By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
I HAVE been privileged to meet most of the advance teams coming to Zimbabwe ahead of international election observers of the 2018 harmonised elections.
The questions and concerns of these advance groups routinely show an elitist, urban-centred, Eurocentric and media-based bias which suggests these delegations lack any prior grasp of the concerns and interests of the majority of MaDzimbahwe outside major towns and cities where the press does not have the same spread and depth which it has in towns and cities.
This bias, is to a great extent, a reflection of the biases and pre-occupations of those non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties playing host to the delegations and interacting with them.
This bias also suggests the media here, as elsewhere, could play the role of chikwambo in two ways: It can make those who win the elections believe that they did so because of the media.
It can also cause those who lose to use poor media coverage as their sole alibi.
Such popular beliefs are good for media business.
They suggest mass media services have a vested interest in exaggerating their role in elections and in making it look as if access to media is the sole measure of democracy and free, fair, transparent and credible elections.
Our ancestors used important sayings to warn against unthinking fascination with everything that looked new or exciting and exotic, to warn against the neglect of social and historical contexts, relationships and realities:
Nyangwe akafa inga anoita bvuri wani?
Chikwambo chinouya sekachipfuyo kangagare muchirugu, kana kamudziyo kangayevedza mumba nokuunza rombo rakanaka.
African philosophy has always been clear on these matters using those two concepts: That of the shadow (bvuri) and that of chikwambo.
The concept of the shadow (bvuri) in African thinking represents a hidden history which needs to be ventilated before moving forward.
It means that for every apparent success or breakthrough, there is an unintended or obscure drawback.
Every physical body, substance or invention has a shadow, but that shadow does not show on digital TV.
Now a super body like a super model in a digitalised studio clip will appear shadowless.
The great achievement of the visual aesthetics of digital technology is to banish shadows and produce super crisp images.
Yet the shadows are forever there even though we cannot see them.
The concept of chikwambo comes even closer home.
It is intended to warn Africans against hasty and ill-conceived short-cuts to riches or to success:
Kutora chikwambo kuita mudziyo wemumba ingozi, kutora chikwambo kuita chipfuyo ingozi.
Let me now illustrate this African thinking with a recent European story as a metaphor for chikwambo and bvuri.
The Herald for January 15 2013 republished the following Daily Mail story:
“A Belgian woman was taken on an astonishing 2 880 kilometre detour through six counties after her car navigation system went wrong during a trip to her local railway station.
Sabine Morean (67) was driving to Brussels to pick up a friend from the train station (only) 61 kilometres from her home, but a wrong turn saw her end up 1 440 kilometres away in Zagreb, Croatia.
Despite crossing five borders and seeing multiple-language traffic signs, she did not stop to question her (Satellite navigation (Sat-Nav) until two days later when she realised she may not be in Belgium any more.”
Candidates for political office in the age of ‘technology’ are tempted by many service providers to allow these services to propel them to final victory.
Now, to be able to cover all that distance, 1 440 kilometres, Morean had to refuel the car several times, but: “Ms Morean did not think her Tom-Tom (that is the satellite navigation gadget) could be leading her down the wrong path.”
Morean is a woman whose ability to perceive, a woman whose orientation, a woman whose symbolising capacity has all been constituted via linear technology as represented by television and advertising.
According to that linear constitution, it is impossible to get lost once one has acquired and uses a Tom-Tom or gadget for satellite navigation.
I have picked Morean’s story precisely because she allowed the convenience of mediation to replace historical agency and historical time.
She allowed the suspension of disbelief (which is necessary to facilitate our interface with communication technologies), she allowed this to slip out of control and become a suspension of commosense, a suspension of history and suspension of historical time and historical sense.
Once history and historical time had been suspended, the Tom-Tom became Morean’s ruler, chikwambo or highjacker, making six geographical national and linguistic boundaries irrelevant. Otherwise how could she cross six national boundaries to go and pick up a friend at a train station which was in her neighbourhood?
The specific case of television against history
As Africans move toward the global deadline for digitising broadcasting systems, they must ponder the history of television and decide how they should and will make their growing use of and reliance on that medium produce a different outcome from what has happened in North America and Europe.
US President Donald Trump’s many opponents believe his election was a media-orchestrated accident.
He should not have become president, they say.
Africa for a long time has adopted and celebrated the whiteman’s dead-ends as its own breakthroughs.
This is happening again in the case of our blind acquisitions of TV and so-called social media.
We adopt structures without content of our own.
Social media, especially are credited in our press with wreaking havoc within families and between husbands and wives.
Why should a technology be credited with so much power?
With regard to television and advertising, especially political advertising, readers may wish to check the following among others: Robert Spero, The Duping of the American Voter: Dishonesty and Deception in Presidential Television Advertising; Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations; Linda McQuaig, The Cult of Importance: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy; Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age.
In a chapter called ‘Images Disconnected from Source’, Mander wrote about television as the perfect machine for fighting and destroying history through the ‘separation of image from time and place’, or what we can call ‘decontextualisation’.
That is what happened to Moreau and her Tom-Tom.
If you remove history, which our ancestors visualised as the shadow or bvuri when they said: “Why, even a cadaver has a long shadow. What of you a living historical agent?
Why do you view yourself as immaculate and self-created?”
Mander focused on TV images as follows:
“The images which arrive in your home may have been shot yesterday or a week ago, on location or in a studio.
By the time you see them, they are not connected to those places or those times.
They have been separated from all connections. (Yet history is about connection).
All the images (on TV) arrive in sequence with equal validity. They exist only in the here and now.
They are floating equally in space.”
So the dominant feature of linear communication through TV is removal of history, removal from history and from historical process. This does not mean TV cannot be useful for certain purposes or it should never be used.
It means the African nation which adopts TV as the key medium for public communication in the digital age must ask itself what it has done to modify or moderate the great damage which the medium has already caused North America and Europe in the last 70 years.
Mander continued his description of the damage:
“Human beings and living creatures exist in process.
From one year to the next they are different.
(Human) culture, Government, religion and art are also in process. Explaining a human being or a culture or a political system requires at least some historical perspective.
Explaining a product requires no such historical understanding. Products (as advertised) do not grow organically; they are fashioned (apparently) whole and completely in the here and now. You see them in one stage of their life cycle.
That is their only stage until they start falling apart in your home. This is not to say products have no history.”
This is only to say products, especially when advertised on TV, always hide both their own and your history.
Most TV adverts serve to hide that history.
The African idea of chikwambo and bvuri to demonstrate the double-sword character of media has its Northern parallel in the Greek tale of Narcissus after whom the problem of ‘narcissism’ is named.
Narcissus inadvertently caught the image of his face in a pool of water.
Realising that his face was very pretty, he got so engrossed in this reflection that everything else in his life paled to insignificance. The real world and what happened there no longer mattered as much as the fact that he looked great according to his reflection in the water.
The way to reduce this risk is to remember the African-American saying that: “You can chew gum and walk at the same time,” or to remember the messages of the African relational structure, dariro.
The dariro was deliberately constructed to always show a piece of encircled ground, the common and collective heritage, in the centre. The queue shows no such common ground.
In the dariro there is no tunnel vision.
One can see ahead as well as peripherally.
A well-organised dariro leaves no blind corners.
The ‘straight’ road hides not only sharp corners and pot holes; it shows one’s lane without common ground.
Its round-about is misrepresented as no-man’s land.