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The Internet and NGOs in South Africa and Kenya

The Internet and NGOs in South Africa and Kenya

Arquilla and Ronfeldt have argued that the Internet is particularly "well suited to strengthening civil society actors whose purpose is to address social issues." (The Advent of Netwar 33)

"Multi organizational networks consist of (often small) organizations or parts of institutions that have linked together to act jointly...making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, coordinate, and operate together across greater distances and on the basis of more and better information." (Ronfeldt in Wehling)

They perceive the network form of organization to be particularly "well suited to strengthening civil society whose purpose is to address social issues"(33) and netwar as the "natural next mode of conflict."(43) In their scenario Netwar will result when networked organizations come into conflict and challenge traditional, hierarchical organizations for the control of information and power.

South Africa has had a long history of struggle against a racially segregated system of political and economic exclusion of the majority. The end of the apartheid system was the result of a number of forces and pressures working against it. These included a wide variety of local and international groups (net)working to raise awareness and bring pressure on the regime. The nature of the strictly political transformation that took place is a testament to the range of other forces that were at play. Most notable was the changing nature of the capitalist modes of production that had a need for a more skilled workforce than could be accommodated under the apartheid restrictions. The ensuing change was from a racially segregated proletariat to a normalized economic segregation. Much to the chagrin of many activists involved in the struggle, it has meant that many of the social ills felt under apartheid have remained. (Worden, Saul, Lodge)

Efforts to address the post-apartheid problems, combined with neoliberal restrictions on the state’s ability to actively address social issues, have been aided by the links formed during the apartheid struggle. As in every other African country, the development community has given a privileged position (within its embrace of civil society) to officially designated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address social issues. As Ronfeldt describes it, a great deal of the power of these organizations is achieved through networking, and especially through the Internet. One group that has been working to improve the capacity of NGOs using the net is the South African NGO Net (SANGONet) in association with the Association of Progressive Communications (APC).

The APC is a network of networks. It has been in operation since 1993 when it started connecting NGOs in Canada, Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia. Through various affiliated organizations, the APC began to provide local connections that allowed communication across borders and continents. Using local dial-up connections and overnight mail packages between nodes, APC organizations provided an invaluable means of information networking before the wide spread popularity of the Internet. As the Internet grew and dial-up connections became widely available through commercial providers, the value and popularity of APC member connections fell dramatically. After a few years of stumbling and different attempts at reorientation by individual organizations within its network, most (including SANGONet) have turned to providing information gateways for NGOs. Some (SANGONet included) have managed to continue offering Internet Service Provider (ISP) services as well as web hosting and design.(

Studies done by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on the Internet in Africa, and its use by all NGOs, have noted the following problems: First and most obvious for all of Africa (less so in South Africa) is the overall lack of telecommunications infrastructure and the inaccessibility of computer hardware. While this is indeed a major problem, it is being actively addresses by governments, International Organizations, NGOS and the private sector. Most promising has been the popularity of satellite and mobile technology to entirely avoid the local infrastructure. The second most problematic aspect of the Internet in Africa is the use and design of websites by African organizations. As the size of the net and the amount of information in it has grown exponentially, there has been a corresponding rise in the difficulty of finding useful and relevant information. Specifically, while the ability to publish information (through websites) has become easier, techniques for advertising and creating gateways to information have not been widely adopted. The IDRC report in 1997 noted the lack of ‘META’ tags being used by African websites.

This has enhanced the specter of an information monopoly achieved by large commercial and government controlled information gateways. The obvious example here is America Online, whose large subscriber base and information gateway leaves few avenues with which to leave their information system. As an example of this in Africa I will use the examples of Africa Online (Kenya Page) and the KenyaWeb - unofficially a service of the government of Kenya. Africa Online is one of Africa’s largest service providers which, surprisingly, does not have a presence in South Africa, and actively promotes its homepage as a preferred gateway. Content is broken down by countries that it serves and it provides a search function of the Africa Online directory. Its popularity is enhanced by its association with the notorious America Online and the fact that it provides some of the fastest connection speeds in Africa.

