By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
I HAVE noticed that the title of Julie Frederikse’s book, None But Ourselves: Masses Versus Media in the Making of Zimbabwe (1982) is somewhat misleading.
It implies that during the Second Chimurenga, the liberation movement had the masses on their side, without media, but went on to win both the propaganda war and the shooting war; while on the other hand the settler-regime had media and well-equipped armed forces but went on to lose both the war for mindsets and the shooting war.
The reality, however, was that the liberation movement had built up an underground African liberation media which was unique and unlike the colonial, regional and Western media which supported the colonial regime and its armed forces.
Therefore, in reality there were two different ways of organising communication, with the African liberation media being obscured by the assumption that guerillas had the masses while the colonial regime had the media.
At the heart of the African liberation media system was a special cadre of mostly volunteers who I choose to call ‘critical information strategists and critical information scouts’ (CIS) who were, later in the struggle, assisted by ‘critical information runners’ in response to more bannings, prohibitions and other measures trying to stop the circulation of revolutionary information.
The runners are recognised in the history as vanachimbwido and vanamujibha who were the opposite of the colonial system’s paid informers.
The closest English term we can use to try to approximate the meaning of critical information scout would be media monitor.
But that is a rough approximation of the much more creative and proactive work of the CIS in liberation media.
Monitoring is comparatively passive and it assumes that the whole media system is institutionalised and predictable.
To the contrary, CIS had to create a media system out of the most unlikely but organic elements of African culture centred on many millennia of existence and development of dariro philosophy.
The runner system was, in fact, part of a sophisticated and well-strategised African media which, in the end, defeated the colonial regime’s propaganda machinery.
Its strengths arose from assuming that the people are the first media and their daily existence requires meticulous attention.
In Zimbabwe, this idea that the people are the first media is overlooked because so-called ‘smart technology’ is unaffordable for the majority and its procurement and sales are dominated by a hyper capitalism which prefers to promote individual ownership and use of the ‘smart’ gadgets over collective, communal use which would be more efficient and less expensive.
The queue of ‘zvanguzvaita’ has replaced the dariro, especially in the city.
What the runners conveyed and who/where they took it to
In terms of place and space, the African liberation movement revealed itself as a series of well-connected circles (madariro) built up from small cells which formed bases, which also formed bigger wards, which formed districts and so on up to the province.
When mobilised and performing its conscientisation role, this system revealed itself as all-night gatherings known as pungwe.
This system, for one, served to make more efficient the sharing of scarce communication gadgets and information products such as short-wave radio receivers, telephones, books, pamphlets, audio tapes, tape recorders, magazines and newspaper articles.
In other words, the information content conveyed by the runners would be announced, consumed and broadcast at the cell, base, ward or district level, mostly using the pungwe format.
Later we shall try to examine the contents of that information, what the scouts and strategists identified and selected and what the runners carried.
For now, it is important to look at the evolution or revolution of the pungwe.
For clarity, we can divide the pungwe into three types.
Pungwe type one was the children’s all-night arts festival given to dance, song and poetry for children’s self-education.
It was attended by children under the care and direction of their chaperons and mentors. In some parts of Zimbabwe the pungwe was called jenaguru because it was held during the full moon.
In other parts, it was called after the name of the most dominant dance of the region: muchongoyo; chinyambera; chikeke; jerusarema; and so on.
When most young people left their villages to seek employment in towns or on the mines and farms, while others went away to missionary schools — pungwe/jenaguru was changed to makwaya or makisimiso, meaning all-night choir competitions held during Christmas holidays when young people came back to their rural villages and when factories were on industrial break (shutdown).
This seasonal movement of young people and workers presented a great opportunity for the nascent African nationalist movement to inform the entire African population about its activities and, initially, the young people on Christmas break served as voluntary/informal critical information scouts and runners.
Their information was not restricted to news about the nationalist movement. It covered information on common and varying experiences of African people under settler-rule within Zimbabwe and beyond.
The young people moving back and forth between city and countryside became informal journalists and would soon be carrying with them copies of newspapers, pamphlets and magazines together with short-wave radio receivers which could be used as a basis for cell activity, to listen to selected broadcasts of critical interest to the community.
In this way, one copy of a newspaper carrying a critical story on Ghana or Kenya or South Africa and Nelson Mandela would go a long way doing the rounds through village cells which would often also serve as Bible Study cells for the local Church.
Obviously, the colonial regime soon took an interest in makwaya and makisimiso, because the content of the performed pieces changed drastically from those of pungwe type one.
Factors influencing the rise and conduct of CIS
The following were some of the factors influencing the rise and conduct of CIS within the nascent African liberation movement: Passage of the 1956 African Land Husbandry Act led to the strict enforcement of the 1931 Land Apportionment Act which, for the African majority, meant renewed forced removals of people from well-watered areas designated white highlands to dry and infertile areas renamed Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs).
