Information ethics for and from Africa



The first part of this article deals with some initiatives concerning the role of information ethics for Africa, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development, United Nations Information Communications Technology (ICT), and the African Information Society Initiative particularly since the World Summit on the Information Society. Information Ethics from Africa is a young academic field, and not much has been published so far on the impact of ICT on African societies and cultures from a philosophical perspective. The second part of the article analyzes some recent research on this matter particularly with regard to the concept of ubuntu. Finally, the article addresses some issues of the African Conference on Information Ethics held February 3–5, 2007, in Pretoria, South Africa.1

“The fundamental cure for poverty is not money but knowledge.” Sir William Arthur Lewis

The motto of the first-ever Pan-African Conference on Information Ethics, namely “The Joy of Sharing Knowledge,” echoed the core ideals and practical commitments of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as stated in the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action adopted at the first phase in Geneva in December 2003 as well as the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society. The following statements from the Geneva Declaration concern the “Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society:”

  • 1.The Information Society should respect peace and uphold the fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, shared responsibility, and respect for nature.
  • 2.We acknowledge the importance of ethics for the Information Society, which should foster justice, and the dignity and worth of the human person. The widest possible protection should be accorded to the family and to enable it to play its crucial role in society.
  • 3.The use of ICTs and content creation should respect human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, including personal privacy, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in conformity with relevant international instruments.
  • 4.All actors in the Information Society should take appropriate actions and preventive measures, as determined by law, against abusive uses of ICTs, such as illegal and other acts motivated by racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, hatred, violence, all forms of child abuse, including pedophilia and child pornography, and trafficking in, and exploitation of, human beings.

The participants of the WSIS–Tunis Commitment (2005, November 18) summit stressed the Geneva vision with the following:

  • 5.We reaffirm our desire and commitment to build a people- centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and multilateralism, and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so that people everywhere can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, to achieve their full potential and to attain the internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals.

President Mbeki of South Africa reaffirmed this commitment from an African perspective in his statement to the second phase of the World Summit on November 16, 2005:

Our country and continent are determined to do everything possible to achieve their renewal and development, defeating the twin scourges of poverty and underdevelopment. In this regard, we have fully recognized the critical importance of modern ICTs as a powerful ally we have to mobilize, as reflected both in our national initiatives and the priority programmes of NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

We are therefore determined to do everything we can to implement the outcomes of this World Summit on the Information Society and appeal to all stakeholders similarly to commit themselves to take action to translate the shared vision of an inclusive development-oriented information society into practical reality.

We are all Africans. We are all equal and we are all different. Common sense says that this is a contradiction. Ethics says that we are all equal because we share a common world, but each one of us is unique and this uniqueness is paradoxically the reason we say that we are all equal and different. The city of Pretoria is now the city of Tshwane—the names are equal in a sense, but they are different as well.

The idea for the Africa Information Ethics Conference emerged in October 2004 during the international symposium “Localizing the Internet: Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective” held in Karslruhe, Germany, organized by the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) and sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation. All the leading international experts in the field of information ethics were invited to participate. It was the first of its kind dealing with information ethics from an intercultural perspective. Themes discussed included the impact of the Internet on social, political, cultural, and economic development, with particular emphasis on questions related to privacy, access to information, intellectual property rights, quality of information, security, advanced capitalism, and the digital divide. All participants were aware of the intercultural challenge of such a meeting, at which some 50 scientists from all over the world participated. During this symposium, it became clear that the African continent was not well represented. There was one representative from South Africa, Johannes Britz (who became an initiator of the Pretoria conference) as well as one representative from Cameroon, Willy Jackson, and one from Burkina Faso, Issiaka Mandé, both living in Paris. There were of course many reasons why the African scholars were not present. Some relate to the mere fact that they were unknown to other international scholars. In addition, lack of funding to attend international events was and is a serious stumbling block.

Participants in the ICIE symposia were well aware of the urgent need for thorough research on the ethical challenges that the introduction of information and communication technology poses for the African continent, such as economic development (particularly the eradication of poverty in Africa), the protection and promotion of indigenous knowledge, the archiving of African Web sites, and particularly the right to communicate and the right of access to knowledge in a digital environment, which means the ability of Africans to become part of the emerging knowledge economy. We can summarize these issues under the labels information ethics for and from Africa.

