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Africa: digital citizen indaba controversy

It is most likely that the organizers of the Digital Citizen Indaba on Blogging in South Africa did not anticipate the controversy that has dominated the African blogosphere for about two weeks now. The controversy, for the most part, has centred around the words, African and indaba. Indaba is a Zulu word, which means a council where indigenous people of Southern Africa meet to discuss important matters.

So, a week before the indaba, a Kenyan blogger, AB&H, in a post entitled, (White) African Blogger Conference in a Week, writes:

From the list of speakers, listed below, it appears to my untrained and possibly quite mistaken eye that their last names are not very black African; at least they wouldn’t be in East Africa. (Whisper: Will it be a roomful of white folks working for the betterment of the African? Please, I beg you, do not tell massa that I asked cause I know how much he is trying to help me speak and develop into a full, happy human being.)

Apart from the racial composition and national origin of the conference speakers, AB&H was also concerned about the idea of Africa Citizens Code of Conduct:

It appears from the program that the attendees will be treated to dispositions from lawyers versed in internet issues – whatever those are – and that there is even a session to establish ‘an African Citizens Code of Conduct.’ Now that last one I find weird. The power of the internet and blogging is precisely that it is not being planned or coordinated centrally or even subject to a particular point of view. In any case are Africans so misbehaved or even depraved that they are always being subject to codes of behavior? Is the governance agenda and its associated funding buzzwords now to seek us out even in the digital world?

The post caused quite a stir in the African blogosphere.

According to White African, this controversy was inevitable. It was brewing long before AB&H wrote the first post that set the stage for the debate. White African writes:

It started off with the MMK declaring the Digital Indaba on Blogging taking place in South Africa as a potential play by whites trying to take hold of the upper ground in African blogosphere. The week prior, Chippla had posted thoughts on whether White Africans are actually Africans. On top of all that, the African Womens Blog had some interesting articles on racism, a particularly good one was the one talking about how as whites we don’t even realize we are privelaged. So, this whole debate was brewing and coming to a head.

Vincent Maher, the head of the New Media Lab and one of the conference organizers, entered the debate referring to AB&H post as a racist and sour response to the digital indaba. Responding to AB&H concern about the code of conduct, Vincent (whom MMK calls Vincent “Madiba” Maher. Madiba is an affectionate nickname for the former South African President, Nelson Mandela) writes:

As the person who put this idea forward in the first place, I am going to defend it simply by pointing out that the idea behind the code of conduct is to create a framework of credibility that will enable citizen journalists using blogs to be taken more seriously by the media when they report on blogged news. It’s a completely opt-in system designed to avoid exactly the kind of loss of credibility this person has just achieved for his/her own blog.

Cool Breeze disagrees with Vincent’s contention that AB&H post was racist, “I am not attacking the work you're doing… Vincent baby… love your efforts, think they're important for the continent 'cause… we wouldn't be having this discussion if you hadn't organized the conference now, would we? So you get an A+ (with stars and glitter) on that front. I just take exception to your use of the word “racist” in this context.”

AB&H wrote a follow-up to his first post, using the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 as a metaphor for understanding what was taking place at the digital indaba. In a post entitled, “Is the Digital Indaba the Internet Berlin Conference of 2006?, AB&H asks:

Does the African blog-space – if there is such a thing – need codification, a coming together, a corralling under the auspices of a code of conduct or a common front? I do not think so and yet I have noticed a recent trend toward this end of trying to create a ‘mainstream’ African blog-space that confers ‘legitimacy’ on its members. Implying, if only gently, that those outside its auspices are illegitimate at worst or at best might be irrelevant to goals as varied as civil society ‘empowerment’, the creation of alternate media, etc.

AB&H argues that that the Indaba was an attempt to extend the 1885 Scramble for Africa to the digital space and ultimately colonize Africa’s blog universe:

Blogging on this continent does not need midwives. Especially not ones who want to demonstrate ‘to the rest of the world that Africa is more than a passive observer in the global village.’ It is this kind of defeatism and obsession with the opinions of others that puts paid to the creation of independent paths of our own. That we should now blog to show the world (read the West and White folks) that we are somehow worthy of their respectful consideration. What nonsense. Perhaps the way to ’show the world’ is to have a conference of black people in the audience listening to panels basically made up of white people. You know? To hope that the authority of whiteness rubs off on the poor little African blogosphere. I wish I will be proven wrong about such panels but the defensiveness of the white Mandelas tells the tale. Ultimately though, whoever the panelists are, and despite the ‘rush for white,’ the logic of this benignly conducted colonisation of Africa’s blog universe will have plenty of rainbow colored African volunteers.

