Has the time for hydropower passed?

Hydroelectricity: for and against

Africa has vast untapped sources of hydroelectricity but climate change, particularly droughts, raises questions about sustainability

An aerial view shows the Kariba Dam and the Kariba lake in Kariba on January 20, 2020. From the Zambian side the plant is managed by ZESCO, a state-owned power company. – In the absence of sufficient rain, the Kariba dam, the main source of electricity for Zambia and Zimbabwe, is expected to operate at only 25% of its capacity in 2020. (Photo by Guillem Sartorio / AFP)

Hydroelectricity has an attractive appeal for Africa. It can provide a baseload – a reliable source of electricity – not easily attainable from other clean energy sources, and it also allows grid stabilisation tointegrate more green power. Only about 11% of the continent’s hydropower potential has been tapped but regional plans to more than double hydro production by 2030 exist. Yet, future weather changes such as droughts put power generation at risk.

Ambitions for universal access to power by 2025 mean connecting 200 million households, nearly doubling grid generation, according to a 2018 African Development Bank (AfDB) report. Despite being home to 17% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for just 4% of global power. The continent does, however, have the highest percentage of untapped technical hydropower potential in the world, says Cristina Diez Santos, International Hydropower Association (IHA) Africa analyst.  With energy demand growing twice as fast as the global average, she notes, Africa has the opportunity to use its vast untapped hydropower resources to become the first continent to develop its economy using renewable energy.

Africa has a total installed capacity exceeding 37 MW, accounting for 15% of the total electricity share in the region, but that still leaves 600 million people – about half of the continent’s population – without electricity. For many African nations, hydroelectricity could address this energy gap. The AfDB, through the New Deal on Energy for Africa strategy, a partnership between the bank, governments and other stakeholders that launched in 2016, has backed power projects contributing around 2.78 GW of additional generation capacity, out of which about 755 MW, or less than 30% is from hydropower.

“The sustainable development of Africa’s significant, yet largely untapped hydropower potential, will aid the achievement of the continent’s ambitions in terms of energy access and increased generation capacity to underpin economic development,” Daniel-Alexander Schroth, the acting director for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the AfDB told Africa in Fact. “We are [also] cognisant that the complex nature of hydropower projects requires extensive planning, continued partnership, cooperation and learning, especially in the face of climate change challenges.”

Over the past 15 years, the AfDB has invested $560 million in some 20 hydropower projects with a total capacity of over 1.8 GW, out of which around 570 MW are already installed, and the remaining 1.2 GW are yet to be commissioned. The operations supported by the bank’s funding range from small-scale hydro plants such as Sahanivotry in Madagascar (15 MW) and Buseruka in Uganda (9 MW), to large-scale hydro projects like Itezhi-Tezhi in Zambia (120 MW) and Bujagali in Uganda (250 MW). “The threat of climate change will not stop hydropower continuing to be a large part of Africa’s energy mix,” says Malama Chileshe, energy economist at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in Lusaka, Zambia.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has Africa’s largest hydropower potential, estimated to be 100,000 megawatts – that is, almost half of the current installed generation capacity on the entire continent, says Chileshe. An estimated $14 billion is required to complete the Inga III hydroelectric mega- dam in the DRC, according to an October 2019 report by the NGO Resource Matters and the Congo Study Group. On completion, the Inga III will become the largest hydropower plant in sub-Saharan Africa. But the DRC, Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Togo, and Sudan are the only African nations that get more than 90% of their power from hydro. “[Hydropower] is barely touched,” says Chileshe.

“It therefore makes sense that efforts should be made to develop the available resource, especially
considering the fact that currently the bulk of power production comes from thermal sources considered environmentally unfriendly.” However, in Africa, the impact of climate change on the power sector and the energy-water nexus cannot  be ignored. Any African countries that are dependent on hydro power will be hard-hit in times of drought. For example, as they had in 2015, in 2019 Zambia and Zimbabwe both experienced erratic rainfall patterns, which resulted in low water levels at the Kariba dam; this led to a loss of more than 70% of electricity production from the dam’s hydro power plants.

In Kenya, a drought between 1999 and 2002 drastically affected hydropower generation, including a 25% reduction in capacity in 2000, Chileshe says. Kariba dam, a double-curvature concrete arch dam in the Kariba Gorge of the Zambezi river basin between Zambia and Zimbabwe, was designed to produce 1,200 megawatts on the basis of 50 years of records of the Zambezi river’s flow. In the past 60 years of its operations, Kariba has spilled five times – illustrating that the original calculations were sound, according to Eddie Cross, a Bulawayo-based Zimbabwean economist. Zambia and Zimbabwe have now doubled generation demand, which has proved to be beyond the dam’s capacity, with water for generation purposes almost running out in 2019, Cross says.

But this year has seen exceptional rains in the Kariba’s catchment areas. At between 55 to 60 billion cubic metres of water inflow, the river’s flow is four times that of 2019, and it is expected that the dam will reach full capacity. “What we are now doing is moving towards using the dam as storage and generating significant solar energy from the sun, and running the Kariba generators at night,” he says. “The whole system needs to be managed,” he cautions. “We have to investigate barrages and river flow technologies below large dams.” Cross argues that hydro is still the best choice for Africa – “it’s cheap and clean” – but he advocates using a mix of technologies.

Wind, hydro and solar are also possible, while coal is still critical for baseload, but should beminimised. While Africa produces just 2% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions, climate-related effects
are disproportionately higher in the region, which highlights the importance of a diverse power mix and regional interconnections, Santos says. “Hydropower is a clean power source, which helps to offset the impacts of fossil fuels. Hydropower infrastructure also provides essential adaptation services to reduce the impacts of climate change such as floods and drought,” she told Africa in Fact.