Information Ethics for Africa

At the celebratory opening of the offices of the NEPAD at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), CSIR President and CEO Dr. Sibusiso Sibisi emphasized the CSIR's unwavering commitment to the work done by NEPAD. The NEPAD e-Africa Commission is chaired by Dr. Henry Chasia. Dr. Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri (2005), Minister of Telecommunications of South Africa, said on this occasion:

In this era of the Information Society, ICTs are regarded as tools for development. It is incumbent on us to commit ourselves to use these tools to create a better life and a more humane world . . . . I have faith in NEPAD because it is a home-grown, ambitious but realisable project of the African Union. Gone are the days when people solved our problems for us and not with us.

The Presidential National Commission on Information Society and Development (PNC on ISAD) has made major contributions to attaining this goal in South Africa. It explicitly adheres to the WSIS vision of an information society as one “where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving the quality of life” (PNC on ISAD). Another important promoter of a humane information society is the South Africa NGO Network SANGONeT, founded as Worknet in 1987 and devoted to involving civil society in the ICT process.

Particularly since the WSIS, African societies are highly aware that the road towards sustainable socioeconomic development passes through information and communication technology. But this awareness has some predecessors such as the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) launched in 1996 and coordinated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The AISI goal is to create a Pan-African ICT network, giving Africans the means to improve the quality of their lives and fight against poverty. AISI's focus areas aim at promoting sectoral applications of ICT for eradicating poverty and improving quality of life. This implies:

  • E-Strategies: IC Infrastructure at national, sectoral, village, and regional levels, Scan-ICT programme;

  • Information & Knowledge: indigenous capacity to aggregate and disseminate information;

  • Outreach & Communication: involves all societal actors.

The AISI already has achieved some of these goals. It has provided support to 28 African countries to develop their own national ICT infrastructure. There are periodic consultations starting with the Global Connectivity for Africa Conference that took place in Addis Ababa in 1998 and the evaluation of ICT impact (Scan-ICT Project). AISI organized a Media Training Workshop at Addis Ababa as well as a forum on ICTs, Trade, and Economic Growth in Addis Ababa in March 2006. Workshops on regional information and communication infrastructure have taken place since 2004 in Nairobi, Tangiers, Dar es Salaam, and Kigali.

The UN ICT Task Force published a report edited by Joseph O. Okpaku (2003b). In his contribution, “Communication Technologies: A Priority for Africa's Development,” his Excellency Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated: “Clearly, if we are to succeed, the process must engage all stakeholders: donors, the private sector, civil society organizations, governments, and especially those in the developing world itself (p. xvii). In their contribution to this 2003 report, Emmanuel OleKambainei, Chief Executive and Program Director for the African Connection Centre for Strategic Planning, and Mavis Ampah Sintim-Misa, former Chief Executive Officer of this center, wrote:

. . . there is a need to promote general ICT diffusion and raise awareness and appreciation as well as e-literacy among our populations, especially children and youth. This should be coupled with efforts to demystify and de-demonise ICT for people to accept it as an everyday tool and not an end to itself. . . . This can be done by targeting and ensuring that basic education and literacy change from the traditional ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to a higher standard that can be referred to as ‘LNCI’ or Literacy–reading and writing, Numeracy–working with numbers, Communicacy–communicating effectively, Innovativeness/Initiative. Success in this . . . will give Africa's education, human resource development, as well as research and development the ability to ‘cheetah-pole-vault’ so as to catch-up with the rest of the global community. (p. 168)

Africa needs, indeed, a “cheetah-pole-vault” ICT strategy and not just a “leapfrog” one.

Joseph O. Okpaku (2003a), President and CEO of Telecom Africa Corporation, wrote in the introduction to this report:

To a large extent, wealth has a vertical structure in African society, with most families consisting of the entire range, from the well-off to the most needy. The structure of family obligations in traditional Africa makes the pursuit of the collective advancement of the entire community a norm. The disruption of this model, through ‘modernization,’ has been a threat to reaping the benefits of this tradition for contemporary African development. (p. 11)

Okpaku offered the vision of a society in which everyone has a central role to play. This vision corresponds, according to Okpaku (2003a), to the original structure of African society based on the preeminence of the “extended family and its mutuality of care, concern, and support” (p. 13). In other words, Africa's scholars and politicians must retrieve their own social traditions to create a humane and authentic African information society. Some first steps have been taken. The Africa preparatory conference for the WSIS in Tunis that took place in Accra in February 2005 underlined that the goal of the African information society community must be inclusive for all stakeholders: “Building the information and shared knowledge society will contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals to improve quality of life and eradicate poverty by creating opportunities to access, utilize, and share information and knowledge” (Accra, 2005, p. 1).

