By Richard Mugobo
Communication is undoubtedly a critical and essential tool in the organisation and mobilisation of popular protest movements. Governments, particularly despotic ones, have always been fixated on gaining unfettered control of communication as a means of restraining and suppressing civil disobedience.
In Zimbabwe the growing use or abuse (depending on political inclination) of social media, has gave birth to a lively online community challenging the government through a spirited campaign of protest posts, ranting audios, radical viral videos, confrontational tweets and trending hashtags of defiance.
The radical threat posed by such an unprecedented activity online has awakened the technologically shy government into a knee jerk response.
History has taught us that ugly politicians and terrible speakers, such as Abraham Lincoln, were successful because they could write well, which was a vital communication tool at that time.
The introduction of the radio meant politicians became more effective because of their power of speech-making. Eminent figures produced in this era include Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. In this techno-savvy world you need only a smart phone to broadcast yourself to a multitude of followers on the internet.
The example of cleric-cum-political activist Evan Mawaririre, who rose to internal recognition after uploading a political protest video make interesting reference. Communication is now horizontal, not vertical and this in itself poses a great danger to African states whose political structure relies on a “one center of power.’’
You no longer need to control the national broadcaster to reach the masses. A simple smart phone will do.
The recent wave of violent protests in Zimbabwe reflects the underlying political tensions in the country and points to a new phenomenon, an emergent connection between the adoption of new communication tools and their use as a political tool by the political and social movement.
However, social media activists tend to be blind to the fact of Zimbabwe’s historical circumstances. In the last fifty years, Zimbabwe has had only two political leaders -Ian smith, from 1964 until 1979 and Robert Mugabe, from 1980 until the present (2016).
Their prolonged existence in seats of power was not made possible by generating viral tweets or accumulating like on Facebook, but by being prepared to ruthlessly crush any dissenting or alternative voices though any means necessary or unnecessary.
In light of the challenges faced by social media activism, the main question lies on whether there is any hope that the online movement can transmute into an offline vibrant movement of protests on the streets. Can viral tweets spill into the streets, or is the possibility just some hopeless, misplaced optimism of the doomed?
Can images of police brutality uploaded onto YouTube lead to a shift in the public consciousness, the kind that was witnessed in Tunisia after the self-immolation of Bouzizi? Bouziziz.’s self-immolation inspired change, galvanised protesters and became the face of the revolution. The story was shared, tweeted and re-tweeted across social media platforms, especially in the Arab world.
Is there any potential of Zimbabwe’s protest movement on social media transforming into an effective vehicle that can carry the winds of political change?
First it must be noted that there is a wide gap between a movement based on viral tweets and a movement based on the streets. Tweets and likes do not necessarily mean there is going to be an equal number of people rising up to the occasion if called to take action.
However, social media since the Baba Jukwa debacle has greatly evolved and now forms a significant part of the political drama in Zimbabwe. The shadowy Baba Jukwa, a social media sensation that wreaked havoc and dented Zanu pf’s political image prior to the 2013 elections, was an entry point to the role of technology’s soft power in Zimbabwe’s political circles.
Since then political figures, activists and ordinary citizens in Zimbabwe, opposition and ruling party alike, have found a strong voice on social media platforms. Politicians such as Prof Johnathan Moyo, Obert Gutu and Tendai Biti, have often used Twitter and Facebook tackling trending political issues and generating a considerable following in the process.
Globally, the case of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine can be cited as the first instance the internet in general made a widespread non-violent conflict possible. The protestors utilised the Internet and smart phones to mobilise supporters to protest the results of the country’s presidential election.
The internet helped bridge the information gap something that made the protests enduring. Since all traditional channels of news where heavily censored, the internet levelled the communication field.
In Africa the apotheosis of social media came with the Arab spring, a wave of civil discontent that swept across North Africa ending with the swift overthrow of the tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Tunisia.
In Zimbabwe, the use of social media has meant that the general populace no longer wholesomely consume propaganda thinly veiled as news from the state controlled media outlets.
Instead there is now a vibrant online community of citizen journalists, social commentators, students, academics, professionals, political activists, sharing among themselves news and issues they consider important without state censorship.