Chileshe says that while developing the hydro potential in places where the rain patterns are still good is important, there is a need for long-term thinking on how Africa will manage the energy- water nexus. Apart from adapting to climate change through diversifying the energy mix to include solar, wind, and geothermal, the continent has to be more interconnected, he argues. “Renewable energies such as solar and wind are associated with issues of variability, due to the constantly changing nature of weather patterns,” Chileshe told Africa in Fact.

These sources of energy need to be coupled with sources that are more reliable, such as hydro, where flowing water is available. Regional integration can also play a role by enabling nations to exchange electricity from regions of plenty to regions of scarcity, he says. For example, when its dry in one  region, it may be raining in another. Endeavours to interconnect the power systems of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia such as the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), begun in 1995, and the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP), begun in 2005, facilitate this type of trade, Chileshe adds. Pairing hydro and renewable sources of power could also help manage the effects of climate change, he suggests.

In Scandinavia, for example, Norway has plenty of hydropower plants, while a neighbouring country, Denmark, has wind. Each of these countries can switch off its own form of generation and rely on electricity from the other’s source, depending on environmental and other conditions. “The hydro potential in the African region could be managed in the same way,” Chileshe says. The AfDB also works with regional power pools to ensure that the sustainable development of hydropower resources is underpinned by strong policy, regulatory frameworks, developed regional power markets, sustainable financial and operational performance in the face of climate change challenges, says Schroth.

Santos agrees, saying that if not managed effectively, climate risks associated with dependency on precipitation can lead to shortcomings in terms of a plant’s technical and operational performance. In May 2019, IHA launched a guideline on hydropower climate resilience, which helps decision makers to make effective choices when planning, developing and operating a hydropower project. But, though “cheap and clean”, not everybody thinks hydropower is the right path for Africa. “It is not feasible,” says Siziwe Mota, Africa programme campaigner for International Rivers, which has been assisting dam-affected communities worldwide since 1985, as well as working to protect rivers and the people who depend on them.

“As large dams continue being constructed on the continent, the destruction of river ecosystems and displacement of communities, destruction of livelihoods, and an increase in countries’ debt burden is experienced,” she says. Dams, she adds, also fall short of achieving their intended purpose, especially in the face of climate change and increasingly erratic rainfall, which can reduce energy and water benefits from dams and increase the risks. In March last year, for example, power supply from the Cahora Bassa dam was cut when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, highlighting yet another climate-induced disaster that makes big dams vulnerable.

“Dams and reservoirs are significant sources of carbon dioxide and methane, which are greenhouse gases and should by no means be considered ‘green’,” she told Africa in Fact. International Rivers has worked to ensure that dam developers do not gain access to climate finance, such as the Green Climate Fund, for dam projects. Unfortunately, Mota says, African countries are using funds that could be invested in clean, sustainable, renewable, decentralised, alternative sources of energy to either construct, rehabilitate or expand dam projects, leaving little room for investment in clean technologies such as wind, solar or micro- hydropower.

“Hydropower’s time has passed, even though Africa has developed only about 11% percent of its potential,” says David Zarembka, the former coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative, who lives in Lumakanda, a small town in western Kenya. “Those [projects] that are only in the discussing, planning, and financing stages should be dropped. I think that some of the dams now under construction will never be completed.” Zarembka argues that dams take too long to build, usually a decade or more for a large dam. They can also be hazardous if they breach, as happened recently with a dam in Kenya. “Solar, wind, geothermal, and storage are becoming much cheaper than hydro and can usually be built in a year or two rather than a decade or more,” he says.

The amount of hydropower under construction or in the planning stages in sub-Saharan Africa far exceeds its needs for the next decade or two, he argues. Some of those under construction, such as the Grand Renaissance dam in Ethiopia, will become white elephants, he told Africa in Fact. Facing the future should involve energy policy planning that is inclusive of communities and addresses their water and energy needs, while addressing broader social, economic and environmental concerns, observes Mota. “The key challenge for Africa is not merely to increase energy consumption, but to also ensure equitable access to cleaner energy sources, guided by good energy planning,” she adds.


Munyaradzi Makoni is a journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. He writes mostly on agriculture, climate change, environment, health, higher education, sustainable development and science in general. Some of his work has appeared in Hakai magazine, Intellectual Property Watch, IPS, Mongabay, Nature, Nature Index, Physics World, Science, SciDev.net, The Lancet, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and University World News, among others.

Time for a low-carbon economy

Extractives: green industrialisation

The business case for greening the extractive industry is strong, especially with the growing trend of ethical investing

Sentinel copper mine in Zambia
Photo: Ross Harvey / courtesy of Sentinel Copper Mine

Everything we consume has its origins in either agriculture or the extractive industries. Our smartphones are laden with minerals and metals. Even agricultural fertilisers come from mined minerals. But the way we’ve extracted, historically, has been both ecologically and socio- economically destructive. Across many jurisdictions, mineral and hydrocarbon extraction has produced negative externalities – a divergence between private returns and social costs. In other words, it’s left holes in the ground, decimated ecosystems and imposed a healthcare burden on workers.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) in South Africa provides one example. It occurs when pyrite (fool’s gold) comes into contact with oxygenated water. The consequent oxidation process produces sulphuric acid. Pyrite is a common minor constituent in South Africa’s coal and gold ore bodies. Mining fragments these bodies and large quantities of acidic water are released into the environment, initially into the groundwater and ultimately into streams and rivers, rendering the water toxic to varying degrees. Large settlements in the Witwatersrand area now live with the risks posed by this toxic water and associated sinkhole formation.