Calling the conference organizers, “African Internet Bismarcks and Leopolds,” AB&H promises to continue railing, “My railing against this process will not stop it I know, but I think it is important to be aware that what the Indaba and like conferences represent is a grab for territory. And when the African internet Bismarcks and Leopolds can call me racist for asking a question, then you better be aware that the gloves are going to be off during this scramble.”

Kenyan Pundit writes from Grahamstown, “So, I have just landed in Grahamstown for Highway Africa for the early part of the week and later in the week the “great-white-folk-do-gooder-conspiracy -to-do-God-knows-what-to-ultimately-throttle-the-African-blogosphere-or-something-like-that” (tongue firmly in cheek, and wake me up as soon as “true” Africans plan, fund, and organize, the “true” African blogging indab…um..meet-up).”

Ethan Zuckerman, who was one of the speakers, writes, “A number of African bloggers have pointed out that many of the speakers at the Digital Citizen Indaba in Grahamstown later this week aren’t bloggers, and that many aren’t black. Some critics offered these observations pretty forcefully.”

Ethan clarifies the nature of the conference, “It’s worth pointing out that the Indaba isn’t a standalone event – it’s being run at the end of the Highway Africa conference, a long-standing conference that brings together journalists, geeks and folks from the NGO sector in Grahamstown – I suspect that the speaker list includes several folks who are already in town for that conference, as well as an emphasis on speakers from South Africa, who are less expensive to bring to the event.”

He suggests:

It’s high time for there to be a continent-wide blogger conference or unconference. But it’s likely going to require funding for many folks to attend it, no matter whether it’s held in Nairobi, Jo’burg or Lagos, it’s not in everyone’s backyard. And raising that money may mean convincing the NGO types that there’s something exciting going on with blogging in Africa – to bring Global Voices bloggers to our annual meeting costs tens of thousands of dollars, which we couldn’t do without support from Reuters and from foundations.

Mental Acrobatics, another Kenyan blogger at the conference, entered the debate with a light touch. He writes, “We demanded to know, and to know immediately on behalf of the people of Africa, we wanted an end to all this conspiracy to all this controversy. So we asked,nay, we demanded to be told. Was it really true that The Princess of Africa also know as Yvonne Chaka Chaka was going to perform live in front of us? And if she was, would she perform her famous hit single “Umqombothi” which for years I thought was “eh mandanzi”?!” (Mandazi is a Swahili word for doughnut-like type of sweet bread. Umqombothi is a traditiona South African beer).

Responding to the claim that most participants were white, Mental Acrobatics observes:

Next the whole, “there are no natives” (whatever a native is) argument lacks so much logic someone is surely looking for a slapping from a certain Mr Spock. I am sitting in a hall full of 500+ journalists from 40+ African countries, no natives? I have previously blogged about the logical fallacy of an ad hominem argument. Those who have lost the argument tend to attack the man. “Yeah, well Hitler was a vegetarian that means all vegetarians are evil.” The so called handing of our souls to the devil in a code of conduct for bloggers. I mean for crying out loud have you looked at the programme? The “code of conduct” seminar is one of three simultaneous seminars being held on Friday afternoon, hardly the setting for the evil take over of the world is it?”

In White Blogging Africa, Black Looks notes, “Digital Citizen Indaba on Blogging conference INDABA? more like the gathering of the Big White Chiefs oOOPS but wait I forget “we are all africans now. Maybe there will be a hall full of eager black faces looking intently at the white chiefs for guidance and hope for the future of this great land. How will we ever manage on our own?” Black Looks later removes image from her post, “This image has been removed due to complaints that it is offensive.”

Meskel Square, whose photograph was posted by a visitor in AB&H blog as evidence of his whiteness dismisses the controversy as “tiresome”:

This is all part of an incredibly tiresome “controversy” about the skin colours and ethnic backgrounds of people speaking at a blogging conference in Grahamstown, South Africa today and tomorrow. (Rush over at 3.30pm on Friday to hear me tell all about photo-blogging.) considered the controversy tiresome.

On Being Tiresome is Black Looks’ response to “Mr. Incredibly Tiresome”:

Mr English journalist blogger is tired of the CONTROVERSY around skin colour and ethnic background at a conference on blogging in Africa? Who are you to stand there and tell me I am TIRESOME AND TO QUESTION YOUR PRESENCE IS CONTROVERSIAL? What are you doing there instead of an Ethiopian blogger, a Ghanaian blogger, a Democratic Republic of Congo blogger, a White African blogger? What is it you have to say in your imaginary colour blind world?

Jaysennett joins “the tiresome controversy” debate with a funny cartoon.