The African Internet Service Provider's Association (AfrISPA) envisaged in February 2005 the following actions:

Given that Africa is the most unwired continent in the world, and yet is part of the Information Society, action should be taken …:

  • A regional multi-stakeholder coordination body be mandated to co-ordinate and ensure collaboration among the numerous existing projects in Africa under the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

  • Regulators adopt an open and transparent licensing and regulatory regime that propels the access to and building of ICT infrastructure.

  • The private sector participates in the technological dynamics of the development and also provides hard investment.

  • Civil society creates interest in consumers to demand and ensure service delivery quality and return for money.

  • Donors support this development by providing and facilitating access to soft financing and expertise where necessary for passive infrastructure

  • Finally, that all the stakeholders above subscribe to the horizontal layering of the communication system in the manner of physical layer (infrastructure), followed by the logical layer, applications layer, content layer, etc.

A recent study on “Ethics and the Internet in West Africa” by Patrick Brunet, Oumarou Tiemtoré, and Marie-Claude Vettraino-Soulard (2004) based on field surveys in five nations in West Africa—two Anglophone (The Gambia and Ghana) and three Francophone (Burkina Faso, Co̊te d'Ivoire, and Senegal)—raised key ethical issues that once addressed should ensure the adaptation and integration of Internet technology into the development of Africa's nations. According to the authors, certain technologies such as the cellular phone might more readily and efficiently be developed on African soil and contribute, for instance, to the dissemination of medical information as well as to South–South cooperation. To avoid the digital gap within African societies, African governments could democratize telecommunications and ensure access for the most disadvantaged people. But, as the authors underlined, the Internet is no panacea. This is one important reason why information ethics matters—politically, socially, and academically. It matters not only for Africa but also from it.

Information Ethics from Africa

Information ethics in Africa is a young academic field. Not much has been published on the role that African philosophy can play in thinking about the challenges that arise from the impact of ICT on African societies and cultures. Most research on ICT from an ethical perspective proceeds from a basis in Western philosophy. Let us review very briefly some recent works on African philosophy that are relevant in a negative or positive sense to the subject of African information ethics.

African oral and written traditions of philosophy have a long and rich past, going back as far as 3000 BCE with the Egyptian Maat-Philosophy (widespread throughout ancient Egypt) and extending through the Afro-Hellenistic period (Amasis, Plotinus, Philon, or Euclid), the Christian Middle Ages (Apuleius, Tertullian, Augustine), the Afro-Islamic tradition (Al-Farabi, Averroes, Ibn Battuta), the colonial period with contributions in amharic language (Zara Yoqob, WaldaHawat, Amo, Hannibal), the anticolonial tradition (DuBois, Garvey, Césaire, Senghor), the ethno-philosophy of the 1970s (Kagame, Mbiti), Afrosocialism (Nkruma, Nyerere), and universalistic theories (Houtondji, Wiredu, Towa) up to the present day with representatives of different schools such as hermeneutics (Okere, Ntumba, Okonda, Serequeberhan, Kinyongo), Sage-philosophy (Oruka, Kaphagawani, Sogolo, Masolo), and feminism (Eboh, Oluwole, Boni, Ngoyi) to mention just a few names and schools. These traditions have been recently analyzed by Jacob Mabe in his 2005 book “on oral and written forms of philosophical thinking in Africa” (also see Neugebauer, 1989; Ruch & Anyanwu, 1981; Serequeberhan, 1996). He also has edited the first comprehensive lexicon on Africa in the German language (Mabe 2004) with more than 1,000 keywords, including entries on media and the Internet (Tambwe, 2004).