AMD expert Terence McCarthy notes that mining has funded much of South Africa’s development, but as it enters its twilight “we are now beginning to grasp the environmental damage that the [gold mining] industry has caused and will continue to cause in the decades to come. We have also seen the impact that coal mining has had, particularly on water quality in the Olifants River system.” We must learn from these experiences and prevent further coal mining in key freshwater catchments and rivers.

Beyond AMD, a recent court settlement in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg awarded a total of R5 billion in compensation to mine workers afflicted by silicosis or tuberculosis contracted while mining at six of South Africa’s gold mining companies between 1965 and 2019. Had these costs appeared on the offending companies’ financial statements, they likely would not have been offloaded onto the adjacent communities who could least afford it. Globally, estimates suggest that 24.5 deaths are attributable to each Terawatt hour of coal-fired electricity produced.

Coal is a health hazard, not only to those who mine it but also to those who live near coal-burning power stations. In addition to mining’s direct negative externalities, the short-term rents generated by mining have often precipitated authoritarian consolidation, inequality, corruption and generally poor governance. Elites have captured the spoils at the expense of broad-based benefit. This malaise is part of a broader problem – our economic models (and resultant activity) have ignored planetary boundaries, the limits of what our interconnected life-support systems can sustain. We are consequently at risk of inducing catastrophic climate change.

If greenhouse gas emissions are not severely curtailed, or biodiversity-killing pollution not upended, ecological disaster awaits. Global collective action is now required to change the way that we produce and consume. A major part of that new policy direction has to entail the greening of the extractive industries and the integral connection of mining to green industrialisation. Not only is this possible; it’s imperative. The business case complements the moral case. Such a reorientation would simultaneously address the negative legacy effects of mining and create sustainable links to other sectors of the economy.

The technological quest for a low-carbon economy is well underway. Transport and energy revolutions are upending old systems. Electric vehicle and renewable energy production, however, require significant quantities of minerals and metals – double the volume currently mined, according to the World Bank. But most remaining coal and hydrocarbon deposits will have to be left in the ground, rendering the need for a “just transition” away from dirty technologies to clean ones. To support this transition, the mining industry needs to be reoriented to supplying the minerals and metals required for generating and transmitting renewable energy, for building electric vehicles, and continued inputs for other products such as smartphones and batteries.

Through the adoption of new technologies, we can mine in a less environmentally destructive manner. This would also create upstream opportunities to produce the capital equipment required for less environmentally invasive mining methods. Practically, what might this look like? To begin with, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can transform geological exploration. Sensors on UAVs can detect geothermal activity, which helps exploration firms to drill and sample only in areas where resources are indicated. In the production phase, robots can work in hazardous environments instead of people, improving mine safety considerably.

Underground deposits can be accessed through relatively minor invasion, akin to laser or “keyhole” surgery. A 2015 paper, ‘A vision of Zero Entry production Areas in Mines’ (ZEPA), co- authored by four scientists from Lulea Tekniska Universitet Institut in Sweden, proposes that in mines “all work processes should be remotely operated or automated, while special mine robots should be developed for the preventive maintenance of equipment and safe retrieval operations”.

The Kankberg Gold Mine in Sweden exemplifies the art of the possible. Boliden (the mining company), in partnership with Ericsson, ABB and Volvo “plans to eventually operate with no personnel in the mine itself”. Connecting different technologies such as a 5G wi-fi network and a Smart Ventilation system, the mine is now completely automated. The resultant process optimisation has saved 54% of the mine’s energy consumption. This represents a saving of 18 MW a year on a mine that previously consumed 34 MW a year.

In South Africa, mining consumes about 15% of the country’s national electricity supply, equivalent to roughly 5,100 MW. If the sector could reduce this demand by half, it would free up 2,550 MW from a supply-constrained grid. The industry paid 86 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for coal-fired power in 2017/18. A reduction of 2,550 MW a year would represent a cost saving    of R2.25 million. Further cost savings would be wrought if a larger portion of power was sourced from renewables, as global procurement prices of solar PV power are now around the equivalent of 26c/kWh. Procuring renewable energy and decreasing overall demand is therefore eminently sensible business practice for the mining industry, with positive spillover benefits for society and the environment.

Note that modern mines need to achieve a plant recovery rate of at least 90% to cover escalating fixed costs. With declining grades and the need to mine deeper ore bodies, new methods are required to reduce rock movement, mine more selectively, and achieve quality over quantity. Motivated by these requirements, “in-place” mining and processing at the point of extraction is gaining traction. It will deliver a smaller surface footprint, reduced tailings generation and low-capital-intensive mines. Mining projects could attract financing more easily and deliver returns more quickly than with the conventional model.

Emerging digital technologies in automated rock-face mapping, material characterisation and fragmentation analysis, and rock preconditioning can also be built into the equipment and preprogrammed for specific mines. The machines that cut hard rock are now able to identify and exploit natural rock cleavages to make cutting more efficient. Declan Vogt of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa notes: “If rock can be cut rather than blasted, mining can become continuous, leading to process and efficiency improvements.”