KenyaWeb, according to comments on the Kenya Community Abroad (KCA) mailing list, used to be a good source for current information on Kenya. It is now a good source of government mediated information and a very popular one.(Thread: "So long KenyaWeb" March 6 -10, 2000) On every one of the twelve popular search engines searched by for many terms containing ‘Kenya’, it will appear on each search engine, beside a plethora of travel sites. It serves as a virtual monopoly of non travel related sites by virtue of its size and use of advertising. KenyaWeb and Africa Online both have glaring omissions. Notably on the KenyaWeb is an extensive list of NGOs in the country and their postal addresses with not a mention of their web presence. Africa Online also does not provide smaller NGO links and both neglect links to smaller, radical political parties in the country. Some do exist, but they can only be accessed by a search for their individual names - referenced from the KenyaWeb list - on an African specific engine such as Orientation. (Available in Swahili and English for Kenya) Alternatively through links on dedicated Kenya pages that are designed and located mostly in North America - or through SANGONet.

The historical and present situations in Kenya and South Africa are of course very different. South Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure places it among the top 20 countries while Kenya is much lower. South Africa’s struggle has given it a well developed civil society that after years of repression is only beginning to develop in Kenya. There are, nevertheless, some points of convergence. Both countries are experiencing a remaking of their political systems: South Africa after decades of racially exclusionary political and economic regimes, and Kenya after decades of ethnically exclusionary political, and as a result economic, marginalization under the Moi-Kalenjin regime.

Following independence in Kenya, political power was achieved by an authoritarian one party government and manipulation of the ethnic competition between segments of the society. The first president - Kenyatta - was of Kikuyu ethnicity and used his position of power to distribute the spoils of government controlled and influenced economic activity to the majority ethnic group and to the exclusion of the other 30 or so groups in Kenya. Under his successor Moi, economic advantages have been distributed through a loose alliance of minority groups under the Kalenjin banner. Mandela’s release from prison in 1991 coincided with the suspension of IMF loans to Kenya in protest over corruption and government repression. The loans were tentatively resumed (soon after the first elections in South Africa) after some movement towards political reforms and in the run up to the second free elections in 1997. Of course the elections were not free and reports of ethnic killings orchestrated by Moi abounded. Since the elections and under international pressure Kenyans have been involved in creating a new constitution, due to take effect when Moi steps down (though he’s 71 and hanging on like a bat out of hell).

The negotiations over the constitution have included a large role for the organizations of ‘civil society’ - meaning in this case a large number of NGOs and church groups. Efforts to commandeer the process by Moi have taken the form of numerous country wide riots which have on occasion been met with military force. While these actions have caught the attention of Kenyans abroad and academics, there has been a resounding lack of international attention or media coverage of these events. Kenya, since the US embassy bombings (an event wholly unrelated to Kenya), has dropped off the international spotlight.

This is, in large part, due to the inaccessibility of information about various groups, their aims and goals, and their problems achieving these. Lacking a coordinated information outlet - for both the domestic community and international support - the power of the spreading information revolution is being lost. And it is spreading, from two ISPs in 1996 and one delayed mail packet provider to over fifteen today, numerous Internet cafes and school computers and a T1 connection to Europe. What this demonstrates is that it is not simply a matter connectivity that is a hindrance to harnessing the power of the Internet in Africa. The matter of content and access to information is at least as important. Given the monopoly structure of the Internet physically - as data must often pass though the US and through information gateways and search engines - content becomes vitally important. The possibilities for the Internet to replicate and accentuate existing global inequalities is great. But an acknowledgment of the value of networks and more importantly of the fact that networks have hubs, is needed. Control of these hubs - as SANGONet exemplifies - are vitally important to realizing some of the more optimistic predictions of a digital age.