However, the illusion that has plagued movements such as #tajamuka, #this flag and others borders on the idea that a huge presence and microwave popularity on social networks is enough to remove a government born out of a 16 year plus armed struggle, a regime supported by battle hardened security personnel, a revolutionary party supported by beneficiaries of land reform, indigenisation and recently residential stands
The beauty of social media communication is that the general populace now have an alternative source of news and information on any issue and in most cases this side of the story runs contrary to the government’s official position.
Events are often delegitimised by reports from citizen journalists who use smartphones to upload videos and audio files on the internet in real time.
Tired of digesting the sanitised official version on any issue, citizens have taken hold of the modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) to speak truth to power and upset the political structure.
The citizen journalist movement has seen academics, journalists, clerics, students and political figures challenging the regime through non-violent civil resistance.
However, the ability of new communication technologies, particularly social media, to fundamentally change the politics of the country remains a mirage as long as there is ignorance as to what has made the present government hold onto power for so long.
These roadblocks to an e-revolution can be summarised as follows-
1. Surveillance and criminalisation of cyber activity
While there is enormous potential of “liberation technologies’’ to permit repressed people to contest tyranny, regimes are keeping abreast with the latest mass surveillance technologies that completely and utterly obliterate the liberating potential of ICTs. In addition, the government is strongly intent on criminalising the “abuse” of ICTs, recent efforts to introduce the Cyber Bill being a case in point.
The government of the day has realised its weaknesses and now realises the potential threat posed by social media. Of late the term “cyber terrorists” has gained traction in public discourse, supposedly intended to intimidate those seeking to use social media for political ends.
2. Security sector
Zanu PF still enjoys the support of the security apparatus whose top brass has since 1980 been composed of a battled hardened military strategists schooled in the art of suppressing any internal rebellion.
3. Geopolitical support
With its geo-political strategic position, Zimbabwe has been ruled by Zanu pf for more than three decades mainly because it occupies a central role in the politics and economy of the region, hence enjoys the support of SADC. If Zimbabwe were to fall into chaos, not only the nation, but also the region, would be deeply affected. The sister revolutionary parties in the region would be ever ready to lend support where its required to maintain ZANU PF’s grip on power.
4. The Digital Divide
The effect of social media use between the rural masses and the urban population is determined by access to the Internet. The “digital divide” describes the “potential for a divide between those connected to the Internet and those not connected, sometimes worded as the divide between the information have’s and have’s not” (J. Steyaert, 2002).
While the rate of internet penetration has been phenomenal, its effects have largely been on the more tech-savvy metropolitan protesters whilst the rural areas remain blind to the use of social media. It must be noted that real change will always come with the support of the rural masses, a hard fact to swallow for those in opposition circles.
5. Useful Idiots
Though its 36 years hold on power, Zanu PF has overly relied on a class of people who unwittingly support a malignant cause through their naïve attempts to be a force for good. These were mainly the rural masses during the 1980s, the war veterans during the 90s,early and a good part of late 2000.
Now there is a growing class of youths hungry for indigenous policy benefits and willing to support any one who can lead them in that direction. Zanu PF has responded by promising to allocate residential stands and small claims on mines.
6. London Connection
If recent developments are anything to bank on, it seems Britain is getting cosy with the current regime with the long term vision of re-engagement. Since the arrival of Ambassador Laing in September 2014 there has been a deliberate policy shift from isolation to re-engagement. It would not be in Britain’s best interests to see the social upheaval transform into anything uglier than it is now.
In the final analysis, revolutions will always come the way they have in past; through sufficiently outraged people on the ground. The role of social media in Zimbabwean politics is minimal if not exaggerated.
Social media activists, while commanding a massive network online, have failed to establish the vital links with the people they are supposed to represent on the ground. It has no membership. If anything, the idea of an e- revolution in Zimbabwe might soon prove to be nothing but misplaced optimism of the doomed.
- Richard Mugobo is a writer and a researcher. Article appears on Khuluma Afrika – center for political analysis and commentary