With traditional avenues of criticism being closed off, Zimbabweans have taken to protesting online. But don’t mistake this for slacktivism.
In a moment of deep frustration this April, Evan Mawarire, a pastor based in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare, set his camera to record.
Draped in the Zimbabwean flag, the emotional 39-year-old looked into the lens and spoke for over 4 minutes about his weariness at what he saw as the government’s failures and broken promises of liberation.
“When I look at the flag it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration – it feels as if I just want to belong to another country,” he said.
As he posted the video online, he could never have imagined the response. Within a day, the video had reportedly been viewed 120,000 times and soon the hashtag #thisflag was trending as other Zimbabweans emulated the pastor in posting their own grievances.
“I was astounded that such a large number of people felt the same way. So many people identified with what I was saying, that our country has let us down,” Mawarire told African Arguments.
However, it did not stop there. With the administration of President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party tightening its grip on the media recently, #thisflag broke a taboo and soon found itself at the heart of what seemed to be a growing trend of disgruntled Zimbabweans remonstrating, demonstrating and mobilising online.
Later that month, for example, ZANU-PF’s Acie Lumumba opted to air his grievances at being fired from the Youth Empowerment committee under the hashtag #digdeeper. He later resigned from the ruling party and has been posting videos on social media attacking Mugabe and accusing cabinet ministers of corruption.
Meanwhile, other opposition groups such as #Asijiki (meaning ‘we will not back down’) have also emerged in the wake of #thisflag.
Moreover, many of these new groups and movements have not just stayed online but also translated into action on the streets.
In June, for instance, Mawarire led a group of over 200 activists to meet Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor John Mangudya to protest against the introduction of bond notes.
Acie Lumumba has launched a political party called Viva Zimbabwe which he says will fight against the Mugabe regime.
And protesters linked to #tajamuka (meaning ‘we have rebelled’) – a movement led by Patson Dzamara, whose activist brother Itai went missing over a year ago – has seen dozens of Zimbabweans occupying Harare’s Africa Unity Square and, more recently, protesting against Vice-President Phekezela Mphoko’s continued stay at Rainbow Sheraton Hotel at the taxpayers’ expense.
The government fights back
Openly criticising the government has typically been a risky business in Zimbabwe, and many who have dared speak out against Mugabe or ZANU-PF have been imprisoned, attacked or disappeared. Additionally, over the past few years, media freedoms have been particularly squeezed with more journalists being persecuted and news houses threatened.
It is in this context that online platforms seem to have presented a less traditional but potentially far-reaching way for large numbers of Zimbabweans to both access dissenting viewpoints and share their own. And with mobile penetration at 95.4% and internet access at 48.1%, the implications could be huge.
This kind of online activism is more difficult for the government to monitor, though that has not stopped government supporters trying to push back. Mawarire, for instance, has been intimidated and received death threats. Lumumba’s house was broken into, with the assailants taking his laptop and leaking a sex tape which was on the machine. And many of the protesters who have been part of the #tajamuka movement have been arrested.
The Zimbabwean government has also engaged in its own war of words, firstly trying (largely unsuccessfully) to kickstart the counter-hashtag #OurFlag, but also trying to delegitimse the social media phenomenon as a US conspiracy.
After US ambassador Harry Thomas tweeted “wonder if #Zimbabwe’s #thisflag movement will spread to the US and other nations”, Zimbabwean Minister Jonathan Moyo claimed the US was behind the whole movement. He claimed a meeting the ambassador had held with social media voices was “Evidence of an exposed cat coming out of a see-through bag” and claimed “US envoys ignited social media revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, whose common outcome was bloodshed”.
Furthermore, faced with growing dissent, Mugabe has even threatened to control social media, saying: “There is a lot of filth in it. There are a lot of serious insults peddled in there…China set up security measures and we will soon look into how they are administering it so that the abuses and insults can be reduced.”
However, ICT Minister Supa Mandiwanzira has poured cold water on this idea somewhat, saying: “[The internet] is an important tool for development and no sane government or sane minister would say we want to ban social media. And if there was an intention by anyone to ban social media it would be next to impossible.”
“We are not afraid to die”
With more people organising and expressing discontentment on social media, the Zimbabwean government is understandably spooked, though commentators disagree as to to what extent these movements will actually be able to shape change at the political level.
According to some commentators such as Floyd Kadete, for example, “It doesn’t come as a surprise that the entire voting population has access to the messages and it is bad news for the government”. Meanwhile others such as Rhodes PhD scholar Admire Mare are more cautious, emphasising that “social media is not a magic bullet. What is needed is civic education to create political consciousness.”
However, all tend to agree that regardless of the popularity of hashtags and online movements, the real measure of success will be the extent to which these mobilisations can be translated into offline momentum. “Obviously the government officials are threatened as one can see from the way they are responding to this social media movement,” says Mike Vareta, a Harare-based analyst, “but the problem is how to transform from social media protests to go into the streets.”
On this front, there is plenty still to be done, though the success of movements such as #thisflag and #tajamuka in leading to marches and protests have been notable. Furthermore, although many movements may begin with relatively easy actions online, there seems to be no shortage of passion or determination amongst Zimbabwe’s activists to mobilise offline too and put their bodies on the line.
“This regime has failed to protect human rights and it is time to confront them,” says Dzamara. “We are not afraid to die.”
Mawarire echoes this, adding “Even if they kill me, they won’t kill the idea.”
Problem Masau is a Zimbabwean journalist.