Post Script

While researching another related project, I came to realize, thankfully, that my concerns are not mine alone. I came across two young projects that are addressing some of the short comings of the present use of the Internet in Kenya. The first project I encountered is the NGO-Net, "a Non Governmental Organisation founded in 1998, based in France. Its mission is to support the Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) and Community Based Organisations (CBO), particularly in Africa. To reach this aim NGO-NET will use one main tool : the Internet."( Their proposal is to give smaller NGOs the equipment necessary to access the Internet and to facilitate its use by providing them with two months of free ISP service through their partnership with Africa Online. They are also planning to create a country specific NGO gateway containing a directory of the current NGOs operating, links to their homepages, and other resources for the NGO community. The pilot project is underway in Kenya with plans to expand to west Africa in the near future. The Kenya web site is due to be operational by the end of March. (

The second site is the impossible to navigate, The homepage will presently allow you two choices: "Africa Law Review" and "Law Links", though it is in progress. The Africa Law Review link will (on March 19th, 2000) bring you to the 76th Issue of the publication with links to all its stories but to no other issues. (url: Click on the Table of Contents link at the top of the page, then change the 76 to 73 in the address bar and the 73rd issue becomes available.(full url:

The 73rd issue covers the negotiations over the form that the constitutional review process in Kenya will take. The third link from the top is entitled "constitutional review process views" and it is subdivided into four sections: Political parties, Religious organizations, Unions, societies & councils, and Residents & fora. Each section then has statements, ranging from a paragraph to several pages from the various groups that make-up these sections of the society, stating their position on the negotiations. Powerful parts of society (e.g.. KANU the ruling party) are not given a privileged position in the order of links. The list is more inclusive than the original (1997) list of invited participants to the constitutional review process, though there are some omissions. Among the political parties for example, only the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) -Asili faction is listed, while there are currently at least three branches of the FORD party (Asili, Kenya, people). As well, the statements from geographical areas are not very representative. Because ethnic groups are generally territorially divided, (except in Nairobi) this could be perceived to be the more than just communication difficulties, and more likely ethnic exclusion of some groups.


The information contained in this issue is extraordinarily valuable to international observers of Kenyan politics and a powerful tool of competing groups to articulate their opinions to an international audience. The information is, however, largely inaccessible to anyone with no more than a passing interest in Kenyan politics. Were the information were more readily available, both in terms of the site design and links from popular information sources, its potential value would not be lost. The problem of travel sites, KenyaWeb, and Africa Online dominating the returns on major search engines, remains. The Orientation search engine, with a large network of country specific searches throughout Asia and Africa, is not important enough to be incorporated within popular meta search engines.

The instant gratification for networked organizations that Arquilla and Ronfeldt fear the Internet will provide, is not as impending as they would have us believe. More accurately, as Oguibe discusses, instead of allowing information to flow instantly to whomever requires it, the Internet is creating new barriers to the availability of information. These can be attributed partly to the low level of structure and organization of information, and to the dominance of what little structure there is by a few large organizations and countries. This is leaving information inaccessible except to those with advanced skills - the purview of the privileged who have extended access and experience with the Internet. To make information more accessible, either entire populations will have to become more skilled in the information retrieval tools - no doubt happening in North America where the next generation on teenagers has never known pre-Internet life - or else better and more inclusive gateways will have to be constructed. These would allow the most inexperienced user to avail themselves of relevant and impartially sorted information.

Works Cited:

Arquilla, John & Ronfeldt, David. The Advent of Netwar. Rand, 1996.

Saul, John S. Recolonization and Resistance in Southern Africa in the 1990s. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1993.

Southall, Roger "Re-forming the State? Kleptocracy & the political transition in Kenya" Review of African Political Economy no.79:93-108, 1999.

Throup, David and Hornsby, Charles. Multi Party Politics in Kenya. Oxford: James Currey, 1998.

Worden, Nigel. The making of Modern South Africa 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Lodge, Tom. "South Africa: Democracy and Development in a Post-Apartheid Society" in Leftwich, Adrian, ed. Democracy and Development Polity Press, 1996, pp. 188-208.

Olu Oguibe, "Forsaken Geographies: Cyberspace and the new World Other" 5th International Cyberspace Conference, Madrid, June 1996.


Internet resources cited:

Acacia Project (IDRC) -

Africa Online, Kenya Page -

Association for Progressive Communications -

Kenya Web (Nairobi)

Mike Jensen (IRDC) "Bridging the Gaps in Internet Development in Africa" -

Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) -

Leland project (USAID) -

Orientation Search Engine: Kenya -

South Africa NGO Net (SANGONet) -

United Nations: Economic Commission for Africa. Africa's Information Society Initiative


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