07.- 11.06.

P 18: The impact of mobile technologies on social structures in Africa


Tamara Gupper, Goethe University Frankfurt
Roos Keja, Goethe University Frankfurt and Utrecht University


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.


Long abstract

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.


01 Sarah Chiumbu: The public sphere is no longer rational: Mobile phones and the weaponisation of social media in urban Africa

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.

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


02 Dércio Tsandzana: Noise on the social networks, no action on the streets: how young people participate in Mozambique?

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.


03 Shephard Pondiwa: The Social Effects of the Use of Mobile Technologies in Education: The case of the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe

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.


04 Mira Demirdirek and Catherina Wilson: Restricting digital mobility among an already ‘immobilized’ population: How urban refugees circumvent spatial, legal and digital restrictions in their daily life in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Despite Tanzania’s historical reputation for its hospitality, in recent decades policies have confined refugees to settlements in the interior of the country. Nevertheless, an important number among the refugees prefer the city to the camp and several have moved to Dar es Salaam to look for a better life. The inaccessibility to work permits, the illegalization of their status and, in many cases, the lack of humanitarian support has resulted in their economic immobility. This immobility is linked to the fear of exposure of their refugee identity and is further reinforced by the financial hurdles of transportation costs. In order to survive in the city, refugees have developed different strategies to navigate through marginalization. The use and appropriation of modern and ever-changing Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as mobile telephony and social media, is one of them. Through ICTs, urban refugees have been able to overcome work and mobility restrictions. This paper identifies three major ICT usage types related to the livelihood of these refugees: (1) the promotion of products/services; (2) the communication with clients and (3) communication with supporters. In all three cases, ICTs mobilize the spatially and economically ‘immobile’ refugees.  

Hitherto, identity documents have not been a crucial requirement to access basic services in Tanzaniaas the civil registration system in Tanzania is still relatively weak. Yet, with political discourse emphasizing the importance of civil registration, there have been significant policy changes from 2012 to 2019. The latest one is the introduction of the biometric SIM card registration which requires SIM card holders to register with fingerprints and National identification documents. This procedure reinforces the exclusion and exploitability of marginalized groups by jeopardizing their access to vital means of income.  

Based on data  collected through participant observation, interviews, focus group discussions and virtual ethnography during a three month ethnographic fieldwork among urban refugees and Tanzanian citizens in Dar es Salaam, the purpose of this paper is twofold: (1) it discusses the ways in which these urban refugees have overcome restrictions by the appropriation of ICTs, while continuing to circumvent being locked out of their SIM cards, by relying on the support of Tanzanian citizens. (2) At the same time, the biometric SIM card registration can be placed in the context of a global rollout of digital identification systems that displays the reinforcement of the exclusion of already marginalized social groups through technology, consolidating already existing power relations and intensifying their exploitability 

Mira Demirdirek is a MA student in African Studies at Leiden University. She is currently writing her thesis on youth’s usage of mobile communication for the navigation of livelihood uncertainties in Dar es Salaam. She is interested in questions of borders, mobility and the securitization of migration. 

Catherina Wilson works as a lecturer and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for History, Leiden University. She is currently involved in TRAFIG, a project that looks at mobility and connectivity as solutions to protracted displacement amongst Congolese refugees in urban Tanzania and The Netherlands. Her interests include mobility, urban culture, youth and refugee studies in Central and East Africa. 

June 10 @ 10:30
10:30 — 12:00 (1h 30')

Zoom Room 4

Roos Keja, Tamara Gupper

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