After defining “Indaba” as:

in‧da‧ba [in-dah-bah] (n-däb)- noun- a conference or consultation between or with native peoples of South Africa. A council or meeting of indigenous peoples of southern Africa to discuss an important matter. [i see that indaba is a south african thing, i guess that is why i had never heard of the word]

Alexcia concludes, “I must say that I am with AB&H on this. I repeat a version a comment i posted at the bottom of the heap in that debate. Surely, however romantic this digital goings on is SA is, no matter how you cut it, it is NOT an indaba. Why? no natives.” Alexcia does not have problems with inviting “citizens of planet earth to this thing”: I say, invite all citizens of planet earth to this thing. Offer sponsorship to everyone. But don't call it Indaba or African.

Mwenye Nchi has the same line argument regarding the name of the conference:

If a group of keen bloggers want to meet up and share experiences in the hope of bettering what they do, fine. It's a free country. But to start labelling it African this or that. That's just plain opportunist. Reminds me of all these white Europeans ‘discovering’ waterfalls and snow capped mountains in our own homeland, as many of us were taught in the good old 8-4-4 textbooks. So whatever you do down in Grahamstown, don't call it African anything!”


In A Footnote to Indaba
, Alexcia writes, “I tried, incoherently and unsuccessfuly to bring attention to the class (only upper classes bother with computers) and cultural implications of this conference purporting to be “african” and an “indaba” but failed because there we few Africans to be found. The non-african participants of the conference proved to be very annoying and I shall not waste my time with them.”

Marazzmatazz, whose writing style involves occasional use of Swahili words between sentences, was one of the participants to the conference:

The whistles, shouts and clamour instantly remind me of why am here – or more, of why some people have issues with me being here. You see, the way i view it is pretty simplistic. I applied for the DCI like everyone else, got the scholarship and am here to learn. Moreover, am pressed to think that someone already concluded that we are not representative enuff. Concluded about my intentions or lack thereof to sambaza the knowledge i've acquired from here to benefit others besides myself. But nooooo, that doesn't seem to be a good enuff script for the self-acclaimed Real African Blogger.
Pause.
Ponder for a minute.
Laugh.

On the question of who is an African, he asks, “Doesn't a white person born in Africa qualify to be African? Egyptians are super-light in hue, are they Africans? Do you have to be a coal-coloured miro to own that term?”

My Part of the World calls the controversy, “Vita kati ya Wazee” (Swahili for “War between elders”), which he decides to watch from the sideline:

But since that is water under the bridge I am not going to say anymore, what I am going to ask is this simple question. After the uber bloggers finished their sessions, meetings, networking and presentations; what lessons were learnt for run of the mill bloggers such as myself? Because most of the people at that conference did not represent the everday African blogger but were there on their behalf.”

He adds:

ps:This is not meant to be a racist remark but when I went through the flickr album of the conference all the white faces had the names but most of the black faces had DCI delegate and no names attached.

Was the Digital Citizen Indaba on Blogging a success? Mike Stopforth thinks so. Were there any lessons learnt? Marazzmatazz answers this question in Lessons Learnt – 1 and Lessons Learnt – 2.

Kenyan Pundit writes her (final?) thoughts, looking at what was or was not accomplished:

Apart from a few smart-ass remarks on my blog, I have largely avoided any commentary on the controversy (and rather stimulating debate) surrounding Blogging Indaba.
Why is this? Because like I said before, I have little time for polemics (let alone time to regularly blog anymore) and I’d rather focus my energy on changing situations that I am irked about (to the extent that I can) rather than ranting on the internet.

That being said, the debate was welcome and while I think that some of the commentary was way overboard in terms of paranoia over an African blogosphere take-over-by-whitey, I will never question the right to question…hell, Mzalendo was born out of the very idea that individuals should question their government. Furthermore, isn’t that what blogging is all about…at it’s very core…individual expression….whether you are writing about your socks, hard fucks (KM where are you?) or the implications of the Kengen IPO.

In his closing thoughts, Ethan writes, “Getting to spend time with old friends like Ory, Alaa, Emeka and Andrew, meeting bloggers I’ve long admired like Bankelele and Daudi made me realize how much I want someone – perhaps the DCI folks, but maybe Global Voices, maybe the Kenyan bloggers, maybe the World Social Forum in Nairobi – to organize a real continent-wide blogger gathering, focused on ways the different blogospheres can learn from one another.”

According to Ethan, critics who feared that there would be more white than black speakers at the conference were right:

Critics who worried that the Digital Citizen Indaba would be South Africa-centric, light on blogger speakers and have more white than black speakers were correct on all three counts. Organizers acknowledged all these shortcomings at one point or another during the event, and I suspect the next iteration of the conference – whether in Grahamstown or somewhere else on the continent – will be a hell of a lot more representative.

