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Editor’s Memo

Cry for food, get computer

Vincent Kahiya

PRESIDENT Mugabe was in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, this week to attend the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS).

It is one of those bland events where leaders spend hours discussing ideals and not achievables. For our dear leader, though, any platform to display political machismo is grabbed with both hands.

Sometimes it is good to have President Mugabe at such talk- shops because his animated speeches usually stand out – not necessarily for positive reasons but mainly as a departure from the mostly banal interventions of other world leaders who manage to stay awake.

This is the sort of summit where heads of state usually offer generic contributions, all pointing to the fact that the great potential of Internet technology should spread to the developing world. President Mugabe offers a bit of fun and his salvos against unmissable targets Blair and Bush offer useful insights which are sometimes lost in the adulation of fawning state media and the Mugabe fan club in the third world.

I recall one such useful observation by President Mugabe at a plenary session of the WSIS in Geneva, Switzerland, two years ago. Part of the presidential address included this passage which I will quote unabridged:

‘Long after we have talked about the need for information and communication technologies as tools with which to contrive the information society, we are soon to discover that receivers and computers are powered by electricity which is unavailable in a typical third world village. Long after we have talked about connectivity, we are soon to discover that most platforms for electronic communication need basic telecommunication infrastructure which does not exist in a typical African village.

“What is worse, we will discover, much to our dismay, that the poor villager we wish to turn into a fitting citizen for our information society is in many instances unable to read and write. Where we are lucky to find the villager literate and numerate, we soon discover that he or she is not looking for a computer terminal but for a morsel of food; an antibiotic to save his dying child; a piece of land on which to eke out an existence; in short, looking for a humane society that guarantees him food, health, shelter and education.

“Zimbabwe’s own ICT efforts have thus been directed at developing Zimbabwe’s society as a whole in areas of education, health where the HIV/Aids pandemic remains a problem in both elementary and advanced skills development, as indeed in building a high-level awareness of the people’s basic rights.”

This was well put. But it is important to also remind readers that a year after President Mugabe made this all-important observation, he embarked on a campaign trail for the 2005 general election during which he donated hundreds of computers to rural schools which did not have books, chairs and desks, let alone electricity and a telephone.

The children who were made to cheer the computer donations did not have three square meals a day. As the president donated computers, there were no drugs at rural clinics and ambulances were grounded due to a shortage of either spare parts or fuel – sometimes both.

To use the wise words from the president, the child who sat for the whole day in the sun waiting for his arrival was not looking for a computer terminal but for morsels of food and for a “humane society that guarantees him food, health, shelter and education”. How cruel can the world be? Children crying every morning for food get computers instead.

It is trite that the computer donation blitz was President Mugabe’s pet project. Remember this statement in March when he donated computers in Highfield?

“It is a personal initiative that I embarked on and I have been assisted by several well-wishers like Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono.” That’s humane?

Whatever the intention was, the nation is yet to reap the benefits of the donations. We now hear press reports of the computers being stolen, that there are no qualified teachers to train kids on how to use the machines and there is no software to load onto the computers.

Meanwhile the rural kids are as hungry as ever and the digital divide continues to widen. This is not surprising because the digital divide can never be bridged through half-hearted measures like our mode of computer donations. As for shelter, the destructive trail of Operation Murambatsvina will be with us for a long time.

It is a truism that developing countries with the greatest Internet access have high rates of literacy, education, political freedom and service-based economies – as well as technology infrastructure. Zimbabwe is lacking immensely on the latter three aspects.

This is the reason Zimbabwe cannot be called a mature democracy by the simple act of setting up the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission or establishing an upper house of parliament. This approach is simply orderly autocracy via piecemeal institutional modification. We await the package from Tunis.

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