The digital transformations taking place across the African continent present an urgent need for fresh thinking in the study of publics. This introduction lays out the impetus and contribution of this Special Issue to such a rethinking of the study of publics in Africa. Following in the footsteps of a wider body of scholarship, we draw on Africa’s pasts and present in order to move beyond the limiting assumptions, histories and languages that are embedded within the western scholarship on publics. We make the case that both de-westernising and capturing publics in a digital age in Africa require openness to a diversity of disciplines, approaches and questions. In addition, we explain how, collectively and individually, the articles in this Special Issue contribute to taking up this task. Taken together, the articles are an eye-opening collection on the unfolding practices of citizens convening and participating in discussions using both newer and older media and communication platforms across Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Contributions cover diverse disciplinary perspectives and empirical cases that investigate publics convening around digital platforms from WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to weblogs and dating apps on mobile phones. We see this endeavour of examining the complex and dynamic digital transformations across Eastern Africa as part of a crucial scholarly turn in which the study of African society and politics helps us to rethink ideas and concepts that have heritages elsewhere, and to understand them in a new light.