The Department of Philosophy at the University of South Africa has published a comprehensive reader, “Philosophy from Africa,” edited by Pieter Coetzee and Abraham Roux (2002). Of the 37 contributions, 33 are Africans speaking for themselves on the topical issues of: decolonization, Afrocentrism in conflict with Eurocentrism, the struggle for cultural freedoms in Africa, the historic role of Black consciousness in the struggle for liberation, restitution and reconciliation in the context of Africa's postcolonial situation (also see Eze, 1997), justice for Africa in the context of globalization, pressures on the tradition of philosophy in Africa engendered by the challenges of modernity, the reconstitution of the African self in its relation to changing community, the African epistemological paradigm in conflict with the Western, and the continuity of religion and metaphysics in African thought. The second edition contains additional themes on gender, race, and Africa's place in the global context. Although the book addresses such a broad variety of themes, there is no contribution dealing specifically with information and communication technologies from a philosophical or even an ethical perspective, although Paulin Houtondji (2002) addressed the question of “Producing Knowledge in Africa Today.” The terms “information” and “communication” are not even listed in the index.

Is there a specific African philosophical and ethical perspective with roots in African languages, social experiences, and values as analyzed, for instance, by John Mbiti (1969), Chyme Gyekye (1996), Mutombo Nkulu (1997), Luke Mlilo and Nathanael Soédé (2003), and Jean-Godefroy Bidima (2004)? Yes, there is, if we follow Mogobe Ramose's (2002) contribution to this reader that bears the title “Globalization and Ubuntu” but also, for instance, Kwasi Wiredu's (1995; Weidtmann, 1998) views on the “Conceptual Decolonization in African Culture” through an analysis of African languages and terminology. I am not making a plea for ethnophilosophy as criticized, for instance, by Houtondji (1983) but for a dialogue between cultures and languages—the global and the local as envisaged in the previously mentioned Symposium of the International Center for Information Ethics (Capurro, Frühbauer, & Hausmanninger, 2006). My position is related to Wiredu's and Oladipo's interpretation as a “Third Way in African Philosophy” (Oladipo, 2002) as well as to Oruka's (1990) “Sage Philosophy.” It aims at a critical analysis of the oral and/or written African traditions such as that offered by Anthony Appiah (1998) in his article for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It explicitly acknowledges the perspectives of modern reason without declaring any of its manifestations inviolable, particularly in the cases in which such manifestations were instrumentalized for colonialization purposes. The ethical discourse is located critically between the particular and the universal. It aims, following the Kantian tradition, at universality, but it is aware with Aristotle that human moral and political utterances are contingent, subject to different interpretations and applications based on economic interests and power structures but also appropriate objects of a critical analysis that envisages the good for a humane world beyond the dogmatic fixations of norms that merely reflect, implicitly or explicitly, a particular view. In other words, ethics aims at reflecting the permanent flow of human life and its different kinds of empirical regulations that make possible that appearance of humanness in unique formations on the basis of mutual respect. We are all equal, and we are all different.

According to Ramose (2002), ubuntu is “the central concept of social and political organization in African philosophy, particularly among the Bantu-speaking peoples. It consists of the principles of sharing and caring for one another” (p. 643). Ramose discussed two aphorisms “to be found in almost all indigenous African languages,” namely: “Motho ke motho ka batho” and “Feta kgomo tschware motho.” The first aphorism means that “to be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish humane respectful relations with them. Accordingly, it is ubuntu which constitutes the core meaning of the aphorism.” The second aphorism means “that if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life” (p. 644). Following this analysis, we can ask “What is the role of ubuntu in African information ethics? How is the intertwining of information and communication technology with the principles of communalism and humanness expressed in aphorisms such as “Motho ke motho ka batho” (translated as “People are other people through other people”)? What is the relation between community and privacy in African information society? What kinds of questions do African people ask in implicit or explicit reference to these principles with regard to the impact of this technology on their everyday lives?

One of the few detailed analyses of the relationship between ubuntu and information ethics—more precisely, between ubuntu and privacy—was presented by Olinger, Britz, and Olivier (2005) at the Sixth International Conference of Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry. They wrote:

The African worldview driving much of African values and social thinking is ‘Ubuntu’ (Broodryk, 2002). The Ubuntu worldview has been recognized as the primary reason that South Africa has managed to successfully transfer power from a white minority government to a majority-rule government without bloodshed (Murithi, 2000). The South African government will attempt to draft a Data Privacy Bill and strike an appropriate balance within the context of African values and an African worldview. (p. 292)

According to Olinger et al. (2005), Ubuntu ethical principles have been applied in South Africa in the following areas:

  • Politics–the African Renaissance

  • Business–through collective learning, teamwork, sustainability, a local community focus, and an alternative to extractive capitalism

