Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

DURING the first few weeks of 2011, the world witnessed political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Echoing the words of the radical jazz poet, Gil Scott-Heron, I enthusiastically plagiarised a few words from a well-known commercial jingle and wrote, "It put you (ordinary people) in the driver’s seat!"

As the world’s TV audiences watched this outpouring of anger against authoritarian governments by ordinary citizens, we witnessed the role played by social networks. The use of modern information and communications technology (ICT) as mobilising tools had been vindicated during the first Obama election victory in 2008. As these technologies brought together Muslims, Coptic Christians, liberals, socialists, nationalists and communists in an impressive display of an anti-authoritarian united front, everyone concurred that ICT might well determine the future course of politics the world over.

What unfolded in North Africa, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria has been the best communicated, documented, media-ready and media-driven political transformation of the 21st century. The rapid development of ICT over the past three decades has outstripped the methods governments used to control the flow of information in the past. Governments might still dream about censorship, but the digital age has consigned its effective practice to the past. It has placed the means to disseminate, communicate, record and document their experiences in the hands of citizens. As this technology becomes more affordable, it becomes more democratic.

We have, it seems, arrived in the "global village" of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher of communication theory, as ICT reduces the size of our planet, putting people in Cape Town within reach, in real time, of others at the opposite end of our continent. The "information highway" has come into its own. Its power has been incontrovertibly demonstrated, as has its capacity to empower both individuals and collectives.

How applicable are these observations to young people in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in South Africa? We have to admit to the existence of a digital gap between information-age "haves" and "have-nots". What US futurist Alvin Toffler referred to as "The Third Wave" relies on the platform of technological advances during the latter half of the 20th century. Telecommunications is the backbone of the digitised information revolution and the key infrastructure for its development and efficacy. In 2010, there were more fixed lines on the tiny island of Manhattan, New York City, than in all of Africa. The proliferation of cellphones has narrowed that gap, but Africa still lags the rest of the world. Though information of every variety is available to ordinary citizens thanks to modern ICT, owing to economic circumstance, the ability of citizens to access it, employ it and communicate with it is still very uneven.

In South Africa the divide between information age "haves" and "have-nots" has regional, language, gender and class dimensions: English-speaking urban communities are the best endowed. But the social effects of cellphones on South Africa is readily evident. It is the preferred communications tool of first-time buyers. The increasing sophistication of the cellphone has also given users access to the internet. ICT, like any other tool, is neutral. What makes the difference is the person who wields it. The events of 2011 in North Africa suggest that the proliferation of cellphones could catalyse profound political and social change.

Modern communications technology is a two-edged instrument that can be harnessed for social good, but also for terrible mischief. The News of the World scandal in the UK revolved largely around the misuse of modern ICT by the print media to generate sensational stories to increase circulation. South Africa had experience of that last week, as newspapers competed to bring leaks, speculation and gossip about Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp to public attention. Before the cautionary editorials appeared at the weekend, I feared Pistorius would be tried in the media rather than the courts.

Nurturing a truly diverse media in a digitised age is the challenge facing South Africa and Africa. Creating an environment in which engaged citizens can use the ICT infrastructure to communicate and disseminate information among themselves, unmediated by media corporations or governments, will not be easy. The leading corporations in entertainment, culture and sport broadcasting have shown their hand. They would prefer to lock us in a copyright regime better suited to the 19th century.

Governments, regrettably including our own, are not too keen on the prospect. Since 1994, an enabling environment was created for ICT to blossom in South Africa. As one editor has reported, President Jacob Zuma has delivered on 85% of his promises. Our government would be better advised to surf "The Third Wave" by harnessing its immense power to better communicate its achievements.

Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.