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Debating Zimbabweanness in Diasporic Internet forums: Technologies of freedom
Winston Mano & Wendy Willems
December 11, 2009

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In: Zimbabwe's New Diaspora: Displacement and the Cultural Politics of Survival
Edited by JoAnn McGregor and Ranka Primorac
Berghahn Books

The protracted and multi-staged economic and political crises that visited Zimbabwe in the 2000s were accompanied by politically charged, narrowed-down definitions of national identity and citizenship. As many Zimbabweans left for Britain, the USA, South Africa and other destinations, so the Internet became an important multi-platform medium for publishing and obtaining news about Zimbabwe. It could provide linkages between Zimbabweans in different parts of the Diaspora and enabled them to debate political and economic change. The burgeoning Diasporic Zimbabwean media have primarily served the growing population outside Zimbabwe but have also been accessible to some constituencies at home, and have provided alternatives to the shrinking state-controlled media space in Zimbabwe. Leading Diaspora websites such as SW Radio, Zimdaily and New Zimbabwe have offered up-to-date news and provided critical reflection on Zimbabwe's demise.

The Internet has often been celebrated as a medium which enables those subject to censorship to evade regimes of control. For example, de Sola Pool (1983: 5) argues that '[f]reedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralised, and easily available, as are printing presses or microcomputers. Central control is more likely when the means of communication are concentrated, monopolised, and scarce, as are great networks'. The Internet has been described as making possible a new form of cyberdemocracy or as enabling a more inclusive public sphere.

(Poster 1997; Tsagarousianou et al. 1998; Liberty 1999; Gimmler 2001; Papacharissi 2002; Dahlberg and Siapera 2007). Others have discussed the way in which the Internet can threaten the power of authoritarian regimes (Kedzie 1997; Kalathil and Boas 2003). In the context of Zimbabwe, Peel (2008) has proposed that Zimbabwean Internet fora constitute 'a microcosm of Zimbabwean diversity which deconstructs the authoritarian nationalism that has been a signature of Mugabe's 28-year rule'. However, against these positive celebrations of the liberating potential of the internet, more sceptical observers have highlighted the way in which the internet can also give a voice to extremely reactionary perspectives such as those of the extreme right and neo-Nazi white supremacists (Brophy et al. 1999; Adams and Roscigno 2005; Atton 2006; Roversi and Smith 2008).

This chapter considers the way in which national identity and citizenship were debated within an online discussion forum on the Diaspora website NewZimbabwe. It specifically focuses on discussions around the participation of a Zimbabwean nurse, Makosi Musambasi, in the British Big Brother series, broadcast on Channel Four in 2005. Via the 'Makosi case', the chapter examines how Diasporic Zimbabweans defined themselves and how they imagined 'Zimbabweanness' in Internet chatrooms. Through the case study, the article discusses the extent to which their imaginations can be seen as an alternative to the narrow and exclusionary nationalism articulated by the ruling ZANU PF government. The first part of this article provides a background to the authoritarian nationalism espoused by the Zimbabwean government in the 2000s. Subsequent sections address emerging Diasporic Zimbabwean media and the specific case of NewZimbabwe, Makosi's entry into the Big Brother house and the final section discusses online discussion forum debates on 'Zimbabweanness'.

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