Crushing technology is  also  becoming  nimbler,  making  obsolete  the  big crushers typically required at processing plants. Employing upstream technology at the rock face, to selectively mine and pre-concentrate material for subsequent metal extraction, avoids the many negative environmental impacts usually associated with mining. In the case of copper, crushing is among the largest components of a mine’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. These can be drastically reduced by in-pit mobile crushing, which, according to research scientists Terry Norgate and Nawshad Haque, “eliminates the need for trucks by having the shovel feed the run-of-mine ore directly to a continuous and dedicated belt conveyor handling system”.

Of course, these new technologies are disruptive. Mining will become less directly labour-absorptive and more capital-intensive. But they may also result in lower cost margins and greater wealth creation, which can be allocated towards research and development initiatives that develop local upstream    or side-stream capacity. As economist Ricardo Hausmann famously pointed out in 2014, Finland did not become wealthy because it turned its forests into furniture; it became wealthy because the quest for more efficient tree cutting methods produced Nokia. How? Through the development of appropriate technology.

One copper mine in Zambia is charting the way in this respect. Sentinel Mine, adjacent to Kalumbila, is a “pocket of effectiveness” – an example of how mining should and could be done. Input crushing and investments in data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning are already a feature. Once the ore body is depleted, the river – currently diverted – will be restored. Every effort is being made to prevent soil and water contamination. The surrounding forest, part of the ecological restoration programme funded by the mine, currently supports a sawmill and furniture-making factory. When the mine closes, the factory will continue, and the entire concession converted to a nature reserve with a five-star tourism offering.

The town itself is separated from the mine and boasts an industrial development zone, which can tap into upstream, side-stream and downstream links with mining. The business case for greening the extractive industries is strong, especially with the growing trend of ethical investing and the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting. Internalising the cost of negative externalities, it turns out, is a sound business investment

Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.
Sixolile Ngqwala is Data Analyst in GGA’s Governance Insights and Analysis department and holds a Masters of Commerce (MCom) in economics from the University of Fort Hare, where he was involved with the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) in econometric research (econometric modelling, data coding, data mining, data analysis and interpretation). He has a BCom Hon in economics, and an undergraduate degree in Business Management and Industrial Psychology.

Cheap, flexible and growing

Radio: power to the people

Terrestrial radio remains the most popular means of accessing news and entertainment in Africa, even with the advent of the internet

A displaced citizen of Bakassi Peninsula listens
to the ceremony in which the Nigerian
government handed over the Peninsular to
Cameroon after a 15-year dispute

Of all the media platforms, radio is still, by far, the most pervasive form of media across Africa. It covers a greater geography than any other media form, reaching at least 75% of households in Africa, according to UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report in 2012. At the end of 2018, South Africa, which has more than 100 radio stations, was estimated by Radio Audience Measurements to have 89% radio reach of the adult population, while the EFA report figure for Tanzania is 83% and 85% for Zambia. Africa’s rural areas push these figures far ahead of television, as radio sets are more portable and much cheaper than TV. “The disparity between TV and radio is quite marked in some regions. In Zambia’s rural areas, for example, the coverage is 68% for radio and 26% for TV,” notes Arthur Goldstuck, digital media analyst and director World Wide Worx, a business technology research company. Internet radio has increased radio access further, as even basic-feature smartphones now come with FM radio.

But it clearly presents no real challenge to traditional radio broadcasters, and indeed digital convergence is high on the agenda for the dominant terrestrial radio stations on the continent. Internet radio, comparatively inexpensive and legislatively unhindered as it is to produce, still requires listeners with either a computer or a smartphone with internet access, either via data or Wifi connection. Given that many rural areas in Africa have limited or no access to these privileges, that means internet radio is available only to higher income groups in urban areas. “These groups represent only a small proportion of the radio audience,” says Goldstuck. “Even there, older people still prefer traditional forms of radio listening, which reduces the impact even further. A far greater impact is made by FM radio on feature phones, but it could be argued that this remains a form of traditional radio listening, since the handset is using the same mechanisms, and in effect is performing as a radio, using FM signals, without reliance on the mobile signal.

The only difference is that one typically needs to use earphones to pick it up, with the earphones also acting as antennae.” Thus, for internet radio entrepreneurs, the challenge is not starting up a radio station, which again is cheap and flexible when compared to terrestrial broadcasters, which need studios, licences and are competing for ever more congested FM frequencies. The challenge is expanding the reach of the station to a wide enough audience to make it profitable. “There are also connectivity issues, say when the signal drops for a couple of hours,” says Hendrik Baird, station manager of GaySA online radio, who researched 34 online radio stations in South Africa in 2012. “And a major hindrance is that audiences in Africa, especially the older generation and also potential business partners, perceive that online radio uses a lot of data. There’s a general lack of understanding of how to consume it. So internet radio is not profitable yet… it’ll be a long journey.” That said, the growth of internet radio is undeniable, and advertisers will gradually follow, according to Emma-Jane Robson, director of Awake Online, South Africa’s first online radio advertising sales house feeding 10 online radio stations.

“Online radio also has the ability to cross borders and as wifi spots spread, its reach will keep moving through the continent. Also, online radio affords advertisers far more accurate listenership data about its audiences than traditional radio, so it’s a cost effective platform for them,” Robson says. The most successful radio stations in Africa converge “old” and “new” media, broadcasting terrestrially while offering online platforms that simulcast their programmes, as well as offering ways for their audiences to interact and participate in both TV and radio programming. A good example is Soundcity TV and Radio Network, a Pan-African urban music channel owned by Consolidated Media Associates, Nigeria’s media powerhouse. “TV brands in Nigeria all have radio arms. For us to stay alive, we have to converge media and keep innovating, keeping abreast of the youth segment especially. So we host big events like Nigeria’s biggest pop music award show, and we also sell merchandise. We don’t think of ourselves as a radio station but a multimedia brand,” Jonathan Lyamgohn, Soundcity TV and Radio CEO told the Radio Africa conference last year.

