Through social media, Zimbabweans in the country and diaspora have been organising, debating and planning with great effect. But the movement must now evolve if it is to continue to grow.
When the Zimbabwean government arrested Pastor Evan Mawarire earlier this month, it came as no surprise. Legal harassment has become a standard tactic of the ruling ZANU-PF in dealing with individuals it sees as a threat. However, by prosecuting Mawarire – the social media savvy man behind the popular #ThisFlag movement and a successful national “stay away” on 6 July – the government inadvertently gave the movement a substantial boost.
On 13 July, the day of the pastor’s trial, the government’s miscalculation soon became clear. In the morning, over 100 lawyers turned up to assist in his defence. And by the early evening when the magistrate dismissed the charges, the crowd of people draped in Zimbabwean flags outside the courthouse had swelled to well over 2,000.
This episode demonstrated the government’s vindictiveness, the level of popular discontentment in the country, and – crucially – the growing power of social media. A degree of caution must of course be taken. Efforts to mobilise people through the Baba Jukwa Facebook page in the run up to the 2013 elections notably failed, while studies of the role of social media during the Arab Spring in 2011 remind us that online mobilisation is just the start. Nevertheless, we should be wary of falling into the trap of thinking of people live separate online and offline lives, an assumption that limits our ability to see the ways that social media is gradually reshaping Zimbabwean politics.
Indeed, it has become clear in recent months that aggrieved Zimbabweans on social media have the ability not just to respond to politics on the ground but affect it. For instance, those who gathered at the courthouse were the physical expression of the hashtag #FreePastorEvan that was trending that day. And while they were making their voices heard in person, it is notable that these demonstrators were simultaneously updating other Zimbabweans and the world through Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook.
The ways in which these communication technologies have been utilised to great effect are numerous. Thanks to rapid exchange of information on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, it has become possible to create alternative information conduits that can circumvent the information blackouts often imposed by Zimbabwe’s state-controlled media. It is through these routes that videos of the protests in Beitbridge, Bulawayo, Harare and Kwekwe – as well as the brutal police response – have become available to ever larger audiences.
This knowledge has in turn provided the basis for networks of solidarity to be forged between Zimbabwean citizens from different walks of life and in different parts of the country, and indeed the world. For example, during the recent protests, civil society organisations successfully used social media to identify and crowd-source bail for individuals arrested in different areas of Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, the information coming out of the country also inspired hundreds of Zimbabweans in South Africa to stage a protest march to the Embassy in Pretoria the day following Mawarire’s release.
Furthermore, social media platforms are also being used to convene online forums in which challenges and possible solutions are being debated passionately by Zimbabweans inside and outside the country. These transnational digital publics are fostering the emergence of an informed, engaged and emboldened citizenry online, but also offline.
So where now?
It is too early to say where things will go from here. But what is clear is that the #ThisFlag movement has achieved much more than expected. Early critics who argued that activism and discontent was limited to the diaspora or was only an online phenomenon have had to reconsider.
Since the movement started, it has organised an open forum with the governor of the Reserve Bank. It set up a petition demanding the dismissal of the Minister of Energy and Power Development for mismanagement of public funds. It arranged a national stay-away dubbed #ShutDownZimbabwe2016 on 6 July. And it mobilised citizens to turn up at the courts in support of Mawarire.
The movement has also developed a broad-based appeal in Zimbabwe, helped by the fact that it is seen as apolitical and non-violent. These characteristics have enabled it to mobilise a several different groups under its banner, united by their deep sense of frustration at a corrupt political elite that has milked the country’s resources and become obscenely wealthy while the economy teeters on the brink of collapse.
As Zimbabwe experiences its second economic tailspin of the past decade, the feeling that ordinary citizens’ futures have been robbed is growing and spreading, and the movement’s motto – Hatichada and Hatichatya/Asisafuni Njalo Asisesabi (‘Fed up and Not Afraid’) – is resonating deeply.
Furthermore, the government’s response so far has only exacerbated Zimbabweans’ anger. Its unwillingness to respond to citizens’ demands in a constructive manner has helped to propel the movement forwards. The claim that protesters who are raising legitimate concerns are sponsored by the West adds insult to injury. And police brutality only provokes further outrage.
What the movement needs to do now
However, while it may have plenty of momentum, the future achievements of #ThisFlag are not assured. They will depend on the movement’s ability to grow beyond the single individual of Mawarire – who is currently in South Africa and reportedly fearing for his life – and develop the necessary structures to channel the frustrations and passions of Zimbabweans towards a common agenda.
The growing conviction amongst citizens that they should take action to shape the country’s future is clearly in evidence already, but needs to be further developed. In the last weeks and months, ordinary citizens have established several #ThisFlag WhatsApp groups. It is within these forums that many ideas – such as the plan to organise a march for unemployed graduates demanding the 2 million jobs promised in the government’s economic programme – have been hatched. But a more formal structure to co-ordinate activities and communicate a single message is becoming increasingly necessary as the movement gains strength.
The movement will also need to address the digital divide in Zimbabwe and find a way to include the significant portion of the population that does not have smart phones. This will likely mean drawing on more traditional modes of mobilisation too.
Taking heed of the fact that the success of the national stay-away was partly due to the civil servants’ strike that day, #ThisFlag must further recognise the importance of building alliances. For instance, many labour unions and civil society organisations share the same goals, and many have been in the trenches for a long time.
And finally, perhaps above all else, the movement will need to develop the capacity to withstand the onslaught from the government that is sure to come.
Against all expectations, #ThisFlag has been a disruptive force in Zimbabwean politics, demonstrating the enormous potential that a citizen’s movement can have in transforming the political landscape – but it is just the start.
George Karekwaivanane teaches African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on Zimbabwean politics and history.