking about a problem with changing it.
Former Sunday Times Editor and current Editor-In-Chief of Avusa Media Newspapers, Mondli Makhanya, said of us just after the announcement of the presidential election results;
“So cross were Zimbabweans at this [presidential election results] that they resorted to their tried and tested form of protest. They huddled in groups and felt sorry for themselves. They cursed Mugabe in the safety of familiar company and bemoaned their country’s future. Those living in South Africa and abroad embraced more radical forms of protest; they phoned radio talk shows and wrote strongly worded comments on websites.”
Of course my ego and pride are wounded by Makhanya’s somewhat cynical words. But I come away asking myself if his analysis does not indeed bear some sobering truths. Has our most radical form of protest – about anything – not become social media and other forms of debate?
I am not one to delve much into political action, but a few months ago, I was fortunate to be in Istanbul at the height of the protests against the dismantling of Gezi Park to feed corporate interests. In the interests of safety, our travel group had been advised not to venture anywhere near the Park or Taksim Square where the bulk of the protests were taking place.
But my curiosity got the better of me and I walked in the very direction I was warned against going. (The video above was shot by me during the protests).
As I crossed the bridge towards the Square, I saw a group of protesters running towards this same bridge, warning others that the police were coming. My media instincts had however kicked in and I was surging ahead, having found a companion to translate things for me and accompany me as I moved deeper into the chaos. He eventually warned me against going any further as the situation was escalating.
What I saw and experienced still give me great awe; in order to stop the police coming any further, people had begun to build barricades in the streets, singing songs of solidarity as they passed bricks along the line of people fortifying their defence. As police helicopters swarmed overhead, the protesters shouted out profanities or pulled the middle finger to show their contempt. Though conspicuous by my physical difference to everyone, hardly any of the protestors took notice of me; and when they did, it was to give me a nod of approval or a peace sign, which I reciprocated.
Realising over time that they could not beat the police (the police simply demolished their barricades or chased them away with tear gas and other brutal devices), the protesters morphed their action into silent protest, marked by simple but poignant occupation of space.
Every day for the rest of the time that I was in Istanbul, people – young and old – gathered on Taksim Square to stand in solidarity as the police looked on, unable to do anything. This was not an illegal act, after all. Some of the protesters read books, some held their hearts as they meditated and prayed, others stood to the attention of the Turkish flag and the draped image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, mounted at the front of the Square.
There was something about this all that it made it matter less and less that I was Zimbabwean, and more that I was a human being involved, in my own small way, in a collective action to honour the right to free expression.
At this point, you might be asking yourself what I am proposing by sharing this story. Marching in protest? Holding a silent vigil for the loss of basic rights? On Thursday, leaders of the pressure group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were beaten and arrested after conducting a peaceful demonstration outside Parliament, reminding us that such forms of protest are not likely to work within Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe is not Turkey. Or Egypt. Or Tunisia. Or Brazil. And models for action are not to be copied and pasted without serious evaluation of contextual realities.
Finding The Grey Space
My feeling, however, is that we as Zimbabweans urgently need to find the grey area between the black and white; between the lack of offline action and vociferous online discussion, between accepting that credit note in the shop and then going on a Twitter or Facebook rant about it (and yes those rants are necessary. I go on them too when I am particularly frustrated). If the sheer volume of tweets, retweets, likes and shares could change circumstances, Zimbabwe would surely have enough electricity to power itself for the next two years, enough water for at least a year and enough collective action being taken against leaked sex tapes and inadequate female representation in our cabinet.
What would happen if we could put our money where our mouths and keypads are, I wonder.
But can we change ZESA or any other public utility, you ask? The simple answer is no, of course not. But if we flooded them with mail, called their offices incessantly, went en masse to their premises to demand what we pay for, then who knows? We don’t know until we try something different. The bigger question for me is whether we do still believe in change.
In and of itself, social media cannot save us. For example, Baba Jukwa has shown us that having the fastest growing Facebook page in Zimbabwe does not necessarily constitute ballots in the box, or the brand of change that he has steadily promoted over the last few months.
But the philosophy behind Baba Jukwa, which I at least applaud, is that ‘everyone is Baba Jukwa’. In other words, everyone who follows and supports his insights, is personally responsible for realising the collective vision.
Personal responsibility. Personal obligation.
Who Is Responsible?
Whose responsibility is it for whatever action points arise as a result of an online conversation?
I asked that question at the Hub UnConference.
The panelists felt that the onus rested upon the initiator of the discussion, the person who had the foresight to realise that the issue was worthy of discussion and resolution.
It sounds a big ask, but maybe if we start to think of it that way, we might get a bit more action happening, knowing that our roles do not begin and end with bringing issues to people’s attention. In Zimbabwe, if you see the problem and are incensed enough by it, you are more than likely going to be the one who has to do something about it.
It is just a fact.
And perhaps once we accept that fact, we can see whose hands are up for real change and start working on changing things.
You might feel that I am being a technopessimist, dismissive of the euphoric and emancipatory promises of the new media age. But with 1.5 years of doing work in the sector, I prefer to believe that I have become more cautious and realistic. And what our late entry into the tech sphere blesses us with are some lessons from those who have innovated and initiated before us; their successes, downfalls and opportunities.
No doubt, new media is allowing us space as Zimbabweans to be seen and heard. Platforms like the award-winning #263Chat have created a structured way for us to engage with the issues, to publicly critique ourselves and the systems that govern our daily lives. With the ability to feel a sense of community, to be anonymous and also to disengage (just log out!) when issues become overly sensitive, online discussions make us more expressive and opinionated.
And that is what Zimbabwe has needed for a long time.
Now, we need to start thinking about the translation of the virtual to reality, alongside continuing online discussion; the actions that take us from our computer screens to local government, from our mobile phones to the supermarket manager’s office, the development of apps and tech tools that make practical sense to people’s lives. With over 4 million downloads of a flashlight mobile app helping people to deal with incessant ZESA powercuts, Avelgood’s Gift Gana shows us some of that practical translation.
We must remember that the online world cannot replace our offline reality, especially since most of Zimbabwe is not online to begin with. We must also remember that social media tools are steadily building in a capital motive by making it increasingly difficult to get unpaid reach; that is, reach without paying for advertisements or promoted content.
As Lukonga Lindunda, Co-Founder of Zambia’s Bongo Hive Tech Hub put it, “If we have not been able to provide all people on earth with the basics like access to safe drinking water, then we need to be realistic about the fact that providing Internet access will not be universal either.”
Access is a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility.
I am responsible.
Are we ready, as privileged Zimbabweans, to say those three words?