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Capitalism versus communalism — who owns the blogosphere?

22 September 2007

Who owns the African blogosphere? asks Ndesanjo Macha, reporting on the Digital Citizens Indaba held in Grahamstown earlier this month. But some of the questions posed go far further than the blogosphere and touch every aspect of our lives.

Macha quotes Daudi Were telling this story

Colonialists would often turn up at an African community and ask, “Who does that land belong to?” pointing to the vast fields around the village. Many times the reply from the villagers would be, “It does not belong to anyone.” The colonialists would then promptly set about fencing and carving up the land amongst themselves, which would enrage the Africans, which, in turn, would confuse the colonialists as, after all, they had been told that this land did not belong to anyone. These exchanges highlight the differences in the cultures involved and the different understandings of what initially looks like a very simple situation. When the Africans tell the colonialists that this land does not belong to anybody, the colonialists would take that to mean that the land is unoccupied. “It does not belong to anyone” is taken to mean it is ownerless. That was a misunderstanding of what they had been told.

The difference in cultures was the difference between capitalism and communalism, modernity and premodernity.

The capitalist notion of land ownership has become so entrenched in modern society that the question doesn’t sound as strange to us as it did to the people in the story. Perhaps we can appreciate it better if we ask it in a slightly different form: Who does the air we breathe belong to?

In the 19th century capitalists turned land into a commodity; at the beginning of the 21st century they are trying to turn water into a commodity. By the end of the century they might well be trying to turn the air we breathe into a commodity. Perhaps the air will have been so polluted that the rich will be selling and buying bottled air as they now sell and buy bottled water.

Ndesanjo Macha comes from Tanzania, and it was the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, who promoted the idea of African socialism, which earned him the disapproval of Western capitalists (who disliked any form of socialism) and Marxists alike. Marxists insisted that there could be no such thing as “African” socialism, there was “scientific” socialism or nothing. The Western capitalist critique was seen in syndicated op-ed pieces about “The ‘teacher’ who beggared a nation” that were reprinted over a period of 20 years or more. What would be interesting, however, after the imposition of “structural adjustment programmes” and the like, would be to compare the literacy rates, infant mortality rates and average life expectancy of Tanzanians now and 30 years ago. These are crude measures of the quality of life of people, but it would still be interesting to see how much better or worse off under capitalism.

Back to the blogosphere: Macha points out that in Africa the blogosphere is dominated by urban areas, and rural Africa has very little voice.

This reminds me of the time 15-20 years ago, when most electronic discussion forums were being run by BBS networks like Fidonet, which were communally owned and operated in a kind of free-enterprise socialism. BBS networks had the potential of developing intermediate technology, which could have helped rural villages to have more of a voice than they do today, but not enough people were interested in developing this potential. Most BBSs were run on dial-up networks (and all the Internet traffic between South Africa and the rest of the world was carried through a Fidonet gateway on a 9600 bps modem line) and there was some debate about Telkom charging higher business rates for lines used by BBSs, or trying to control the traffic, and claiming that it had a monopoly over it, and that BBSs providing messaging services was illegal. Nothing came of this — it was a bit like claiming that all the vehicles running on provincial roads must be owned by the province. Telkom was simply a “common carrier”.

The ownership of the blogosphere is not the same question, but it is related. But the wider question is even more important, and relates to other forms of communication as well. One culd argue, for example, that toll roads operated by private concessionnaires is the moder form of the colonialists claiming “ownership” of the land. The colonialist mentality is still alive and well. The fairest way of paying for roads is through a fuel tax, and that used to be what paid for the roads until the National Party government robbed the road fund to pay for the overthrow of the governments of Angola and Mocambique in the 1970s. Today, even though the government no longer had ambitions for military adventures abroad, the road fund has nevertheless not been restored. Toll roads disadvantage rural communities.
A few weeks ago in Tswane there was a strike of rubbish collectors. They used to be employed by the City Council, but since the service was privatised they were employed by concessionnaires, and their employment conditions were much worse than when they were employed by the council. There are some things, like transport, communications and municipal services, which should not be privatised. And that includes air and water.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 May 2008 9:54 am

    good article

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