He writes, “the Indaba was very white, very ZA-centric, excluded a lot of great bloggers and was probably held in the wrong location.” He adds, “And yet, it was a really enjoyable and useful conference.”

As a result of this heated debate about the indaba, Mental Acrobatics comes up with a practical suggestion:

So this is what i suggest. Clearly we have many African bloggers who have an opinion on what an African blogging conference should or should not have, should or should not do. We have many African bloggers who have an opinion on how an African blogging conference should be run. Well then, let us hear it.

I have set up a google email discussion group called “African Bloggers”. This email group has a simple task but it is a massive one. This group is created with the intention of working towards organizing a conference for African bloggers in 2007. Our discussions within this group will centre around (but may not limited to) sponsorship, dates, venues, facilities, speakers, agenda. This group is open to ANYONE who has a blog.

Generally speaking, this debate has shown, in terms of opions and thinking, how complex and diverse the African blogosphere is. And, well, now there are efforts to organize a real African bloggers conference in 2007.

The Digital Citizen Indaba on Blogging was part of the annual Highway Africa Conference hosted by Rhodes University in South Africa. For further information, you can read the conference blog or wiki.

16 comments

  • This an incredibly useful and accurate summary of the discussion

  • […] Sasa majuzi niliamua kabisa kuandika makala ndefu juu ya mjadala huu katika blogu ya mradi wa Global Voices. Makala hii ni muhtasari wa chanzo cha mjadala huu na mambo yaliyojadiliwa na kubishaniwa.  Hata kama ulishasoma sehemu ya kwanza hadi ya tatu ya mjadala huu katika blogu hii, lazima usome makala hii maana ina blogu nyingine ambazo sikuziweka katika sehemu hizo tatu. Bonyeza hapa uisome makala hii iitwayo: Africa: digital citizen indaba controversy (Nimeiandika kwa ile lugha yao!) […]

  • Well summarised I must say! I just hope that the damage done isnt long term and any lessons that were learned can be shared with those who were not there.

  • The last word on the Digital Indaba…

    From jaywalking: cartoons about a way of life. For the full story – or at least most of it – read the GlobalVoices’ indaba roundup…….

  • We must lay a level field for all races. We should make Africa a cosmopolitant continent, where each and every race has a role to play. There should b no racism. Lets go the FIFA way..’fair play’ esp. in Indaba.

  • […] If you’re interested in the White Blogger saga that unfolded recently, then take a gander at this write up on GlobalVoices, which should put you in the picture… white blogger, blogging, africa, indaba […]

  • […] Hiyo ni tisa, kumi mwanablogu wa African Affairs anasema kuwa sisi sote ni ndugu. Watanzania kutojua kiingereza na Wakenya kujua kiingereza sio jambo la msingi, muhimu ni kujua kuwa sote ni ndugu. Bonyeza hapa umsome. Kabla ya hapo, kwa wale waliopitiwa, kulikuwa na mjadala mkali kuhusu mkutano wa Digital Citizen Indaba. Bonyeza hapa uusome.   […]

  • […] Baada ya ule mjadala mkali wa Digital Indaba (bonyeza hapa usome muhtasari nilioandika kuhusu mjadala huo), mwanablogu mahiri wa Kenya wa blogu ya Mental Acrobatics, alikuja na wazo. Alisema kuwa badala ya kuzozana kuhusu mkutano ule wa Digital Indaba Afrika Kusini, Waafrika tujiunge na kufanya wetu. Bonyeza hapa usome aliyoandika.  Akatangaza kuanzishwa kwa kundi la majadiliano la Google. Bonyeza hapa ujiunge na kundi hilo. […]

  • […] Tanzanian bloggers worldwide are meeting formally for the first time today October 18th, 2006. After calls by several African bloggers for African bloggers to organise their ‘own’ media and blogging conference following the Digital Citizens Indaba controversy and especially after several prompts from a Tanzanian Rastafarian blogger Ras Laihamu, Jeff Msangi took the initiative of calling for the first Tanzanian bloggers conference. Ingawa idadi ya blogu za kitanzania … zimekuwa zikiongezeka kila mara … hatujapata nafasi ya “kukutana”. Nia imekuwepo, sababu zimekuwepo, mipango ya muda na jinsi ya kukutana ndio imekuwa migumu. Habari njema ni kwamba sasa tunaweza kukutana kwa kutumia tekinolojia hizi hizi za mitandao…. Although the number of Tanzanian blogs has been increasing all the time, we (bloggers) have not had the chance to meet. We want to meet and we have all the reasons to meet, but when and how to meet has proved to be difficult. The good news is now we can meet using online digital technologies…. […]

  • […] Kenyan Blogger Syndrome (KBS)? He is probably referring to the controversy around the Digital Citizen Indaba. […]

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