  • Corporate governance–through the attitudes of fairness, collectiveness, humility

  • Restorative justice–through the use of dialogue, collective restitution, and healing

  • Conflict resolution and reconciliation–through the Ubuntu ethos of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). (p. 295)

Olinger et al. (2005) underlined the specificity of the Ubuntu worldview as a community-based mindset opposed to Western libertarianism and individualism, but close to communitarianism. The Nigerian philosopher Simeon Onyewueke Eboh (2004) wrote a profound study on “African Communalism.” Olinger et al. remarked critically that the population of Southern Africa has to rediscover Ubuntu because many have not experienced it and also because they live in rural and urban centers (i.e., in two different cultures), practicing Ubuntu in the rural environment and Western values in the urban one. If this is the case not only in South Africa but also in other African countries, then there is a lot of theoretical and practical work to do! Olinger et al. translated the aphorism “Umunto ungumuntu ngabanye abantu” (Nguni languages of Zulu and Xhosa) as “A person is a person through other persons” (p. 293). According to Broodryk (2002), Ubuntu is an African worldview “based on values of humanness, caring, respect, and compassion, and associated values ensuring a happy and qualitative human community life in a spirit of family”. This means that personal privacy—a key ethical value in Western countries—might be considered as less important from an Ubuntu-based perspective even if we question the idea of an opposition between an Ubuntu-based and a Western-based conception of privacy on the grounds that there are actually several competing conceptions in the West (Capurro, 2005). And if we broaden the spectrum, the same also may hold true in the East, as documented in a recent volume of the journal Ethics and Information Technology, edited by Charles Ess (2005). In a comparative study of ethical theories in different cultures, Michael Brannigan (2005) addressed African ethics with the utterance ‘To be is to belong’. An analysis of this thesis could lead to a foundation of African information ethics not on an abstract or metaphysical concept of being as in some classical Western ethical theories but on the experience of being as communal existence. The task of such an analysis would be to bring out the uniqueness of the African perspective or perspectives as well as the commonalities with other cultures and their theoretical expressions. This analysis could lead to an interpretation of ICT within an African horizon and correspondingly to possible vistas for information policy makers, responsible community leaders, and of course, for African educational institutions.

At the Ethics and Electronic Information in the 21st Century (EE21) Symposium at the University of Memphis in Tennessee (organized by Tom Mendina for the 6th consecutive year), Johannes Britz chaired a session on ICT in Africa Mendina, Tom/Johannes J. Britz, Johannes J. (eds.) (2004): Information Ethics in the Electronic Age. Current Issues in Africa and the World. North-Carolina: McFarland. According to Britz (2004), for Africa to find a place in the 21st century, one important condition is a well-developed and maintained ICT infrastructure. Britz and Peter John Lor, former Chief Executive of the National Library of South Africa, thought that the present North–South flow of information should be complemented by a South–North flow to enhance mutual understanding. They pleaded for a shift toward the recognition of the “local” within the “global,” following the idea of “thinking locally and acting globally.” This means, in ethical terms, respecting different local cultures and strengthening their active participation in the intercultural dialogue (Lor & Britz, 2004, p. 18). According to Britz, Lor, Coetzee, and Bester (2006), although Africa still has a long way to go before becoming a true knowledge society, there is hope for success provided that certain preconditions such as investment in human capital, putting an end to “brain drain,” and the effective development and maintenance of IT infrastructure can be met. Dick Kawooya (2004; Uganda Library Association) stressed the ethical dilemma with which librarians and information professionals are confronted “in much of sub-Saharan Africa,” namely the concern about literacy, information literacy, and access to the Internet on the one hand and “dwindling budgets” for educational institutions, particularly libraries on the other hand (p. 34). Michael Anyiam-Osigwe (2004), Chief Executive of the Africa Institute for Leadership, Research, and Development (AILRD), stressed the importance of ICT in attaining sustainable democracy in Africa. According to Coetzee Bester, a former member of parliament in South Africa and cofounder of the AILRD, the problem of ICT in Africa includes all stakeholders. According to Bester (2004), “a program to reconstruct communities as holistic entities is necessary. This should include leadership, followers, agreed-upon principles and values as well as effective interaction among all these elements (p. 12).

The value-based reorientation implies a level of personal awareness and understanding of information, the ability for leaders and their community to interact without the limitations of time and distance, and mutual confidence in representative leadership.

