Jonathan Clayton, blogging and reporting for the Times of London from Johannesburg, has a couple of good anti-Mugabe jokes that are going around on mobile phones via SMS text messages. ZimOnline, reprinted in the Mail and Guardian, has several more. Many concentrate on the hyperinflation that has turned Zimbabweans into (A HREF=”http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2170099.html”>millionaires who can’t buy anything. A few of the jokes are clearly recycled – one of Clayton’s readers reports hearing a joke he recounts in Ethiopia – clearly, it’s an old chestnut that’s gone from one repressive state to another.
The use of SMS for critical speech is a very cool development – the pervasiveness of mobile phones and their economic impact on the African continent makes it difficult for governments to ban or censor the devices. (Difficult, but not impossible. In both Ethiopia and Chad, national mobile phone networks have been switched off during times of civil unrest – real, or percieved.) But the desire to speak out in this fashion points to difficulties in expressing criticism in other facets of life.
Julius Dawu, writing from Harare for Worldpress.org, reports that Cont Mdladla Mhlanga, founder and artistic director of the Amakhosi Cultural Center in Bulawayo, was arrested and briefly detained earlier this month for questioning about his play, “Tomorrow People”. Zimbabwean authorities have asked for scripts of plays to be performed and promised to interview all cast members ahead of time, a tactic Dawu characterizes as intimidation. Mhlanga is not alone – prominent Zimbabwean musician Hosiah Chipanga cancelled appearances after recieving death threats over his mobile phone.
As a result, some Zimbabweans are finding it safer to criticize the government from outside its borders. Thomas Mapfumo, a defiantly political musician and songwriter is now in voluntary exile in the US. Chaz Maviyane Davies, an internationally celebrated graphic designer, now works from Boston, where he teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art.
One of Davies’s most powerful projects – “30 Days of Graphic Activism” – preceded the 2000 Zimbabwe elections. Each day, Davies created a “graphic commentary” and circulated it via email, one of the few media he had access to.
The power of person to person electronic media – SMS, email – and personal broadcast – blogs, podcasts, filesharing – is starting to worry governments who see a need to control information. Whether or not everyone in the western media takes blogs seriously as spaces for social commentary, the Ethiopian government is evidently sufficiently concerned to block Blogspot. And, as Alaa can tell you, the ability for Kefaya activists to organize via SMS and blogs isn’t sufficient to keep activists out of prison.