AMID the national uproar over government policy inconsistencies relating to the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, rural Zimbabweans, who continue to dream of joining the so-called information superhighway, remain on the edge. The steep tariff increase and its subsequent reversal represents the uncertainty that continues to dog President Robert Mugabe’s paranoid administration that seems to see shadows at every corner.
By Jairos Saunyama
Munashe Mushoriwa (13), the head-boy at Mangoro Primary School in Chikomba East constituency, aptly summed up the mood of the majority of Zimbabweans living in rural areas when he stunned a recent gathering straying from his prepared speech to literally set the cat among the pigeons after pleading for internet facilities at a time government seems bent on stifling access to the information.
With the crowd anticipating a speech that was related to the event, the official handover of a borehole that also benefits his community, the young boy had other ideas.
“We are grateful for the borehole at this school, but my plea to the MP is that we need ICT facilities at this school so that we will be well-equipped with necessary skills,” Munashe said, defying his age.
Guest of honour and MP, Edgar Mbwembwe, who doubles as Foreign Affairs deputy minister, could not help, but applaud before committing to ensure Munashe’s wishes were realised.
Despite, his school being located at the centre of a rural setup in Chirasauta, Chivhu, with no hope of having electricity anytime soon, given how far the nearest electric lines are, Munashe feels that along with millions of other children, they are holding the wrong end of the stick when it comes to ICTs despite public posturing by government officials.
“I hear that those in the urban areas are way ahead of us. We want computers and internet here. Yes, there is no electricity, but we can use other sources of energy like solar. Most of us in Chirasauta and other areas have never operated a computer. We are lagging behind,” Munashe said in an interview after the event.
Not so long ago, people believed in a number of mysteries, for example that lightning can “lay eggs”.
But today, due to modernisation, Munashe and other children in Chirasauta have an idea of the benefits of ICTs thanks to their pervasive nature, but threats loom large every day. The government’s controversial idea to raise mobile data charges only goes to show, the struggle is yet to be won.
The ever-growing disparity, also known as the digital divide, seemingly continues to grow unabated. A snap survey by NewsDay Weekender in Mashonaland East province revealed that most rural schools have empty computer laboratories, while others cannot equip the laboratories due to unavailability of power.
“There is no power in this area and we do not have any hope that we will get it anytime soon. We do not have money to purchase the computers, let alone to secure an alternative power system,” a secondary school science teacher in Wedza South Constituency, who declined to be named, said.
Over the last few years, President Robert Mugabe has donated computer equipment to a number of rural schools amid claims unidentified people have returned in the dead of night to “steal” the donated computers so they can be given out at another school.
ICT expert, Samuel Chindaro said it is important for responsible authorities to accept infrastructural limitations, which stop the nation from fully developing ICTs in rural areas.
He said the government should come up and enforce a national curriculum from primary level that embraces the fundamentals of ICTs.
“Government must understand that ICTs are not only about accessing the internet; but it is about various concepts that are embraced. ICTs include use of the TV, radio, mobile phones and their various applications and even the use of the ordinary post office,” Chindaro said.
Zimbabwe has only one television broadcaster and the few “privately-owned” radio station licences were given to people connected to the current administration.
Chindaro said the government also needs to come up with a curriculum that embraces ICTs, but cognisant of national limitations.
“There is so much obsession with accessing the internet as a basis for teaching or introducing ICTs in rural areas, neglecting the fact that accessing the internet is something that can be simulated for teaching purposes,” he said.
Another ICT expert, who declined to be named, agreed with public sentiments that government’s move through the Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) to effect increases of mobile data was a ploy to freeze out ordinary citizens from social media, which has proven to be a potent tool in opposing Mugabe.
Groups such as #ThisFlag, Tajamuka/Sesijikile last year used social media to organise successful demonstrations against Mugabe. Given the fear pervading Mugabe’s government ahead of elections expected in the first half of 2018, Munashe and other rural Zimbabweans should brace for more such moves from the government to stifle access to the internet rather than a complete liberalisation.
“Government, through Potraz, wants to deal with social media, but their move has negative effects on the whole issue of internet access. It is mind boggling to celebrate a 2 500% tariff hike in 21st century and in a time we are all advocating for e-life.
“E-learners are affected by the cost of data because, now, the number of local reservations will go down. There are students, who use internet for their researches, while other institutions have e-learning platforms. E-commerce has been affected as well, media houses too, it will be difficult to read online news,” said the expert.
ICT minister Supa Mandiwanzira reacted to public anger by reversing the charges, with Potraz passing blame to mobile telecommunications operators for the increases. The result has been messy, with the country’s largest operator, bearing the brunt of public outrage.
“I share and sympathise with concerns expressed by the multitudes of Zimbabwean internet users that the recently effected data prices are unparalleled and extortionist,” he said in a statement seen as a major climbdown.
For now, Munashe’s hopes remain a pipe-dream until the government stops politicking with his and other rural children’s lives.