In the previously mentioned study “Ethics and the Internet in West Africa,” Brunet et al. (2004) identified six types of ethical issues related to the development of the Internet in Africa, but also relevant for other countries:

  • Exclusion and inequity;

  • Culture (Internet content);

  • Internet costs and financing;

  • Sociotechnical aspects of Internet integration (resistance, uses);

  • Political power; and

  • Economic organization.

There is no such thing as a morally neutral technology. Every technology can be used and misused, but the deeper insight is that any technology can create new ways of being. A technology can influence our relationships toward each other, and it can shape, in a more or less radical way, our institutions, our economy, and our moral values. This is the reason we should focus on information technology primarily from an ethical perspective. It is up to the African people and their leaders to decide how they transform their lives using this technology. And it also is up to the educational and research institutions in Africa to reflect critically on these issues.

As Bob Jolliffe (2006), Senior Lecturer in computer science at the University of South Africa, noted, there is an implicit connection between free software, free culture, free science and open access, and the South African Freedom Charter. A major task of information ethics in South Africa as well as in other African countries will be to align such ideals with concrete social, political, economic, and technical processes. ICT in Africa should make a major contribution to opening “the doors of learning and culture,” to use the wording of the Freedom Charter. The space of knowledge as a space of freedom is not, as Jolliffe rightly remarked, an abstract ideal. It has a history, and that history limits its possibilities. It is a space socially constructed by the given rules and traditions of a specific society in dialogue with its foundational myths and utopian aspirations. We are morally responsible not only for our deeds but also for our dreams. Information ethics offers an open space to retrieve and debate such information and communication myths and utopias. It is a main moral responsibility of African academics to contribute to the ongoing creation of African identities by retrieving and recreating the rich African information and communication traditions. Cultural memory is, from this perspective, an ethical task; that is, it is something we should want to do if we want to create a human community that is based not just on the sum of people but on their connections, as the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann (2000) remarked following some hints by Friedrich Nietzsche (1999b) in his Genealogy of Morals (pp. 294–300). Cultural memory does not simply exist. It must be reshaped again and again, building the core of a human society. This means no more and no less than giving morality its foundation in memory and communication, making information ethics the core of it. The function of cultural memory is thus not just to express what belongs to the collective memory of a community but to move the will of its members to connect themselves through the task of creating it. Such a cultural memory is a connective one that includes our myths no less than our dreams. We should remember Nietzsche's (1999a) ambiguous warning: “You want to be responsible for everything! But not for your dreams!” (p. 117). I call this warning “ambiguous” because Nietzsche, like Sigmund Freud, was well aware of the limits of human will and our tendency to repress or forget what is considered painful. The Egyptian god Thot is a symbol of cultural memory as a social task. He is the god of wisdom and writing as well as messenger of the gods, particularly of the sun god Re, being also associated with the goddess Maat, the personification of justice. Thot was identified by the Greeks with Hermes and is usually represented as an ibis-headed (or baboon-headed) man with a reed pen and a palette. He became well known in the Western (information) ethics tradition through Plato's criticisms of writing in his Phaedrus.

The retrieving of African cultural memory in the field of information and communication is a main challenge for information ethics. It requires awareness of the different strategies of social inclusion and exclusion in the history of African societies, including such traumatic experiences as slavery and apartheid interpreted under this perspective. With the emergence of the Internet, the most recent expression of this challenge with regard to the new information and communication technologies is being discussed under the heading of the digital divide. But much more is involved than just access to and use of this medium, particularly if all other forms of social exclusion, manipulation, exploitation, and annihilation of human beings are left out of the discussion by reducing the digital divide to merely a technical problem.


The final goal of ethics is not just to speak about the good but to do the good and, we could add, to dream about it. We owe this insight about the relation between ethical thinking and action to Aristotle, the founder of ethics as a scientific discipline in the Western tradition. The Africa Information Ethics Conference brought together scientists and politicians to discuss what could and should be thought and done to create a good African information society. The conference was unique in several regards. First, it attempted to deal with information ethics in Africa and from an African perspective. In doing so, it aimed to encourage African scholars to make explicit the perspectives and challenges of a genuine African information society.

