Highway Africa Digital Indaba reportback


Saturday

The day started with a march by the Right2Know Campaign to Parliament. A veritable street festival of information activists, data progressives, ordinary working people. Neil Goodwin was there doing his Charlie Chaplin impersonation along with a speech bubble demanding access to information. The AIDC crew practically everywhere.

Ronnie Kasrils appears to have joined the campaign and gives an emotional speech filled with revolutionary zeal. “We must stop the despots and dictators” he says as he calls for the ruling party to withdraw the Information Bill.

I have to leave, since I am a delegate at the Pan African Information Access Conference on the foreshore. Held in Cape Town’s swanky CTICC, I quietly register alongside other delegates arriving from overseas and up north and am handed a huge bag of loot,  filled with information material and an XXL t-shirt that will probably fit Jacob Zuma as well as his three wives.

Having carefully avoided the opening address by various corporate chiefs including Media24′s Koos Bekker, I dig into a lunch sponsored by our national telco — Telkom. It tastes like Telkom, if Telkom had a taste at all,  it would be like sampling my grandmother’s collection of Panorama Magazine filled with Blue Train Apartheid and Government luncheon food of the kind dished up in our own Parliament kitchen.

After some misgivings about being a sponsored guest,  I  join a session on technology convergence. The session begins with Nnenna Nwakanma of FOSSFA boldly appealing to the sisterhood for greater representation. Outnumbered by men in expensive suits, she does a great job of lightening up the conversation.

However a presentation by a blonde woman from Huawei who could be Charlize Theron’s sister, doesn’t bode well for gender equality. The blonde succeeds in screening a corporate video  about a mythical world in which one technology company rules over them all.  Smiling,  inane employees in a white, middle-class future, filled with tablet PCs. Struggling to impress the audience with ubiquitous technology,  her presentation links start to fail with unintended consequences, like Dorothy from Oz, she suddenly clicks her high heels and disappears without contributing much to the debate. It could be Pan African convergence if there were a few black CEOs, but instead we are given MTNs Christian  de Fara, Telkom’s Brian Armstrong, and Harry Dugmore of Rhodes University.

Chistian de Fara looks absolutely ridiculous. “I have a very expensive suit” he says a number of times to Nnenna, until the audience accepts this is some kind of corporate gag, nobody notices the obvious lack of presentation. Then Armstrong produces one of those clever Telkom adverts, the one about the middle-aged white guy who could have gone on a journey to distant and foreign lands if only he weren’t tied to his desk. But wait, look, see, here is a new, horrendously expensive mobile phone that will take all of life as we know it, blend it with the great outdoors before compressing it all into a small box that you can put into your expensive suit pocket.

After going on about how mobile telephony is the future (one day middle management will also wear expensive suits) and a maturing market that has a horrendous plateau called convergence, Armstrong suddenly bursts out with an adult advisory – “The Internet is controlled by Gay Cartoons” he says to muted laughter. De Fara immediately disappears along with his costume, apparently deleted from the mindscape along with other Telkom competitors.

Prof Harry Dugmore turns out to be one of the highlights of the conference, providing us with a constant stream of  intellectually stimulating commentary,  unfortunately I don’t have the guts to tell him, the new mobile service called NikaNow is just Twitter with a local facelift. Apparently Dugmore has turned into a Now-ist and has his sight set on a homegrown mobile tweeting platform that will probably fail unless it is bought by a large corporate.

Evening

Feeling well-converged and more fully informed about corporate media I am ushered into a lobby filled with ABSA regalia. A red carpet, banners, the usual scented propaganda one associates with a bank that perceives itself throught the prism of the quasi-socialist colour “RED.”

The Middle East AU Arab contingent is there in force, perhaps this has something to do with the bank being sharia-friendly?  I strike up a conversation with a petit Lebanese journalist called Mona who is impressed by my Middle East Peace plan. Three-state solution or Bust. Pan Africanism on a budget.

Inside the hall bedecked with ABSA banners, I sit down at a table and am quickly joined by a horde of German women who seem interested in my name tag —  occupation: Hactivist.

Praven Gordhan gives an innocuous speech about the economy. Apparently everything is just fine. No need to worry. There is no inkling the Rand is about to fall a couple of notches, or that markets could explode with new forms of inequality.

Sunday.