In East Africa, the biggest and most trusted radio station is Radio Citizen FM, a music, news and entertainment station, which started in 1999 as a counter to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, a government mouthpiece. With the most transmission sites for an FM station in Kenya, it boasts the deepest penetration countrywide, but also streams live online, and has Facebook (with more than 362,000 followers) and Twitter (with more than 214,000 followers) accounts. The largest radio station in Africa is the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) radio station Ukhozi FM, with its listenership in excess of 7.7 million. It streams live and offers listeners online podcasts of shows they might have missed, and also has an app for both iPhone and Android phones. Ukhozi FM is also among the top most-viewed radio channels on YouTube, and is placing more emphasis on live and recorded video to gain traction with its social media platforms. “Radio continues to be a strong option for advertisers, but the industry can only strengthen its hand by offering multimedia options such as video.

Video is an easy way to reach a new audience and it’s another outlet for advertisers,” says Charis Apelgren-Coleman, market engagement manager at Kagiso Media Radio, owner of several South African-based radio stations. The power of community radio in Africa is its ability to reach out to people in remote areas, with little or no access to information otherwise. Radio is where people can listen to the news and local music and, more critically perhaps, receive educational information about health, schooling and sustainable development. Most community radio across the continent are funded by external donors, church organisations, international development agencies and some advertising. UNESCO is a big player in this space, supporting and promoting community radio stations as a way to facilitate social communication and support democratic processes within African societies. In Cameroon, for example, UNESCO and the government committed $5.8 million from 2014 until the end of this year (2020) to establishing 15 new community stations and rehabilitating 21 existing ones. The main goals of the project are to encourage positive behavioural transformation, and provide citizenship education during the presidential elections, thus contributing to the fight against violent extremism.

The impact of the project is so great that discussions have begun for the second phase, with Cameroon wanting more than 100 community radio stations. Some of the more successful community stations have become selfsustaining, particularly in South Africa, where a growing number of advertisers choose community over commercial radio to reach their audiences. “Advertising on regional radio can be surprisingly affordable for local small and medium businesses, enabling them to speak to customers in their city or region at a reasonable cost,” says Wayne Bischoff, CEO of Mediamark, a leading multimedia sales house in South Africa. “The affordable cost of ad placements also means brands are able to increase frequency, so they can get their message out more often.” Community stations that have embraced multimedia platforms are also able to expand their revenue bases in the same way as their national counterparts. “Many regional radio stations are now successfully and profitably segmenting regional audiences through multiple touch points such as events, online, and mobile out of home.

Rather than seeing social media, podcasting, streaming and other digital elements as a threat, many broadcasters are integrating them into the mix to increase engagement,” says Bischoff. Not least, community radio is the lifeblood of the African music industry, as it is often where music from the continent is first played and heard. “Community radio stations have great value in making an artist, as they get royalties from their music being played,” says Manaileng Maphike, business development manager of licensing at the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa( ICASA). As Muletambo Brian Lingela, director of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission in Zambia noted in the Genderlinks Gender Media and Diversity Journal: “Community broadcasters are the preferred source of information for a number of rural and urban communities in SADC (Southern African Development Community) because of their proximity to audiences and independence from government control, which enable them to carry programmes that reflect the aspirations and concerns of the communities they serve.”

So, while the internet might be changing the way radio is broadcast, crossing borders and reshaping the radio advertising landscape, the consensus is that national and regional terrestrial channels will remain dominant, and community stations will always thrive on the continent. They are often the only voice for the particular concerns of far-flung farming communities.

Helen Grange is a seasoned freelance journalist, with a career spanning over 30 years writing for newspapers and magazines in South Africa. Her work appears primarily on Independent Online (IOL), as well as The Citizen and Business Day newspapers, focusing on business trends, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship and travel. Magazines she has written for include Noseweek, Acumen, Forbes Africa and Estate Living.

Africa’s technological arms race

Digital surveillance: real and present danger

Telecommunications snooping has emerged as a fundamental threat to African journalists

Human rights activists protest against a ‘campaign of repression’ and in support of freedom of expression in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, January 2020 Photo: FADEL SENNA / AFP

Many journalists and researchers will remember the mid-2000s as halcyon days, when a panoply of digital research applications were generated for the public good. The possibility of sharing spreadsheets using cloud services, algorithms to reveal patterns of information about cartels, and hidden digital devices to detect criminality led to entire new publishing business models. Wikileaks appeared to be part of this wave of new ways of dealing with old problems. It was exciting. It felt like an information revolution: combined with the increasing digitisation and online accessibility of archives, the new research tools made more information available than ever before. But that sense of opening horizons has been fractured by a surge in digital abuse, particularly by state actors. Spying hardware, such as closed-circuit television cameras linked up to software, can identify passersby. Hardware companies can tap telephone conversations anywhere. And oppressive regimes, including many in Africa, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire advanced spying knowhow from China and other countries. Security forces around the continent are using the freedom of the internet to track, and in some cases, attack journalists.