The conference was particularly devoted to the following ethical challenges, although the list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Global citizens sharing information in an ethical way,

  • Harnessing ICT's power for Africa's development,

  • Cultural diversity and globalization,

  • Living the information dream of future rewards today,

  • Leading global society towards excellence through technology,

  • Accelerating the information drive through technology,

  • Global security,

  • Spamming and other forms of information wrongdoings,

  • Protection and promotion of indigenous knowledge,

  • North–South and South–South flow of information,

  • Internet and exclusion, and

  • Delivering the age of technology into the hands of hope.

The theoretical outcomes of the conference were published in 2007 in the International Review of Information Ethics. Practical outcomes toward which conference participants worked can be summarized as follows:

  • The establishment of an African Center for Information Ethics (ACIE) as a coordinating agency of the African Network for Information Ethics (ANIE). This center will cooperate with international partners such as the International Center for Information Ethics and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The ACIE will be housed at the School of Information Technology, Department of Information Science, at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. It will act as a platform for exchanging information about African teaching and research in the field of information ethics. It will provide the opportunity for scholars around the world who have a shared interest in African information ethics to meet each other and to exchange ideas. It will provide news on ongoing activities by different kinds of organizations involved in African information ethics and related areas.

  • The establishment of the Information Society and Development Advisory Council to advise the South African government and other stakeholders on the main ethical issues pertaining to information society policy development.

  • The publication of a Reader on Africa Information Ethics that can be used as a textbook for students and scholars. This will contribute to the development of a distinct field of African information ethics.

  • The creation of a virtual research network to ensure that African scholars in this field are part of the international scholarly community. The network will be coordinated and maintained by the ACIE.

  • The initiation of research projects with a focus on grant proposals. During the conference, scholars and practitioners from around the world met in small groups to discuss and identify possible research opportunities in the field of African information ethics. It is envisioned that philanthropic organizations such as the Gates and Ford foundations will be approached for funding. The focus of the research will specifically be on practical implications of the ethical challenges associated with knowledge sharing and the use of information on the African continent.

  • The establishment of a Summer School on Information Ethics, hosted at the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The main purpose of such a Summer School will be to train African practitioners and scholars on relevant issues pertaining to African information ethics.

There is a short and a long history of information ethics in Africa. In the preceding sections of this article, I have pointed briefly to the short one. The long history refers to Africa's rich oral and written traditions throughout many centuries and concerning many different kinds of information and communication practices, employing many different moral codes and many different media, and is based on a dynamic and complex process of cultural hybridization. Critical reflection about this history might lead to a greater awareness of Africa's cultural foundations on which today's digital information and communication technologies are layered, creating unique and genuine African information societies. The task of information ethics, understood as a critical reflection on established moral norms and values, is to serve as a catalyst for this social process, offering an open space of critical reflection for all stakeholders as well as a space for retrieving the rich African cultural memory in our field. Only such cultural memory can provide the support necessary for reshaping African identities and making an authentic contribution to the world's information and communication cultures.

Let us start this fascinating debate on information ethics for and from Africa with a well-known insight offered by Sir William Arthur Lewis (): “The fundamental cure for poverty is not money but knowledge!” (p. 00). Information and communication technology can, for sure, contribute to the goal of sharing knowledge in Africa. Let us think together about how to share knowledge using ICT in Africa for the sake of African people. I am convinced that the best way to do it is with the mood of joy, by which I mean the kind of joy that is uniquely African. This joy has a wonderful expression in the motto of the South African Coat of Arms, written in the Khoisan language of the/Xam people. Today, this language that originally occupied a large part of Western South Africa no longer exists, but it was fortunately recorded by a German linguist, Dr. Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek, who was born in 1827 in Berlin. Dr. Bleek wrote the famous Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, published in London in 1862/1869. By appointment of Sir Georg Grey, Governor of the Cape, Dr. Bleek was made Curator of the South African Public Library in 1862, and he occupied this position until his death in 1875. Thanks to Dr. Bleek, the/Xam language survived in 12,000 pages taken down word-for-word from some of the last speakers and recorded, together with their myths, beliefs, and rituals. Let us follow the example of Dr. Bleek by retrieving, saving, and reshaping the rich African cultural memory in our field.

The/Xam people did not use abstract words such as “unity” or “diversity,” but the motto of the Coat of Arms can be translated as “Diverse people unite” (Smith, 2006). It addresses each individual effort to harness the unity between thought and action in and for an African community: !ke e:/xarra//ke.