Firoze Manji on challenges using new media to support social justice movements in Africa

Firoze Manji is founding Executive Director of Fahamu - Networks for Social Justice, a pan African organization with offices in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and the UK.

Fahamu exists to support the development and growth of a powerful social justice movement in Africa. There are three core areas of activity:

Training: Fahamu aims to strengthen human rights organizations by providing training programs that include sufficient pre workshop preparation and post workshop follow-up to ensure substantive learning. Fahamu has created CD-ROM based training packages covering subjects from advocacy to financial management to gender violence and conflict.

News & Media: Pambazuka News is a weekly electronic newsletter providing commentary and analysis on issues of social justice across Africa, published in English, French and Portuguese. There are 26,000 subscribers and half a million unique visitors to the site. Content is also published on and it is widely used by mainstream media. Pambazuka was one of the first African organizations to use podcasts and videocasts.

Advocacy: Fahamu was heavily involved in efforts to persuade countries to sign up to the African Union's Rights of Women in Africa Protocol. The organization attracted a great deal of attention for its strategy of getting people to sign a petition via cell phones. Within 18 months it had persuaded the necessary 15 countries to ratify the Protocol.

Firoze shared a number of his insights from his experience using ICTs in these areas:

There remain real barriers to use of ICTs in Africa: Middle class Africans often have more than one cell phone each; penetration figures can therefore be misleading. The cost associated with text and especially voice services is prohibitive for many. While email is cheap, web surfing is expensive and due to low bandwidth, painfully slow. 

Paper formats are in some instances still the most useful: Feedback from students on Fahamu courses has shown consistent demand for paper resources. Students rarely have their own home computer or laptop and they may travel often; internet cafes can be unsafe environments for women alone. For these reasons, Fahamu continues to produce print resources. It also recently launched Pambazuka Press to promote African writers.  Books will be sold at cost to distributors in Africa and at commercial rates elsewhere.

Technology tools are a complement to, not substitute for real engagement: Analysis of the Rights of Women Protocol petition showed that less than 10% of signatures had come via cell phones. It was the political legwork of going through the protocol in person with each individual that made the real difference to the outcome. This confirms Firoze's view that tools such as cell phones cannot create social change where there is no existing real-world network for them to tap into. We need to be wary of fetishizing technology tools, attributing to them powers they simply cannot have.

Technology, Froze argues, tends to reflect and amplify existing social relations. So while ICTs can enable people to voice their own experience in a way that was not available to them before, they can just as easily serve to shore up existing power structures.