According to a December 2019 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the total number of journalists incarcerated around the world is now near record highs. And the past 24 months have seen an acceleration in the number of reporters and editors arrested across Africa. The number of countries in Africa which used a blanket internet shutdown to stymie dissent and the exchange of information has also increased. For example shutdowns were reported in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe, according to the same report. The increasing use of digital methods to monitor journalists and prevent them from publishing critical reporting was the main theme for journalists from around the continent who attended the University of the Witwatersrand African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg in November 2019. The sessions that were most heavily attended dealt with the question of how to maintain personal security in a digital world, and with the threats to freedom of information and expression posed by increased state spying on the media.

Cybersecurity expert Melissa Hathaway, who headed up US President Barack Obama’s Cyberspace Policy Review had painted a bleak picture of the threat of digital surveillance to human rights at an earlier African Cyber Threat Conference hosted in Johannesburg in June 2019. She described the situation as “an immediate threat” and an “emergency” and called for the establishment of a global “counter-measures and mitigation process”, bringing together the best talent, regardless of nationality. In particular, the threat posed by military-grade cyber hacking is severe, according to Hathaway. This has been reflected at United Nations level with the General Assembly now developing norms and principles for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. An open-ended working group has been established with an aim to report back to the UN General Assembly in September 2020 about those aims. But while the UN grapples with how to deal with the threats posed, cyber threats are growing quickly, Hathaway says. In Africa, the threat to the freedom of speech and information is directly linked to actions being taken by nation states, including Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda.

Some technology companies are directly implicated in the new digital oppression. Digital rights activist Dorothy Mukasa of Uganda’s Unwanted Witness civil society campaign has been directly affected by a regime that has spied on her activities. Mukasa was arrested after Ugandan police tracked her mobile phone. Telecommunications snooping has emerged as a fundamental threat to journalists in Africa. “The availability of unregulated exportation of spyware to weak democracies, especially in Africa, is a great risk to the safety of individual investigative journalists,” Musaka told Africa in Fact in an email interview. “The increasing use of pervasive surveillance technologies by both state and non-state actors is highly chilling to [a] free press,” she warned. Meanwhile, in places riven by war such as Somalia, this situation is worsened by agents of terror who use advanced methods to track and sometimes kill reporters. Journalist Abdiweli Ali Hassan was murdered in January this year, one of the first journalists to die in year and the 50th Somali journalist to die in the past decade, according to Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, General of Federation Of Somali Journalists (FESOJ) spokesman.

The figure is also reported in a February 2020 online report by Reporters Without Borders. Hassan’s death will have a chilling effect on the media in the region, says Moalimuu. “There are groups [whose] intention is to silence the media in order to get an environment [where] they can freely [move] while committing atrocities,” he told Africa in Fact. “These include militant group Al Shabaab, government officers and freelance gangs.” Social media and other digital platforms have offered journalists effective ways to carry out research and interviews, as well as engage with society, but they also make it easy to identify and track them. The predominance of these easy-to-use apps has become a poisoned chalice, according to Hathaway. Israeli, American, Australian and Chinese merchants of digital surveillance technology are now imbedded inside African government operations in places like Zambia, Algeria, Kenya and Uganda, according to an August 2019 exposé in the Wall Street Journal. In investigations conducted by this reporter over the past 24 months, there is a growing list of defence-linked companies whose digital surveillance systems are being used to spy on journalists. One of the most aggressive currently is Huawei, although it denies any knowledge of formal spying activities within its operations.

Yet its name has appeared in a number of investigations, including the Wall Street Journal article mentioned earlier. Despite the company’s denials, indications that its products are being used to spy on journalists has a way of getting out. For example, Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front admitted, on its Facebook page in April 2019, that its police force had managed to track down anti-government bloggers with the help of “Chinese experts at Huawei”. This inadvertent revelation was quickly taken down, but not before journalists took note of the boast. The technique used, according to the Wall Street Journal report, included hacking the journalists’ WhatsApp accounts. This reporter’s attempts in early December last year to reach Huawei’s South African CEO, Richard Yu, were unsuccessful. The company policy, according to a support team member contacted, was “not to communicate by phone” – which is ironic as the company manufactures and sells smartphones. But Huawei is only one of a lengthening list of telecommunications and technology savvy companies working closely with oppressive governments. Others include the Israeli NSO Group, also listed as Q Cyber Technologies.

In October last year, an article in Wired revealed that WhatsApp had instituted a lawsuit against the NSO Group. WhatsApp accused the tech company of “targeting 1,400 of its users, including at least 100 members of ‘civil society’ such as journalists and human-rights defenders” with malware that could circumvent the app’s encryption to steal users’ messages. In reports published in 2018 and 2019, Canada’s Citizen Lab identified the NSO Group as being behind a number of incidents involving spying on journalists. After an extensive investigation, WhatsApp argued that the NSO Group had developed its Pegasus app tracking software specifically for government agencies – and that it is effective on both iPhone and Android operating systems. The NSO Group did not respond to this reporter’s attempts to elicit a response. According to Hathaway, the increasing availability of sophisticated hacking and tracking systems is partly due to the commercialisation of digital technology, which has resulted in intensified competition between tech companies in the sector. “Companies strive to release products as quickly as possible,” says Hathaway. “They worry about security flaws after they have already been deployed.”

The paradigm of “field it fast, fix it later” – the dominant strategy employed by the technology industry – has led to ethics and governance issues, she continues. “If we are to significantly reduce cyber risk in the digital age, governments will need to step in and hold digital service providers and the manufacturers of ICT technology accountable for ensuring their products maintain adequate cyber safety standards.” Countries around the world, and in Africa in particular, are involved in a “technological arms race”, she adds. But this means that they are also becoming dependent on technologies that are increasingly complex and opaque – and thus vulnerable. “This leads to a higher risk of accidents, [as well as] unanticipated negative effects.” Like their counterparts around the world, African journalists are dependent on their smartphones for a range of professional activities, including filming high quality video, field reporting and managing contacts. However, the same smartphone is also the weak link in their personal security chain. In the future, they may need to return to old school journalistic techniques to maintain a higher level of confidentiality, particularly in countries where oppressive regimes dominate.

