22.- 25.9
The impact of mobile technologies on social structures in Africa

Tamara Gupper, Goethe University Frankfurt and École des Hautes Études en Sciences

Roos Keja, Goethe University Frankfurt and Utrecht University, r.keja@uu.nl


25/09/20 9 - 10.30 am Room 1.801 (Casino building)


Short abstract:

Since the rapid adoption of mobile technologies in Africa, the initial euphoria about their
potential for development has been complemented with more ambiguous accounts. This
panel focuses on the role of mobile technologies in Africa, inviting empirically informed
contributions that challenge assumptions about their social and political impact.

After the first dust has settled about the rapid adoption of new ICT by African users, especially mobile phones, the initial euphoria on their potential for economic, political and social development has been complemented with more ambiguous accounts. This panel focuses on the highly volatile research subject of mobile technologies in Africa, challenging assumptions about their impact on society. In what has become known as ICT-4-Development (ICT4D), it is often assumed that easier access to information and long-distance communication would logically lead to improvements in different aspects of people’s life. However, the unfolding research field on the impact of mobile phones in Africa indicates that mobile phones are appropriated in manifold and ambiguous ways.

When considering political participation for example, access to social media is considered to be a catalyst for a free exchange of opinion and democratization processes, thereby

potentially ‘giving voice’ to people who might otherwise not have access to debates. However, this is not evident in contexts where movement within social and political hierarchies is restricted. Mobile technologies as medium for information exchange and expression both exist within and shape local power structures. Their usage also has a material component, such as users’ economic means or availability of infrastructure. Mobile technologies exist in urban, rural and transnational environments, and can contribute both to confirming and weakening their interlinkages.

In light of mobile technologies in Africa, this panel focuses on the ways in which social

hierarchies, power structures and established practices change through their usages, thereby overcoming simplistic assumptions. Can we discern how mobile technologies challenge or reconfirm existing structures and social processes, or might there not even be an apparent change? This panel invites empirically informed contributions on social effects of mobile technologies in different thematic areas, such as civil society, politics, economics, health or education.



Majorities in sub-Saharan Africa own mobile phones. Ownership of affordable smartphones is also growing. The smartphones have revolutionised and democratised access to information and means of expressions for the majority of Africans across the continent. Social media platforms – most significantly, Twitter and Facebook – are making room for citizen agency and have given a voice to many citizens, especially in those countries where freedom of expression is curtailed. Twitter, most specifically, with its relatively low bandwidth consumption, provides an essential platform for political discourse in Africa. The prevalence of mobile phones and increased access was previously viewed as an opportunity for citizens to engage in participatory communication and to advance deliberative democracy. Studies in this area expressed optimism that the explosion in the use of mobile technologies in Africa would boost democratization. However, social media platforms are increasingly becoming sites for the suppression of free expression to the extent that healthy political discourse is under threat.

This paper intends to analyse this phenomenon in the context of elections in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The choice of elections is because they have dominated political conversations on Twitter across the continent. Using the 2019 South Africa and 2018 Zimbabwe elections respectively as case studies, the paper analyses how a small but a vocal minority, armed with a smartphone, can make a significant impact on the broader public sphere resulting in what Richard Seymour (2019) refers to as “networked fascism”. Anti-democratic and often violent forms of participation define political discourse. In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, “online warriors” emerged during the elections in support of the different main political parties. This development has brought attention to how mobile phones are reconfiguring political participation and shaping electoral outcomes. Although in both countries, most people are not on social media due to digital inequalities, social media influences what is on TV, radio and newspapers, where most people get their news, and thus it plays a critical role.

Keywords: Mobile phones, social media, public sphere, political discourse, online warriors

Sarah Chiumbu is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.


Since the 'Arab Spring', many initiatives have been multiplied in Africa as strategy of political protest, mobilized by young people mostly living in urban areas with access to the Internet.