Having submitted a blog piece on Internet Regulation issues, I am not terribly surprised to find myself next to a women from the Publications Control Board. A European journalist covering the event has a handycam and we strike up a conversation on the pertinent topic of informed consent & parental guidance, exactly who gets to decide what children watch on Youtube? She has trouble with my libertarian perspective but I am relieved to find some consensus on keeping the Internet free from censorship.

The following session leaves me feeling extremely uncomfortable. The regulators in the AU are having a field day in a session on UK, Ghana and Uganda. Mondli from Times Avusa is dancing on hot coals and has problems defending the local press against the idea of regulation by strong men. I am frankly ashamed to see the lack of a common position as it emerges that Avusa accepts the idea of regulation in principle, but differs on the detail.

The next session hosted by ICANN begins with a wonderful appraisal of minority language issues to do with the AU and domain names by Ann-Rachel Inne, before we are treated to a “scoop” on the new gTLDs. Problem though is the pricing structure. From an African perspective, the $185 000 needed to register a dot.brand is beyond me. I seriously question the governance structure that has evolved around our DNS and encourage readers to look at alternatives like the OpenNic Project.

Evening

The Telkom Highway Africa New Media Awards event is competing with the Loeries being hosted upstairs at the CTICC, but we are treated to a wonderful dinner, free of the economic anxiety of the previous evening. I am in awe of Dr Guy Burger’s easy MCing of the event as a number of awards are handed out to deserving websites. If only there was a press release, we would have all the details for you.

Monday

The Digital Citizen’s Indaba is an auxiliary event to the Highway Africa and PACAIA events. Since  I am the first guest speaker my nerves are playing up. I am photographed by a young female student who has a bigger camera than the average male journalist. The DCI11 twitter feed is centre stage and hash tag is the focus of the day. I immediately regret having a powerpoint presentation, since the day turns out to be all about live media.  Perhaps I should have tweeted my topic, but since my blackberry is still in the shop, and with no Android phone in sight, I am merely setting up the terms of a debate which will evolve during the course of the day.

My APC co-panelist provides an eloquent sermon on Net Neutrality, followed by Harry Dugmore with yet more intellectual theorising on citizen journalism. This is obviously Julie Posetti’s day, since she is the one who gets the opportunity to go completely logoreic on the subject of Twitter. I am terrorised by the kind of endless cant that moves effortlessly from her lips as she beckons us to embrace her 20 000 tweet kween followers.

(AIDC have promised to publish my Media Activist Handbook come October in which I engage with the citizen journalism debate, in particular the problem of fragmentation of the public sphere.)

Bobby Soriano manages to put the fear of loss of privacy into the assembled audience with his Facesnoop application. This is the first time I have seen an applet Interpret data in a way that makes snooping on wifi effortless. Yep, we all need to be aware of https and tor onion-routing.

The other DCI11 speakers are somewhat mediocre (no offense intended) except for Eric Charas whose sheer exuberance about the revolution in citizen journalism in Mocambique makes me hopeful that the social media revolution in the sub-continent has a lot more in store than NikaNow.

News of the government’s retraction of the Information Bill is greeted with applause. Duncan can justly claim victory as my mind turns to the look on Citizen Landers face when I threatened to hand over my PGP keys in committee to Mario Oriani-Ambrosini.

Thus, the Special session of AIMS provides an opportunity for some dissent. Encouraged by my friend in the presidency who has urged me to be more vocal, I stand up and object to the resolution on the basis of the participation of SANEF, especially one of its members failure to apologise for apartheid. It is like standing up against a piece of concrete as Jane Duncan calls me to order before  the special rapporteur. (Sorry Jane) For obvious reasons, I do end up signing the compromise French version of the document and am willing to plead insanity when it comes to timing of my outburst — Amandla, No Apartheid.

Evening

We are bussed to a secret venue near Cape Town’s Waterfront. 15 pink sunrise cocktails later and I still can’t get into the mood. Eventually Patricia de Lille arrives with her private army. At least somebody understands media. I share history in the Freedom Struggle. Raymond Louw is standing like a statue on a beach, perhaps waiting to embark on ferry vacation to Robben Island? I  am showered with VIP cards as apologetic members of the AU go into damage control mode. Yes, this is all about my relationship to Media24 and its failure to come clean at the TRC. Hopefully something like common ground will emerge when the big chief realises the only thing which is going to stop me from complaining about racism in the media is a bullet or an apology. Give me free media, or give me a quiet death.

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