Africa may be a vast continent with 47 countries, thousands of ethnic groups and over 1 500 languages spoken. But social media and communication networks are making it a smaller, and hopefully better place.
Over 700 million people in Africa have access to a mobile phone, and increasing numbers of these are active communicators on social media.
Over the past decade cellular technology has had a dramatic impact on the lives of ordinary people. Rural farmers have access to markets for the first time, health workers are no longer cut off from information by virtue of geography and African innovators are as connected to Silicon Valley as students in New York are.
There is another impact. “As democracy takes root in Africa, governments are losing their monopoly over information, says Tara o’ Connor head of pan African advisory firm Africa Risk Consulting. “The post independence period – during which liberation parties dominated – is all but over and is giving way to a new era of political accountability. Citizens are gathering more information from more sources and governments are facing greater calls for transparency, openness and accountability for their promises and actions.”
Investors, already excited by the opportunities Africa holds, are watching these and other macro trends carefully.
So too are the remaining repressive governments, that cling to power and wealth, while fearing an ‘Arab Spring’ in their own countries.
When millions of people took to the streets of Kinshasa to protest against a law that would effectively delay national elections beyond 2016, the government of the DRC responded by ordering the suspension of internet and SMS services. “In a democracy such as that in Kenya, the government would not dare,” says O’ Connor.
However the protest shook Joseph Kabila’s government and it dropped the controversial amendment.
South African citizens, with five democratic elections under their belts, were shocked when the ANC-led government jammed the cellphone signal within Parliament on the eve of the State of the Nation (Sona) address last week.
In the face of outrage from the assembled media and some MPs, the signal was restored before the President began his Sona address. This small victory for democracy ensured that images of the State Security apparatus forcibly ejecting the EFF were transmitted across the world in real time.
The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), the Human Rights Commission and Icasa, the telecoms regulatory authority, all condemned the act. Sanef called it a “shocking and illegal clampdown on freedom of expression.”
Sanef has consulted its lawyers and plans to approach the courts to prevent any future attempts by state security agencies to unlawfully block communications in the future.
One should not have been too surprised by the ANC’s heavy-handed approach, says O’Connor. It was “a predictable and typically ‘liberation party’ response to an emerging opposition threat.”
In fact, “the ANC acted as if it is bigger than the institutions that liberation brought into being,” she says. “The party seemed to care more about Zuma’s ‘dignity’ than the rights of people to communicate and to hold their politicians to account via social media and Parliament.”
The unintended consequence of the jamming will be a body blow to ANC’s domestic and international credibility. The ANC’s actions against the media in particular provoked comparisons with the apartheid regime and with heavy-handed liberation-dictatorships.
There is a familiar pattern here. “Liberation parties all over SADC have lost their lustre and the ANC under Zuma’s rule is no exception,” she says. “#SONA15 will contribute further to the ANC’s decline in popularity.”
As dire as it seems, this act and other encroachments on civil liberties does not have to spell the imminent demise of SA’s hard-won democracy. Instead O’Connor says, the opposition and civil society’s follow-up actions – taking Parliament to court, pressing charges against the security force violence – will serve to strengthen SA’s democratic institutions.
Following the disputed elections that saw 1 000 people killed in Kenya in 2007, entrepreneurs developed a technology tool that allowed Kenyans to report on violence. Ahead of the 2013 elections the tool was resurrected specifically to “put citizens back at the heart of the electoral process.” The platform enabled citizens to monitor the electoral process by reporting issues such as intimidation, hate speech, and polling clerk bias.
“Constitutional rule backed by regular elections continues to wrest political power from the former ruling elite,” says O’Connor.
Even the government of Nigeria, which has controversially delayed elections by six weeks, ostensibly to stabilise the Boko Haram situation, would not dare defy the constitution. “According to the constitution they must hold the presidential inauguration by May 29, and the government will honour that.”
The spread of democracy across Africa has opened up opportunities for investment and generated strong economic growth, but it does not suggest a risk-free environment. Old risks have been replaced by new risks because regular elections can also encourage populist and short-sighted decision-making.
Invariably this has negative economic consequences and raises investor concerns.
Ghana’s current economic crisis demonstrates how populist policies can damage the reputation of a country with a long history of economic reform and success.
The government bought popular support using its newly minted petro-dollars by increasing civil servant wage bills and subsiding fuel. This pushed the current account deficit to 12% of GDP in 2013. It has risen further and in 2014, the Ghanian cedi was the worst performing currency against the dollar.
While high inflation and a weakening currency may deter some investors, the countries to tread cautiously in are those with major succession issues, O’Connor says.
For instance leaders in Uganda, Algeria, Cameroon, Angola and Zimbabwe are striving to ensure family political dynasties, perpetuating political and business interests.
Other risks for investors include local content regulations and protectionist legislation which is increasingly frequent; the scourge of corruption and the rise of terrorism across the continent.
However, none of these threats are reasons to avoid the continent. “Overall the African story is a positive one.”
Even in South Africa where the mood in many quarters is dark, the status quo is unlikely to remain. What we saw in the run-up to Sona and thereafter fits a pattern that has happened all over Africa. “These small opposition victories gather momentum, whittle away liberation party pre-eminence and lead to what the French call ‘alternance’ – where one elected party or coalition of parties is replaced by another.”
Brace yourself South Africa.