For the majority, these policies renewed memories of the First Chimurenga and forced people to adopt an African living law approach to current affairs; that is the view that Africans were a dispossessed people who must reclaim their patrimony. Indeed, the dispossession was palpable and on-going.
Critical information about the real situation of the African was scarce and often banned and prohibited, while white propaganda glorifying alleged benefits of colonialism for ‘natives’ was plentiful and well-promoted.
Some of the content developed and conveyed by CIS for pungwe types two and three Compilations or cuttings of:
- informative stories extracted from settler and imperial publications (for example, ANC-SA published a weekly compilation from its media monitoring team called ANC News Briefing)
- whole copies or chapters of banned books, smuggled;
- audio tapes with messages from banned or restricted leaders, smuggled and circulated;
- single newspaper stories or cyclostyled cuttings, smuggled and circulated;
- selected radio broadcasts from abroad, timed for cells to listen to at night;
- sermons or letters from preachers supportive of the movement;
- breaking news of relevance put into song and performed as part of the choir festival or at the pungwe;
- important stories or analyses written by CIS and published by sympathetic newspapers; and
- publications of liberation movements themselves such as People’s Voice; Zimbabwe News; Zimbabwe Review; Sechaba (SA); African Communist (SA); and so on.
Examples of current affairs put into song for Christmas choir competitions included the following:
Achiti: “Joinai ZAPU”
Achiti: “Joinai ZAPU
Achiti: “Joinai ZAPU”
Achiti: “Joinai ZAPU
This was deliberately a media-conscious and media-promoting composition. Another one used the occasion of Edgar Whitehead’s trip to the UN as Prime Minister of what was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which was about to fall apart under African nationalist pressure.
It went as follows:
Eku Daily News
Ngenyaya ya Edigar.
Eku Daily News
Ngenyaya ya Edgar.
Significantly, The African Daily News being promoted through this Christmas choir song was banned the same year makisimiso or makwaya were also banned, that was 1964, just before Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965.
The publications banned after Pungwe Type Two included the following:
African Daily News, 1964
Native (Bantu) Mirror, 1964
Central African Examiner, 1965
Moto magazine, 1974
Umbowo, 1976 and
Zimbabwe Times, 1978.
Very few of the media vehicles described here were owned by political parties themselves, which were also frequently banned, with their properties confiscated.
So, putting together a media and communication system of the complexity and effectiveness evidenced here and in Julie Frederikse’s book took the efforts of what I call critical information strategists, critical information scouts and critical information runners.
Before the development of formal information and commissariat departments, the entire CIS system was informal and voluntary, organically embedded in the African community but, like the dariro it served, keeping an eye on every bearing of the globe as environment and prospect.
This was unlike the Rhodesian system which assumed that only the anti-African and anti-communist Western model of media really mattered.
Relevance of CIS in the digital era
As pointed out in previous instalments, problems of ‘infoglut’ and ‘data smog’ suggest that the main media challenge of the digital age is no longer scarcity of information but scarcity of quality attention in the face of too much information, misinformation and disinformation.
To cut down on the glut and smog, CIS are still needed to formulate strategies for scavenging for really critical information and stories from the trash heaps of ‘infoglut’ and using the critical nuggets to connect cells and bases which are place-based and community-based instead of just virtual ones.
Madariro are still there in the form of cells, bases and wards on the ground, but they are no longer perceived or treated as integral parts of a strategic national media and communication system that once defeated the Rhodesian propaganda machinery during the Second Chimurenga.
In Zimbabwe, cells, bases and wards on the ground are viewed primarily in political terms as belonging mainly to a political party and as a relic from the 1970s.
The role of the information runner is seen as having been replaced by fast ICTs, now called ‘smart technology’ or ‘smart gadgets’.
But in North America and Brazil, the growing virtual communities, when connected to place-based communities, resulted in social and political polarisation as well as really destructive opposition to public health initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Growing allegations that social media, when linked to real place communities, tend to be associated with polarisation of the latter suggesting that critical information strategists are still essential, similar to those during the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe.
In an era dominated by controversies over ‘infoglut’ and ‘fake news’, it would appear that real place-based communities need deliberately to develop CIS to navigate linkages between real place-based cells, bases and wards with virtual ones simply called groups.
In Zimbabwe recently, parents’ groups and health officials blame social media for spreading a drug culture among youths.
Whether this allegation is correct or not, it requires serious research to inform intervention measures.
Experiences of other countries should be included in the research.
Two weaknesses of the digitised virtual media system stand out: A large number of its participants are not flesh-and-blood persons engaged in conversation.
They are BOTS, part of the growth of artificial intelligence (AI).
The second weakness is that hyper capitalism seeks to patronise the content of the most ‘popular’ platforms and to ride on the controversies that fuel polarisation.