Desmond Latham is COO of frayintermedia. He has also previously been GCIS editor-in-chief, Business Day TV editor, Business Day/Financial Mail online editor and Mobile Active Digital, among others. He is a John S Knight Fellow of Stanford University.

Troubled and ambiguous

Heritage: the long shadows of past and present

Commemorating heritage in Africa is no longer the exclusive province of governments

People dressed in traditional
costume welcome guests to the opening ceremony and inauguration of the new museum of black civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, on 6 December, 2018. Photo: SEYLLOU / AFP

There was an interesting exchange between Thabo Mbeki and Constand Viljoen in the late 1990s. The former was an aristocrat of an African liberation movement who would become South Africa’s president, and the latter was the chief of the country’s apartheid-era defence force, a soldier’s soldier and politician. Both had a keen sense of the manner in which the past echoes into the present. Responding to a rancorous debate on white settlement in the country, Viljoen objected that his forebears had come to South Africa “because we wanted to be free burghers, not to colonise”. Mbeki responded: “Phew! We have a long way to go. There is a different understanding of the history of the country, a different understanding of the realities of the country.” That sentiment is still relevant to South Africa’s politics, and possibly even more acutely now two decades after this conversation took place.

And while South Africa may at times be a somewhat hyperbolic example, it is far from a unique one. For in Africa the past looms large over the present – probably more than anywhere else on earth. Heritage is the memorialisation and veneration of that past, and of the culture that has grown up within it. It is a society’s memories, its rituals, its artefacts, statues and architecture, its sense of history. For many, it justifies their claim on belonging to a society. Africa’s history is perhaps unique for the degree to which it has been mediated through external lenses, often denying the role of Africans as originators of their stories. “There was a refusal to see Africans as the creators of original cultures, which flowered and survived over the centuries in patterns of their own making,” wrote Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, former director general of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in the General History of Africa in 1993. Indeed, the colonial experience not only intruded into memory, but commandeered much of its tangible heritage.

A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron found that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”. Among these were the magnificent Benin bronzes, seized in 1897 when Benin City was sacked and torched by a British expeditionary force. Some of these were auctioned to defray the costs of the invasion. A treasure of African art – and an inspiration for the modernist movement – they reside for the most part in museums outside Africa. The colonial powers liked to leave memorials of their presence in Africa. In southern Africa, this meant memorials of a heritage that celebrated the European offshoot societies that remained. They were part of the African story, but for African nationalists celebrating this has represented an uncomfortable reminder of past subjugation. Post-liberation, there was a powerful impulse to remove these tokens of memory. “We want to wipe the slate clean and present our image of independent Zimbabwe without these vestiges of colonialism,” said former president Robert Mugabe in 1984, four years after the country’s independence.

By that time, Zimbabwe had replaced Rhodesia, the colonial capital Salisbury had become Harare, and street names that had once proudly declaimed a connection to British empire were replaced with ones saluting African nationalism. Zimbabwe was but one example. Colonial Gold Coast became independent Ghana in 1957 – the new name harking backing to an eponymous medieval empire. Most recently, Swaziland was renamed eSwatini, in 2018. Africa’s past intrudes directly into its present-day and speaks to the brand of politics that holds sway in many countries, says Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “History is ever present in African politics,” he said in an interview with Africa in Fact. “Some parties are decades, or [even] a century old, and [they] hark back to what they see as glorious, heroic histories. In states where liberation wars were fought, such as in southern Africa, this past is frequently evoked and glorified.” This is the politics that both Mugabe and Mbeki, in different ways, represented.

Society could and would be remade along the lines of a new narrative. A revisioned heritage would underwrite a new moral order. Yet, in practice, the concept of “heritage” is troubled and ambiguous. Whatever the dreams of nationalist politicians, the impact of the colonial era has proved virtually impossible to expunge. Most African states owe their borders to their colonial experiences, and they conduct much of their business in English, French and Portuguese. Governance systems draw heavily on this connection, too. The physical remnants of colonialism linger. Some potentially portable signifiers of that history have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Architecture predating independence, which was often meant to convey dominance and permanence, remains visible in many African cityscapes. Despite Zimbabwe’s determination to reinvent itself, and its later turn to outright racial nationalism, a statue of the Scots explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone remains prominently in place at the Victoria Falls (now known, too, as Mosioa- Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”).

“What is clear is that Zimbabwe has a conflicted relationship with its colonial past and relics,” the Zimbabwean journalist Farai Mudzingwa comments, speaking for much of the continent. Elsewhere, reminders of the colonial past have slipped by ignored, or have been commandeered to provide energy for the tourist trade. Ironically, when Zimbabwe suggested removing the statue of Dr Livingstone, neighbouring Zambia asked to take possession of it, seeing it as a tourist drawcard. Tours of Kenya cash in on its colonial past as showcased in movies such as Out of Africa. In Nigeria, the city of Lokoja, a colonial-era state capital, tries to do likewise, attracting magazine headlines such as “Lokoja: Colonial Town, Rich History”. Excising the past may not be as simple as the liberationist narrative would have it. In a society such as South Africa vocal constituencies have championed retaining the country’s colonial heritage. These have involved both court challenges and physical stand-offs.

