Perspectives on Political Communication in Africa

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Bruce Mutsvairo cautions that an increase in the use of social media as a tool for political communication does not equate to a proliferation of democracy. Drawing from the recently published edited volume, Perspectives on Political Communication in Africa, (2018), co-edited with Beschara Karam, he highlights the challenges that African countries face.

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Buoyed by the ubiquity of new media technologies and equally, by the rise of alternative emerging public spheres, political communication in Africa appear to be in transformation. Politicians in most African countries are leveraging on the digitally-enhanced, mediated and unmediated flow of information to initiate dialogue with other political players, the media and private citizens. However, while there are some signs of improvement in political communication, it might still be too soon to talk of an African e-government or e-democracy bonanza, at least for now.

Informing and influencing citizens is the major goal of political communication. Unfortunately, in many parts of the continent, the citizen, who largely remains the intended target of political messages, is frequently cut out of the interaction. This is partly because developing messages that shape and influence political processes is not an easy task for Africa’s political marketers. 

In Perspectives on Political Communication in Africa, authors examine the ‘mediatisation’ of African politics in the digital era. There has been research on political communication, but in this book, we focus on Afrocentric political communication from the perspective of African scholars and feature case studies from the continent. We were keen on gaining a deeper understanding of how African political actors, the media and citizens are employing contemporary communication technologies and platforms to engage with each other. Thankfully, several papers focusing on political communication in Africa had been presented at the 2016 IAMCR conference in Leicester, making our task particularly easier.

Chapters in the book range from Glenda Daniels’ seminal work on ex-president Jacob Zuma’s relationship with the South African media, Peir-Paolo Frassinelli’s theoretical exploration of arguably South Africa’s most popular hashtags over the last three or so years, #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall to Emilly Comfort Maractho’s conceptualisation of Ugandan political communication from a gender-based perspective. Kasoma, Twange and Gregory Pitts give a longitudinal Study on Zambian parliamentarians’ perceptions of the media. Two more case studies on South Africa, two on Kenya, one each on Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe are also featured in the 16-chapter volume.

What emerges from this volume is that there are still major challenges. For starters, it is hard to influence someone you have no access to. While the mobile phone has been credited with improving lines of communication in Africa, it must be noted that internet access is still pricey and out of reach for most people. The cost and inaccessibility of Internet in most parts of the continent, makes it difficult for the vast majority of Africans to receive the messages that political institutions and the news media seek to disseminate. For example, while it has been refuted, a recent UK study claimed that at $75 per gigabyte, economically-ravaged Zimbabwe is home to the world’s most expensive mobile data in the world. In cases were people are forced to choose between buying mobile internet data and food, it is obvious that their priority is on survival. Would participating in politics be a top priority for those with empty stomachs? 

Secondly, it is impossible to persuade someone who does not understand your language. The language of political messages on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is mostly either one of Africa’s colonial languages, English and French. The result is that the messages are mostly accessible to young people who have seemingly abandoned their mother languages, which excludes a sizable proportion of the people not conversant in those languages from participation. What it means is that the digital divide, digital inequalities and similarly digital illiteracy are still rampant in Africa.

Then you have politicians, who believe only them know what is good for their citizens –  and that political communication is one-way – from them to the people. Lately, it has become a norm for some African governments to block Internet access, whenever they feel their power is under threat. Actions such as these make it impossible for opposition actors and journalists to communicate and reach out to their supporters and followers.

While African countries more or less share the aforementioned challenges, findings vary per country. For example, locally-driven political tolerance was key to maintaining the democratic dispensation in Ghana as argued by Africanus Lewil Diedong. In Ivory Coast, Jeslyn Lemke presents a different perspective, pointing to the major role played by former colonial master France, whose media remains influential in shaping the country’s political discourse. Irresponsible media coverage could be the basis for a “regressed democracy” as Tendai Chari shows in his analysis of the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe but it could also steer ethno-nationalistic contestations as Mercy Ette posits in her examination of the 2011 elections in Nigeria.

Overall, we identify palpable opportunities for political communication on the continent, which is a field still developing with only a handful of African universities offering a course in the field. In practice, however, political communication continues to gain ground with several theories and discourses shaping its transformation as the digitalisation of media looks set to continue playing a critical role in determining the future of the field pedagogically, practically and theoretically.

Bruce Mutsvairo is an Associate Professor in Journalism Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney.

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