Mozambique is a country where young people (mostly between 18-35) represent a large demography of the population while the access to the Internet tends to increase. However, the possibility and will to protest is not in the same tendency. In fact, since the 2016 demonstrations in Maputo City, there has been no concrete demonstration in the streets, but on the other hand ‘political comments’ are growing on the Internet and social networks. In this proposal, we intend to understand two angles of analysis: (1) the reasons behind the decrease of the street mobilization, in substitution of the presence on the social networks; (2) the impact of young people political participation on the social networks in the urban space. For its concretization, based on a qualitative and ethnographic perspective, a fieldwork/research was carried out between 2018 and 2019 in three cities of Mozambique: Maputo, Beira and Nampula.

Dércio Tsandzana is a doctoral student in Political Science, Sciences Po Bordeaux, France.

It has become inevitable, in the current digital era for educators to integrate ICT in their teaching and gradually replace traditional teaching methods with modern ones which are ICT led The provision of education using ICT and mobile has become a common practice at most institutions of higher learning and in some cases at preschool level In Zimbabwe a number of universities have embraced the use of ICT and mobile technology in their teaching and learning. This has come with a number of socio-economic implications. The use of ICT is critical in knowledge based societies and those that aspire to catch up with the more developed ones. This study looks at how the Midlands State University (MSU) has adopted ICT particularly the use of mobile technologies in learning and teaching. The  study also looks at how the use of mobile technologies  has affected the social structures within the university communities.The study employed a case study approach that used questionnaires  and structured interview questions.The study concludes that the use of mobile technologies has brought a number of positive and negative changes in the university community.It also argues that the use of mobile technologies has contributed to social stratification among university students with those who afford mobile technologies occupying the top strata and those who cant afford occupying the lowest level in that social strata.

Shephard Pondiwa is Director Records and Archives, Midlands State University, Gweru, Zimbabwe.

The growth of the digital economy in Africa has been vastly changing its digital landscapes, due primarily to the upsurge of mobile penetration and the influx of cheap, second-hand mobile phones (Odumosu 2017; Osiakwan 2017; de Bruijn, Nyamnjoh & Brinkman 2009). Following a reported 700% increase in mobile penetration throughout the country (MPEN 2018), Togo is attempting to harness the digital economy as part of the country’s Plan National du Développement2018-2022 and reposition the city of Lomé as West Africa’s premier logistics-financial hub. Yet as digital infrastructure developments remain dependent on public-private partnership and foreign investments, increasing privatization and deregulation have rendered the telecommunications sector highly profit-oriented and the city of Lomé a laboratory for neoliberal experimentation (Nubukpo 2019; Ward & Swyngedouw 2018). Despite the state’s claims of 86% mobile coverage, only 19% of the Togolese population have access to mobile connectivity (Togofirst 2019; MPEN 2018) and inclusivity remains largely discursive.

In the wake of these transformations, digital infrastructures have now become sites of contestation for those at the margins of the global digital economy (Graham 2019; Nguyen 2016). Vernacular manifestations of Western ideologies such as ‘democratizing technology’ (Feenberg 1999) and practices appropriated by the Maker Movement such as hacking and repair (Davies 2017; Jordan 2017; Coleman & Golub 2008) have long been practiced by locals as quotidian solutions to the growing inaccessibility of digital infrastructures. Foregrounding how access to hardware remains at the core of the politics of digital inclusion in African cities, this paper aims to provide an ethnographic account of hacking as a form of situated knowledge (Haraway 1991) that mediates the relational processes of digitalisation. By following the mobile phone réparateursand commerçants of Lomé’s marché noir, Dekon, it seeks to nuance the concept of ‘democratizing technology’ by tracing the assemblages of hacking (Rai 2019) in its vernacular forms. Dékon, also known as the centre ville, is known to the locals as the go-to place for anything tech-related, most especially mobile repair, unlocking and re-selling. As such, this paper aims to situate hacking within the micro-politics of technology (von Schnitzler 2013) and address how the inhabitants of Lomé embody, negotiate and contest the city’s digital transformation and the inclusive futures it claims to provide.

Janine Patricia Santos: Janine Patricia Santos is a doctoral student, Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, KU Leuven, Belgium.