An Afrikaans singer, Sunette Bridges, chained herself to the Kruger memorial in Church Square in Pretoria (or Tshwane) in 2015 after calls for its removal. Cultural activists saw the call not just as a threat to physical artefacts but to the legitimacy of a cultural minority’s presence. Some heritage is difficult to pigeonhole. Large numbers of Africans fought in colonial armies in the second world war. They were subject people forced into supporting colonial overlords, certainly; yet theirs was also a contribution to a moral conflict against unspeakable evil. Numerous video clips celebrating this now circulate on social media. In collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Nigeria has recently repurposed preexisting monuments by incorporating them into a new memorial in Abuja. The memorial records the names of Nigerians killed in both world wars and is surmounted by a pair of bronze sculptures depicting a Hausa rifleman and an Igbo porter made in the 1930s by the British artist James Alexander Stevenson.

Dealing with Africa’s colonial heritage is challenging. Memorialising what has transpired in the generations since independence may prove even more so. Stevenson’s depiction of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic contribution to the first world war might uncannily have presaged its later politics. Nigeria’s nascent nationhood was nearly destroyed in the brutal war that accompanied the attempted secession of the Republic of Biafra in the 1960s. It was a trauma from which the country has never entirely recovered. For decades, it was official policy to downplay the conflict in the interests of a new Nigerianism, with the result that there are few public memorials to it; even displays about the conflict at the country’s National War Museum are controversial. This is a Whiggish interpretation of history – that is, an interpretation of history in the service of the present, says Nigerian museum curator Iheanyichukwu Onwuegbucha in a recent paper, “The National War Museum Umuahia: Representation of the Biafra War History”.

The fact the Biafran war occurred, and the continuing silence about it, can be seen as expressions of ongoing ethnopolitics. For people with memories of Biafra, the official narrative indicates that the Nigerian state has never attempted an appropriate historical reckoning of its own conduct. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is powerfully remembered in monuments and social rituals, and – perhaps more importantly – in the country’s political culture. But there, remembering, rather than forgetting, is just as much a two-edged sword. Resisting “genocide ideology” has become a catch-all justification for measures that hurt civil liberties and restrict political opposition. Even without traumas such as these, an unsettled post-colonial past challenges the present. Post-colonial African states embodied aspirations for development and nation building.

Some of them have produced near-messianic figures to deliver on these goals – resulting in profound frustration when these all too often proved to be a disappointment. Post-colonial monuments rise and fall according to political fashion, says Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Perhaps the most glaring example of this accompanied the deposition of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah. An outsized figure in his time, a sculpture of the former leader stood prominently before the presidential mansion, but the statue was decapitated after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. Even more symbolically, parts of the statue have been preserved separately, perhaps in memory both of the former leader and of the coup that toppled him. Another example is the African Union’s controversial erection of a stature of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie at its Addis Ababa headquarters.

“Emperor Haile Selassie is an example of how leaders have gone in and out of fashion,” says Plaut. “The movements they led wax and wane — and with them go the reputations of those who led them.” Haile Selassie’s statue is recognition of his role as a champion of African freedom against colonial intervention, Plaut adds. Yet the emperor is also remembered as the last representative of a feudal order, and for his personal aloofness. A report by Human Rights Watch in 1991 described the “official indifference” to famine during his reign, for example. Across the continent, the reputations of some of Africa’s post-colonial icons – such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – have come under critical scrutiny. The University of Ghana removed a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, another towering personality of the anti-colonial movement, citing the “racist attitudes” he expressed in his younger days.

Rather astoundingly, the reputation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (CAR) – and self-proclaimed emperor of the short-lived Central African Empire – has enjoyed something of a recovery. He was long remembered as a man of sinister brutality and farcical pomp, but some today see his rule as a time of progress and development that his successors have failed to match. In 2010, then CAR President François Bozizé issued a decree formally “rehabilitating” him. In Kenya, the country’s political elite once decried the memory of the Mau Mau uprising as “hooliganism”. This has been reassessed and at least partially accepted as an honourable part of the struggle for independence. A museum has now been established to relay this narrative. In recent years, the importance of preserving Africa’s heritage has gained growing recognition. The opening in 2018 of the enormous, multi-storey Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar was emblematic of this.

Intended as a record of Africa and its offshoot societies, its design and facilities are impressive and its ideological messaging fitting. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was an exponent of Negritude, a philosophical movement celebrating blackness and Africanism. Hopes have been expressed that the museum will play a role in securing the repatriation of items carted off during the colonial era. Yet this may not be Africa’s most difficult challenge. African societies will need to navigate the meaning of the continent’s heritage for the present. A good starting point is to acknowledge the obvious: heritage is not intrinsically a force for unity, since it remembers factious and divided pasts. “All history is the story of conflict, humiliation and division,” says Plaut. “As one historian put it, imperialism is the natural order of human history.”

Conflicting claims about the past are an intrinsic part of a plural society, and as such they are not altogether negative. Commemorating heritage is also no longer the exclusive province of governments. Africans are today experimenting successfully with alternative models of commemoration, such as localised community museums or online memorials. New layers are inexorably being added to the continent’s memories. The ambiguity of Africa’s heritage must be acknowledged. And in this sense, Thabo Mbeki was profoundly mistaken. A common understanding of the past is not possible. The challenge for South Africa – and the continent as a whole – is not to find a single set of memories and understanding, but to accept their multiplicity.

Terence Corrigan is an independent researcher, writer, editor and illustrator. He is currently a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in its Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme and a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).